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Old 09-08-2006, 08:12 AM   #1
lamberts-lost-tooth
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Default Porter, Polamalu a big-play pair

Friday, September 08, 2006
By Gene Collier, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette


Under inordinate pressure even for some nationally televised inaugural NFL protocol, a storied Steelers defense needed a typically monstrous play from one of its validated Super stars.

Troy Polamalu seemed a perfect candidate, but then so did Joey Porter.

So what about both?

Polamalu and Porter, All-Pros a year ago and proving it just about every minute, intercepted fourth-quarter passes in a prime-time cauldron last night, and when Porter returned Daunte Culpepper's second ill-advised throw in consecutive series 42 yards for a touchdown, the Steelers had reached all the way back to Detroit to reconnect some stellar momentum.

What's that saying?

Here we go.

"We know exactly what we have," said Porter after his first career touchdown via interception iced the 28-17 victory against Miami. "We know what we can go out there and do under any circumstances. I pride myself on making plays when I get the opportunity, and tonight I got those opportunities."

By halftime of this television gala they call the NFL opener, it was growing apparent that the absence of No. 7, Big Convalescence, had triggered a more elaborate domino effect than perhaps the big bowl of frothing towel-wavers on the North Side had anticipated.

It apparently wasn't enough that Ben Roethlisberger's extracted appendix would put undue pressure on the Steelers' highly decorated defenders on the night the club began defending its first Super Bowl title in 26 years. As the current from that weekend convulsion crackled through Pittsburgh's systems late last night, there was an odd smoking odor from the special teams as well.

Big Ben's operation, you'll remember, required the signing of third-string quarterback Brian St. Pierre to back up backup quarterback Charlie Batch, who was going from comfortable understudy to national prime-time star in the space of four days. It further required, through the mandatory roster realignment, the dismissal of Chidi Iwuoma, who was not the special teams' captain last year for nothing.

But even with all that, it wasn't until Batch tried to beat Miami's defense deep for the first time, with a fine third-down bullet toward Cedrick Wilson late in the second quarter, that this potentially lethal pressure change came into bright focus. Wilson could not make the catch, even as Miami's Traveras Tillman might have dodged an interference call, and, on the next play, all the negative forces in the Heinz Field atmosphere were momentarily unleashed.

Chris Gardocki launched the football from near his own goal line, sending it away 48 yards to Miami's Wes Welker near the Steelers' sideline. Without Iwuoma flying down the left flank as he had so consistently and effectively over the past four seasons, Welker fielded the punt comfortably and easily eluded Ryan Clark in the open field as he accelerated to full gallop. Forty-seven yards later, Miami was set up at the Steelers' 15, and two plays after that, the Dolphins had the touchdown that convinced Daunte Culpepper there was hope somewhere in the middle of a seething Steelers defense.

Ronnie Brown's 2-yard dive did a lot more than tie the score at 7-7 with 5:14 left in the half, it suggested that this Steelers defense, under tremendous pressure since the removal of Pittsburgh's most famous appendix, was something other than infallible.

Nowhere else had there been even the suggestion that Miami could run against the Steelers, with Brown gaining a total of 9 yards on eight first-half carries, most of them on ill-fated first-down plays. Individually, the defense had been routinely spectacular. Porter was on top of Culpepper early, dumping him inside his 10 for the first sack and JPeezy boot of the new season and the 54th of his career, moving him past Greg Lloyd for fifth place on the Steelers' all-time list of celebrated sackers.

Lloyd wasn't available for comment, but I'm guessing he wasn't happy.

But soon after the special-teams effect had become apparent, the confidence of the defense seemed to short out temporarily. Again the culprit was Welker, a 5-foot-9 backup wideout in his third year out of Texas Tech and not what anyone would confuse with a difference-maker. Welker got loose in the secondary for 31 yards, and after Brown ran a dump pass 11 more to the Steelers' 28, Welker ran into the area vacated by the blitzing Deshea Townsend and took a simple out pass for 20 more to the 8. A field goal brought Miami within 14-10, and the resultant momentum only ratcheted up the drama for the defense.

"The defense," said a relieved Bill Cowher, "did a very good job in the first half allowing us to stay in that game."

On Miami's first possession after intermission, safety Tyrone Carter fell down just as wideout Marty Booker was pulling in Culpepper's pass, allowing Booker to prance 52 yards to the Steelers' 25, but the truly chilling stuff started on the next play, when marquee Dolphins wideout Chris Chambers finally got loose from Ike Taylor. Taylor then missed a tackle on Brown as he took the ball to the 5, and Brown pounded it home from that point on the next play for the first Dolphins lead on an increasingly uncomfortable night.

The pressure on the defense was building to dangerous levels. Taylor would soon be beaten on three successive plays as Miami moved in Steelers territory, but a pivotal third-and-2 play was busted up by Aaron Smith and Taylor on the series before Heath Miller's 87-yard touchdown catch-and-run.

But after all of that, with a 21-17 lead and six minutes remaining, the Steelers still needed a handful of compelling plays from the kind of compelling players on which this defense is built.
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