Cook: Batch meets the challenge

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That was some challenge they threw at Charlie Batch last night.

Not Ben Roethlisberger's appendectomy.

Not even the Miami Dolphins and their ferocious defense.

The Bus.

Really, a big yellow school bus.

It rolled through a Heinz Field tunnel and onto the field moments before the Steelers and Dolphins kicked off the NFL season. Out hopped Jerome Bettis -- the one and only Bus, as far as Pittsburgh is concerned -- to thunderous applause that lasted as he waved a Terrible Towel, held up his Super Bowl XL ring for all to see and slowly made his way the length of the field to an end zone set and his new career as an NBC broadcaster.

How was Batch supposed to top that homecoming?

Well, guess what?

The kid from Homestead did in the Steelers' 28-17 win.

"Everybody said we couldn't do it without our starting quarterback," linebacker Joey Porter said in the happy locker room after the Steelers did do it. "This team is bigger than that. Charlie performed the way he's supposed to. He proved a long time ago he can play quarterback."

It wasn't easy. Batch made it hard on himself by fumbling a first-down snap at the Miami 1 early in the fourth quarter as the Steelers were driving for a go-ahead score and a 21-17 lead. You could almost read every mind in Steeler Nation at that point.

Big Ben wouldn't have done that.

True. But what came next after the Steelers' defense gave Batch the ball back at his 13 with 6:25 left? Roethlisberger couldn't have done it any better.

Batch's play fake to Willie Parker was a beauty, his lob of a pass to tight end Heath Miller behind Dolphins linebacker Zach Thomas even prettier. The big tight end somehow managed to outrun cornerback Will Allen to the end zone for the winning score.

It turns out Batch suggested the play to Steelers offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt. "It worked exactly the way we drew it up," Batch said.

It was Batch's third touchdown pass of the night.

Yeah, it was a pretty sweet homecoming.

It came at a great time, not just for Batch and the Steelers, but for a grieving city. Like most people in town, Batch tuned into coverage of Mayor Bob O'Connor's funeral earlier in the day. That only added to his roiling emotions at game time.

"I wanted to dedicate this victory to him," Batch said later. "Hopefully, we could ease the grieving process a little. I think, through sports, you're able to do that."

There's not much doubt the late mayor would have loved everything about this night. His city looked fabulous for the NBC cameras. His football team won a big game.

It shouldn't have come as much of a surprise that Batch had a big hand in it. It's not like this was his first big game. He started a couple last season and won 'em both when he hadn't thrown a pass in anger for the better part of two seasons. There was no reason to think he wouldn't get it done this time. He's as healthy as he has ever been and also played extensively in all four of the exhibition games.

It took all of three passes for Batch to shake off what little rust he had. After that 0 for 3 start, he completed 15 of 22 passes for 209 yards, no interceptions and those three touchdowns. His passer rating was a positively Big Ben-like 126.5.

"None of us are surprised," wide receiver Hines Ward said. "The guys are very comfortable with Charlie."

Batch certainly gave the Steelers better quarterback play than Daunte Culpepper did for the Dolphins. Culpepper's two late interceptions -- one by safety Troy Polamalu, the other by linebacker Joey Porter, who returned his 42 yards for the clinching touchdown -- easily trumped Batch's lost fumble in the costly turnover category.

Batch's first touchdown pass went for 27 yards to wide receiver Nate Washington, who made a nice catch over safety Travares Tillman for a 7-0 lead. His second went to Ward -- a 7-yard bullet in the middle of the back of the end zone -- for a 14-7 lead. So much for Ward's hamstring problem.

It would have been a shame if Batch's fumble had denied him of this victory. As it was, the win served two valuable purposes beyond getting the Steelers off to a 1-0 start in defense of their Super Bowl championship.

One, it gave the Steelers reason to believe they don't have to rush Roethlisberger back for the next game Sept. 18 at Jacksonville. If he's not ready until the big showdown with the Cincinnati Bengals at Heinz Field Sept. 24, so be it.

And two, it gave Bettis plenty to talk about on the NBC telecast.

Know this:

Both the Steelers and The Bus were grateful.


Ron Cook can be reached at rcook@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1525.


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