The Pittsburgh Steelers needed two big plays from unlikely sources to pull out a season-opening victory behind their backup quarterback. Maybe Miami Dolphins coach Nick Saban should be flagged for a costly delay, too.
Tight end Heath Miller chugged his way down the Steelers' sideline on an 87-yard touchdown pass play midway through the fourth quarter, fill-in QB Charlie Batch's third scoring pass of the game, and the Super Bowl champions beat the Dolphins 28-17 on Thursday in the NFL's first game of the season.
Only Miller didn't really score -- TV replays clearly showed him stepping out between the 2 and 1-yard lines. However, Saban waited until too late to throw his red challenge flag, which fell to the turf sight unseen behind and referee Walt Coleman watching the extra point kick. That meant the Steelers didn't have to try to get the ball into the end zone from short yardage.
Saban apparently thought he could throw the challenge flag at any time before the kick went off, but no official saw him and thus there was no replay. And no Dolphins upset, either, even though the Steelers didn't look particularly sharp in their first game that counted since the Super Bowl -- despite Willie Parker's 115 yards rushing, Miller's 101 yards receiving and Batch's first three-TD game since Nov. 18, 2001, with Detroit.
Miami had a chance to come back, but new quarterback Daunte Culpepper was intercepted on consecutive series, with linebacker Joey Porter scoring on a 42-yard return with about three minutes left.
"We knew we had put them in a situation where they had to pass the ball. I had my chance to make the play and I made it," Porter said.
Porter was so excited, he ran to the sideline and kissed coach Bill Cowher on the cheek -- the Steelers' first known sideline kiss since Cowher planted one on Kordell Stewart during a 1997 comeback victory in Baltimore.
"I'd go to war for him," Porter said.
The Dolphins, trying to build off the momentum of their six consecutive victories to end last season, never led until Ronnie Brown scored on a five-yard run to make it 17-14 in the third quarter. Marty Booker, sidelined with what appeared to be a concussion in the first half, came back to make a 50-yard catch of Culpepper's pass, aided by safety Tyrone Carter's slip, to set up the score.
Culpepper was mostly effective in his first start for the Dolphins, until his late-game mistakes. He also was intercepted by Troy Polamalu immediately after Miller's catch put the Steelers up. Culpepper finished 18-for-37 for 262 yards.
The Steelers also overcame a costly mistake when Batch fumbled Jeff Hartings' snap at the Miami 1 and Will Allen recovered, keeping the Dolphins in the lead temporarily.
For the first two quarters, the Steelers looked much like they did in the Super Bowl seven months ago -- without Ben Roethlisberger, of course. The quarterback made an unexpectedly fast recovery from a June motorcycle crash, only to need an emergency appendectomy on Sunday that kept him out of his fifth game in two seasons.
Just like in that 21-10 win over Seattle in the Super Bowl, there was a Hines Ward touchdown catch, a long Parker run and a favorable call from an official, helping the Steelers go up 14-7.
Ward, who sat out the preseason with a sore hamstring, caught a seven-yard touchdown pass from Batch late in the first half. Parker used his speed to get loose on a 32-yard run to the Dolphins 35, and cornerback Andre Goodman drew a 23-yard pass interference call on Cedrick Wilson. Goodman started because of Travis Daniels' ankle injury.
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