TAMPA, Fla. -- Another injury, another mystery hovers around quarterback Ben Roethlisberger as the Super Bowl nears.
Coach Mike Tomlin yesterday denied a report that Roethlisberger had X-rays on his back/ribs Wednesday.
"Not that I heard," Tomlin told a pool reporter after Roethlisberger went through a full practice yesterday. "Ben's health is often the subject of inaccurate reports. He's fine."
Access to Super Bowl practices is limited to one pool reporter for each team. Peter King of Sports Illustrated is covering the Steelers' practices and files a pool report each day.
Roethlisberger was speared during the AFC championship game and was shown talking to a doctor and trainer in the tunnel at Heinz Field while backup Byron Leftwich warmed up. Roethlisberger never left the game but sat out practice Jan. 21 in Pittsburgh, and the reason given by Tomlin on his injury report was "back."
Roethlisberger has practiced since, and King reported he had a good one yesterday.
Roethlisberger, at media interviews earlier in the day, refused to discuss the report on profootballtalk.com that he had an X-ray on his back/ribs.
Roethlisberger threw the ball well on short and deep routes in yesterday's practice -- including a 40-yard bullet up the right seam to wide receiver Santonio Holmes, and several sharp throws to rehabbing receiver Hines Ward -- even during a steady rain.
Ward, who strained a right-knee ligament in the AFC title game, practiced for the first time since the knee was wrenched on a first-quarter tackle against Baltimore. Although he ran at perhaps three-quarters speed, he worked with the regular offense and blocked and caught the ball in midseason form. Tomlin said Ward looked "awesome" and reiterated what he has been saying for the past week: Ward will certainly play Sunday against the Cardinals. "He is where I thought he would be today," Tomlin said.
The Steelers practiced for one hour and 55 minutes on the University of South Florida's two football practice field north of downtown Tampa. The practice began at 1:30 p.m., under a threatening sky, and at 2:07, with the sky nearly blackened, the rain began. It was a deluge for about 20 minutes and continued for 45 minutes, stopped for a short time, then resumed lightly for about the last 20 minutes of practice. Tomlin said at the start of practice it would not rain, and when it was coming down in buckets, Holmes and Ward chided Tomlin, who lived in Tampa for five years while as assistant coach with the Buccaneers, about being unable to predict the weather in his former neighborhood.
"Much like a lot of our games," Tomlin said, "we had adversity today. Things very rarely go smoothly for 60 minutes in a game, and they didn't go smoothly today with the rain. But we got our work done. This is a mentally tough group that smiles in the face of adversity."
Despite the rain, the Steelers went through their usual Thursday routine, which is heavy on the starting offense and defense working against the scout teams and on red-zone work. Roethlisberger moved the offense well, finding Holmes and Ward consistently. And on defense, the Steelers got a heavy dose of Leftwich imitating Kurt Warner, with practice-squad receiver Dallas Baker playing Larry Fitzgerald. Baker, a seventh-round pick of the Steelers from Florida in 2007, is 6-3, as is Fitzgerald, but at 206 pounds is 20 pounds lighter than the Cardinals' receiver he was imitating. Leftwich threw three interceptions -- two to cornerback Ike Taylor -- while the' defense was on the field, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. Tomlin thought his defense practiced well.
"We're getting a great look from our scout teams, and we have all year," said Tomlin. "I can't say enough about the quality of work we're getting from Byron Leftwich, who has been fantastic all season imitating the other quarterback. He's giving our defense a good look at how Kurt Warner plays."
The Steelers will have a usual Friday session at USF at 11 a.m., and close out preparations for Sunday's game with a short walk-through practice at 10 a.m. tomorrow, also at USF.
Heinz Field the worst
The Steelers may be playing for supremacy in the NFL, but their playing surface at Heinz Field came out a loser again. Heinz Field ranked last among the 18 grass fields in the league, according to a vote of 1,565 active NFL players that was conducted by their union and released yesterday.
Heinz Field took over the bottom spot from the New England Patriots' Gillette Stadium, voted the worst grass field in the previous survey, conducted in 2006. Since then, the Patriots installed artificial turf, and Heinz Field "rose" one spot to No. 1 in the ranking of "worst grass fields" in the NFL Players Association survey in 2008.
Even the Steelers' players themselves thought Heinz Field was the worst among the grass playing surfaces. Using a point system that asked each player to pick the worst three grass playing fields in the NFL (three points for worst, two for second worst and one for the next worst), the Steelers overwhelmingly voted for their home field as the worst.
Heinz Field drew 59 points in the vote of Steelers players. Second-worst grass field, according to the Steelers' vote, was Oakland's with 13 points. This, even though many players publicly proclaim they like their home-field surface.
The DDGrassMaster playing surface at Heinz Field is grass with tiny fibers woven to hold it together and anchor it into the ground. The past two years, the Steelers have paid to have grass sod cover the surface late in the season.
The poor ranking is nothing new for Heinz Field. In 2004, when all fields were lumped together, artificial and grass, Heinz Field ranked sixth worst. In 2002, it ranked ninth worst in the first NFLPA survey taken that included the new stadium in Pittsburgh.
Heinz Field follows a tradition long held by Three Rivers Stadium, which ranked second-worst in the first survey, taken in 1994, fourth-worst in 1996, third-worst in 1998 and second-worst in 2000, that stadium's final year.
Do not count out Leftwich yet. The veteran quarterback's one-year contract ends when he becomes an unrestricted free agent Feb. 27. It long has been assumed that he would sign with a team that would give him a shot at being No. 1. Yesterday, though, he said not to rule out his staying with the Steelers.
"Never count the Pittsburgh Steelers out of my equation because this year meant so much to me," said Leftwich, a former starter in Jacksonville.
He signed a one-year contract with the Steelers in August after veteran backup Charlie Batch's collarbone was broken in a preseason game.
"Everybody's always saying, 'Well, you'll go here or you'll go there.' What if I'm in black and gold next year in the same situation? It's a situation that, ultimately, as much fun as I had, I know I could be happy in it. I know I can deal with it, but can I ultimately be happy not playing on a week-in and week-out basis?"
Batch, who has spent the season on injured reserve, also can become an unrestricted free agent Feb. 27 but expressed interest in returning to his role as the backup to Roethlisberger.
Leftwich declined to talk about other possibilities for his impending free agency.
"I would be a fool to begin to think about next year. I've been dreaming of this day, dreaming of this week all my life, and I'm going to take this week in. I have enough time when it's over to think about it, talk about it. I'll tell you, man, this is a great organization, a great head coach, a great group of guys, and, if I do have to move on, it's going to be tough because I had so much fun."
Fans rate Tomlin top coach
Fans -- no doubt many of them wearing black and gold -- voted Tomlin as the 2008 Motorola NFL Coach of the Year.
A record number of more than 521,000 voted on the league's Web site. Tomlin beat outTom Coughlin of the New York Giants, Jeff Fisher of the Tennessee Titans, John Harbaugh of the Baltimore Ravens, Mike Smith of the Atlanta Falcons and Tony Sparano of the Miami Dolphins.
First Published January 30, 2009 5:00 AM