The Miami Dolphins, once a premier NFL franchise but now hobbled by injury and ineptitude, staggered into Heinz Field last night without a win and, as a 16-point underdog, little hope of finding one. But as might be expected against the suddenly very vulnerable Steelers, a tightly played football game broke out.
The hapless Dolphins, who have lost their leading rusher and starting quarterback to injury and their best receiver to a trade, battled the Steelers evenly for 59 minutes, 43 seconds only to lose, 3-0 last night, on a 24-yard field goal by Jeff Reed.
Weather conditions were horrible as the new sod put down on Heinz Field became a soggy mess through an all-day rain.
"Worse field I ever played on," Miami safety Cameron Worrell said.
But all the Dolphins were quick to point out the conditions favored neither team.
In view of this performance, there have to be grave doubts about the Steelers the rest of the way. The rosy prediction, here and elsewhere, about the team, look grossly unfounded today. It was one thing to lose eight days earlier to the one-win New York Jets. Those kinds of upsets, particularly on the road, are fairly standard in the NFL. It's quite another to play so poorly at home against a team that has been wrecked by injuries and without a win.
What was especially alarming was the five sacks the Steelers gave up to the Dolphins, a team that had only 12 in its first 10 games. The sacking of Ben Roethlisberger is becoming commonplace and does not bode well for the remainder of the season.
No one was having more fun for most of the game than former Steelers linebacker and defensive captain Joey Porter, who left after last season as a free agent when the Steelers showed no interest in re-signing him.
Porter was his typical self -- loud, demonstrative and effective. He had eight tackles and intercepted a Roethlisberger pass on the first possession of the game and returned it 14 yards. When the play was over, Porter strutted and pranced in front of the Steelers' bench while clutching the treasured football. It was an act that might have prompted a taunting penalty, but the officials did not call it.
"I was just trying to have some fun," Porter said.
Porter, always one of the most popular Steelers, mixed amicably with some of his former teammates before the game and exchanged hugs before the coin toss. He maintained coming back to Heinz Field was nothing special.
"It was what I expected. I knew I was coming into a hostile environment. I knew what it was going to be like. I told the guys not to do anything different."
Concerning competing against his former teammates, Porter said, "I saw them before the game. I'm on the other side now. It is what it is."
He was poised to record a sack in the second quarter but before he could, Roethlisberger was brought down from behind by defensive end Quentin Moses.
It was a credit to the Miami defense that it held off the Steelers much of the game. Blessed with superlative field position, mostly the result of Miami being unable to move the ball, the Steelers could not put together a scoring drive until the final minutes.
"Our defense has given us a chance to win every week," coach Cam Cameron said. "We've got to get our offense back to where it was earlier in the season."
After scoring 31 against Cleveland and 28 against New England, the Dolphins have scored only three touchdowns in their past four games.
The Dolphins' best scoring chance came early in the fourth quarter when they moved to the Steelers' 20. Jay Feely's field-goal attempt was blocked, but there was a delay-of-game penalty before the kick. Given the option to try again from where there appeared to be more solid ground but 5 yards farther back, Cameron opted not to.
"We were concerned about the distance and the field," he said. "Considering that and because we thought we had a good play, we decided to go for it."
Rookie quarterback John Beck was sacked and fumbled on the next play.
Feely was lobbying Cameron to kick a second time.
Asked about his chances, he said, "In those conditions, about 50-50, but I wanted to try."
It was a bitter defeat for the Dolphins (0-11), who lost for the fifth time by three points.
"I thought we could shock the world tonight," said Porter. "I really thought we could win."
They came about as close as possible to doing just that.
Bob Smizik can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .