Steelers 23, Dolphins 22
By Mike Batista
So far in 2010, the Steelers' fortunes have hinged on two words uttered by people in positions of authority.
Six and a half months ago, when Ocmulgee Judicial Circuit D.A. Fred Bright called a press conference to announce if sexual assault charges against Ben Roethlisberger would go forward, the utterance "cannot" triggered a collective "Whew!" across Steelers Nation. The 2010 season wasn't doomed.
On Sunday, everyone awaited the ruling of referee Gene Steratore. A touchdown was called when Roethlisberger ran the ball in from the Dolphins' 2-yard line on third down with 2:30 left in the game. But it appeared Dolphins safety Chris Clemons knocked the ball loose before it reached the goal line.
Dolphins coach Tony Sparano, whose team had been leading 22-20, challenged the call. Steratore, who the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette notes lives in Washington, Pa., spent more time under the hood than some juries spend deliberating.
As the replay was shown over and over, it became increasingly apparent that this was not a touchdown. Hands were on heads and Terrible Towels were held to mouths at the Irish Exit, a Steelers bar in Manhattan, while Steratore studied the evidence.
When Steratore announced his ruling, he did negate the touchdown. Then came the word that served as the Steelers' saving grace on this day: However.
Steratore followed "however" by saying it was not clear that the Dolphins recovered the fumble in the end zone. It looked like they did, but with the touchdown called, no one bothered to peel bodies away from the pile to see who had the ball.
So the Steelers had a fourth down at the 1, and Jeff Reed kicked an 18-yard field goal for what turned out to be the winning points in the Steelers' 23-22 victory.
More of Moore
Just like we all know damn well that something unsavory happened in Milledgeville, what most likely happened Sunday was Roethlisberger fumbled and the Dolphins recovered in the end zone, which should have given them the ball at the 20.
But due to the complexity of this particular replay review, the Steelers (5-1) kept the ball on a technicality.
Maybe Roethlisberger has taught his teammates how to get away with things since returning from his suspension.
The Steelers got away with a boneheaded display that could have left them down 14-0 in the first five minutes of the game. Fortunately, the Dolphins (3-3) could only get two field goals after recovering Emmanuel Sanders' fumble on the opening kickoff and Roethlisberger's fumble on a sack.
The Steelers also got away with allowing another nondescript quarterback to have a decent game -- Chad Henne completed 23 of 36 passes for 257 yards and a touchdown -- and they got away with not being able to run the ball. Rashard Mendenhall was limited to 37 yards on 15 carries.
Covering up a lot of the Steelers' blemishes in this game was the resurgence of Mewelde Moore.
Moore joined the Steelers in 2008 and as a third-down back was a key cog in their championship that season. He wasn't as much of a factor last season, and had been just about invisible so far this season.
That changed Sunday when Moore ignited the drive that got the
Steelers on the board. He moved the chains with a seven-yard run on third-and-7 from the Steelers 13, and later in the drive picked up 16 yards. The sequence led to Jeff Reed's 22-yard field goal, which made the score 6-3 early in the second quarter.
Moore really made it look like it was 2008 (hopefully without the stock market crashes) all over again with less than four minutes left in the game. The Steelers trailed 22-20 and faced a third-and-5 from the Dolphins' 43. Moore took a short pass from Roethlisberger and turned it into a 29-yard gain, eventually leading to the game-winning field goal.
Sanders fueled the game-winning drive with a 48-yard kickoff return to the Dolphins' 48, answering Carpenter's go-ahead field goal and earning forgiveness for his opening fumble.
Sanders also had a 37-yard kickoff return to the Steelers' 47 in the second quarter. Roethlisberger promptly made it look like it was 2009 (hopefully without the five-game losing streak) all over again with a 53-yard touchdown pass to Mike Wallace, extending the Steelers' lead to 17-9.
Hines Ward caught Roethlisberger's other touchdown pass, a 21-yarder that gave the Steelers a 10-6 lead early in the second quarter.
A steep price
The Steelers might not have paid for their spotty performance with a loss. But they were punished anyway, because football is a punishing game.
Defensive end Aaron Smith is almost certainly out for the season with a torn left triceps. The underrated Smith is the Steelers' best run stopper. When he was lost in Week 14 in 2007, the air slowly went out of the Steelers' season. They lost four of their last five games and fell at home to Jacksonville in the wild-card round of the playoffs.
Smith had a Pro Bowl season in 2008, and the Steelers won the Super Bowl.
In 2009, Smith was lost after the Steelers beat the Lions in Week 5. They won the next three games without Smith, then collapsed when Troy Polamalu was hurt. While it's generally believed that the Steelers' demise last season was directly related to Polamalu's absence, Smith's injury couldn't have helped.
Perhaps the Steelers could have absorbed Smith's injury last year had Polamalu stayed healthy. The only way we can test that theory is if Polamalu remains healthy this season.
An extended absense for LaMarr Woodley won't help the Steelers withstand Smith's injury. Woodley left Sunday's game with a hamstring injury. It's not clear how long he will be out.
Woodley's injury pressed Jason Worilds into duty. The rookie chosen in the second round helped the Steelers nail down this victory when the Dolphins tried to get into field goal range on their final drive. On fourth-and-6 with 1:33 to go, Worilds pressured Henne into an incompletion.
It also should be noted that Worilds has seemed very active on special teams. It remains to be seen if Worilds is ready for full-time duty on defense. But considering what's transpired, now would be a good time for him, as well as defensive lineman Ziggy Hood, to offer a glimpse into the future.