A perfect Steelers night

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Only in Pittsburgh can the punter get one of the biggest ovations on opening night at Heinz Field.

"Before I even kicked the ball!" the Steelers' Daniel Sepulveda marveled.

Seriously. Hey, that's a good thing.

Steelers fans aren't just passionate, they're highly intelligent. They know Sepulveda is going to be a valuable field-possession weapon for a Steelers team that somehow won the Super Bowl last season with its one weak link -- Mitch Berger -- trying and mostly failing to do the punting. That's why they roared when Sepulveda trotted out for his first boot last night in the 20-10 exhibition win against the Arizona Cardinals. His punt soared high and long, going 46 yards before it was fair caught by Antrel Rolle at the Arizona 15. He averaged 49.5 yards -- 43.8 net -- on his six punts.

"I'll take that every night," Sepulveda said.

This fella is no Mitch Berger. Thankfully.

Here's even better news: The paying crowd had plenty more to cheer. This was a good night for the Steelers for reasons that go beyond the final score. There were no significant injuries. And, thanks to the breaking news from Philadelphia, there's going to be no Michael Vick here despite those silly, ridiculous, idiotic rumors that now, finally, can be put to rest.

I'm thinking this was a great night.

In some ways, it was as if last season never ended. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger looked to be in midseason form when he shook off defensive end Calais Campbell and turned a safety into a 3-yard gain. Linebacker LaMarr Woodley, who sacked Arizona quarterback Kurt Warner twice in Super Bowl XLIII, tormented him again with a sack to end an early drive. Linebacker James Harrison didn't get a sack, but was all over backup quarterback Matt Leinart enough to scare the heck out of him and force an incompletion that ended another drive.

Did I mention there were no key injuries?

That sigh of relief you heard coming from the North Side lawn was from backup quarterback Charlie Batch, who had his collarbone broken in the first exhibition game last season. Not wanting to dare the football gods, Steelers coach Mike Tomlin played Batch just long enough for him to throw a beauty of a 45-yard pass to wide receiver Limas Sweed before turning the offense over to third-stringer Dennis Dixon.

All of those things would have made for a wonderful night, but there were a few pleasant surprises. Running back Rashard Mendenhall ran hard, Sweed caught the ball, OK, mostly, and No. 1 pick Ziggy Hood made a terrific first impression. All three developments are significant.

To be successful, the Steelers are going to need Mendenhall and Willie Parker, who had the night off after missing a lot of training camp practice because of back spasms. Mendenhall didn't exactly look like Jerome Bettis -- his nine carries went for only 24 yards -- but this was the first exhibition game, you know? "I thought he made some nice runs," Tomlin said.

Sweed's two catches were even more encouraging because he's the No. 3 receiver, replacing Nate Washington. Last night, he had that 45-yard reception, making a great adjustment on Batch's pass to beat cornerback Michael Adams to the ball. He made an even better catch on an 11-yard pass from Roethlisberger to get a first down, pinning the ball against linebacker Karlos Dansby's helmet.

Sure, Sweed dropped a Dixon pass at the Arizona 8 in the third quarter that should have been a first down. But overall? "I'm coming into my own," Sweed said. "I haven't arrived by a long shot, but I made a jump. I knew what was going on tonight. Last year, I had so much running through my mind that I was lost. Not tonight."

Hood might have enjoyed the game more than anyone -- "I think I did good," he gushed. He pressured quarterback Brian St. Pierre into throwing an interception that rookie cornerback Joe Burnett returned 42 yards. Later, he sacked St. Pierre. You know what they say about defensive linemen -- a team can't have enough good ones.

All of this on a night that the Vick news broke!

The dog killer is going to the Eagles, which is a heck of a lot better than him coming to the Steelers. There was just no way that was going to happen. The Rooneys aren't into convicted felons. Their team doesn't need the sort of distraction that Vick would cause.

Philadelphia can have Vick. It deserves him.

The only regret? Vick didn't sign with Cleveland.


Ron Cook can be reached at rcook@post-gazette.com .


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