By TOM WILLIAMS
VINDICATOR SPORTS STAFF
PITTSBURGH -- Just when it appeared the Miami Dolphins had snuffed the Steelers' fiery Super Bowl celebration, an unlikely touchdown by tight end Heath Miller rescued the defending champions against a strong AFC contender.
How unlikely? The 6-foot-5 second year player rambled 87 yards for the game-deciding touchdown in the Steelers' 28-17 victory Thursday before 64,927 fans at Heinz Field.
Late interceptions by safety Troy Polamalu and linebacker Joey Porter (returned for a 43-yard touchdown) sealed the victory.
Moments after the Miller's score, Polamalu intercepted Dolphins quarterback Daunte Culpepper at midfield, allowing the Steelers to dodge a late threat. But kicker Jeff Reed missed a 44-year attempt.
One play later, Culpepper was under fire by a Steelers blitz and Porter stole the pass for the clinching score.
After a lackadaisical preseason, many wondered how the Steelers would respond when their starters finally played an entire game.
Mistakes nearly spell defeat
The verdict -- shaky. Costly mistakes, none as painful as quarterback Charlie Batch's fumbled exchange on a first-and-goal play at the 1 in the fourth quarter, almost spelled defeat in the NFL opener.
"A lot of people are predicting Miami to win the Super Bowl, but don't forget we are the champions," said Steelers receiver Hines Ward said. "We've got a pretty good ball club. It's great to come out and win in our own backyard on national TV."
The game turned after the Steelers defense forced a Dolphins punt with 61/2 minutes to go.
One play later, the Steelers regained the lead when Batch hit Miller about 15 yards downfield and the tight end rambled, finally being touched near the goal line.
Replays showed Miller was knocked out-of-bounds inside the 5, but the officials didn't see Dolphins coach Nick Saban's challenge flag until after Reed kicked the extra point.
Batch completed 15 of 25 passes for 209 yards. Parker rushed 29 times for 115 yards.
Culpepper, the former Viking, completed 18 of 37 passes for 262 yards in his Miami debut. The Steelers limited Ronnie Brown to 30 yards on 15 carries.
Dolphins go 80 yards
Trailing 14-10 at halftime, the Dolphins shredded the Steelers defense on their first possession of the third quarter, marching 80 yards on eight plays.
The big play came when Steelers safety Tyrone Carter slipped, allowing wide receiver Marty Booker to break loose for a 52-yard reception.
Ronnie Brown's 5-yard run down the right sideline put Miami ahead, 17-14, with 6:11 to go in the third quarter.
Carter had help in the struggles department. Cornerback Ike Taylor was fooled on Brown's 8-yard run to the 5 then couldn't hang on to an interception in the end zone.
Just when the Dolphins had harassed the Steelers into another three-and-out, Dolphins defensive backs Michael Lehan and Andre Goodman were hit with back-to-back penalties.
Those penalties sparked the Steelers offense, that had appeared lethargic, into action. Parker had gains of eight and 13 yards. Batch hit Ward for a 10-yard pickup on third down then scrambled for 11 yards.
A reverse by Nate Washington on third down gained 8 for another first down. Consecutive 6-yard gains by Parker gave the Steelers first-and-goal at the 1.
Fumble foils scoring bid
But Batch fumbled the exchange from center Jeff Hartings and the ball bounced far enough for cornerback Will Allen's recovery at the 5.
Luck was on the Steelers' side in the first quarter as Ricardo Colclough and Taylor turned two punt returns into adventures deep in Steeler territory. Despite the scare, the Steelers retained possession both times.
After both teams combined for one first down in the first five series, the Steelers began to roll after Batch's first completions (12 yards by Miller and six yards rookie wide receiver Santonio Holmes).
Batch's scrambled for 12 yards to set up Parker's 4-yard gain on fourth-and-1.
On the second play of the second quarter, the Steelers took the lead when Batch hit wide receiver Nate Washington for a 27-yard touchdown. On the third-and-2 play, Washington beat the coverage of safety Travares Tillman just short of the goal line and fell into the end zone for his first career touchdown.
"It felt really good," Washington said. "I didn't really know how to celebrate. The corner squatted so [Batch] just threw it up and gave me a chance."
Steelers' punt coverage fails
Late in the first half, a meltdown on Steelers punt coverage led to the Dolphins tying the game at 7-7 on Ronnie Brown's 3-yard touchdown.
A low punt by Chris Gardocki was returned 47 yards by Wes Welker to the Steelers 15, with Gardocki pushing Welker out of bounds. After Culpepper's screen toss to Brown gained 13 yards, Browns lined up as fullback and burst through the center of the Steelers' defensive line for Miami's first score.
Moments after Parker broke free for a 32-yard gain, Ward had his first catch and first touchdown of the season.
A pass interference call against Goodman gave the Steelers first-and goal at the Miami 7. After a Batch threw the ball away, he found Ward unguarded under the goalpost for a 7-yard score and 14-7 lead inside the two-minute warning.
In less than a minute, Culpepper completed four straight passes for 62 yards to set up first-and-goal at the 8. But three straight incompletions forced the Dolphins to settle for Mare's 26-yard field goal, cutting the Steelers' lead to 14-10.