A late flag: Coach's delay hurts Dolphins

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Peter Diana, Post-Gazette
Heath Miller scores on an 87-yard touchdown pass from Charlie Batch, the longest scoring reception in Heinz Field history.
Click photo for larger image.

History will show tight end Heath Miller scored on a 87-yard touchdown pass from Charlie Batch, the longest scoring reception by a Steelers player in the six-year history of Heinz Field.

Television replay will show he did not.

"I think I scored," said Miller, the Steelers' tight end.

"It is what it is," coach Bill Cowher said.

What it is, or what it was, was the defining moment of last night's 28-17 victory against the Miami Dolphins, the decisive touchdown that really wasn't a touchdown. Not that anyone with the Steelers is complaining.

Replays showed Miller's right leg appearing to hit out of bounds at the Dolphins' 1 as he was being tackled by cornerback Will Allen. But when Miller lunged and rolled into the end zone, giving the Steelers a 21-17 lead with 6:11 remaining, officials signalled a touchdown.

"Doesn't matter," said offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt, "It's a touchdown, isn't it?"

It is now, and the Steelers are 1-0, their ninth consecutive victory, including playoffs, dating to last season. And, for that, they have Dolphins coach Nick Saban to thank.

Saban waited too long to challenge the touchdown, which probably would have been overturned. Saban waited until kicker Jeff Reed was attempting the extra point before he threw the red flag on the field, signifying a challenge to review the play. But the officials never saw the flag, ending any attempt to overturn Miller's score.

"You need to try to see the flag," said referee Walt Coleman. "Unfortunately, it was a touchdown. We delayed the try [for the extra point], waiting for the possibility there will be a challenge. We lined up for the try, and, unfortunately, we focused on the snap and the coach threw the flag and we didn't see it."

Said Cowher, smiling, "I never saw an extra point take so long."

To be sure, the Steelers would have been given possession at the Miami 1, even if the officials saw Saban's flag and the touchdown was overturned. But, as the Steelers discovered with 11:58 remaining -- and also discovered in last year's playoff victory in Indianapolis -- there are no guarantees when they have the ball just 36 inches from the end zone.

Maybe it was a good thing Saban's flag went undetected.

"I don't know what he was waiting for," inside linebacker James Farrior said.

Miller's touchdown was the longest Steelers scoring pass since Kordell Stewart connected with receiver Bobby Shaw for a 90-yard touchdown Dec. 16, 2001, in Baltimore. This one, though, is much more significant because it brought the Steelers back from a game they threatened to lose because of missed opportunities.

In the end, though, it was Saban who missed an opportunity.

"It seemed like a long time to get there," said Miller, who finished with three catches for 101 yards. "That might have been as far as I could run."

Whisenhunt called the play because the Dolphins were doubling a lot on Hines Ward, who had five catches for 53 yards, including a 7-yard touchdown, after missing the entire preseason with an hamstring injury.

When the safety collapsed on Ward, Batch threw a soft out pass to Miller, who flashed free running toward the right sideline.

"They all converged on me and I'm out there running and pointing to Heath, yelling to Charlie, 'Throw it to Heath, throw it to Heath,' " Ward said.

Batch did.

Miller got behind linebacker Zach Thomas and caught the pass at the Steelers' 30. Then, as he started to gain Secretariat-like separation on Thomas down the sideline, Miller was caught from behind by Allen and appeared to have his right leg touch out of bounds as he fell to the ground.

"Charlie felt comfortable with that play," Whisenhunt said. "He thought they would double on Hines and Heath just popped out there. But the monkey jumped on his back about the 20."

More like an elephant, the way Miller was starting to run out of gas.

"I was running as fast as I could," Miller said.

To be sure, he was moving faster than Saban, whose indecision cost his team a favorable ruling.

"They said they didn't see it," Saban said. "Who's fault is that?"

Look in the mirror, Nick.

Correction/Clarification: (Published Sept. 12, 2006) Steelers receiver Hines Ward missed the preseason games because of a hamstring injury. This story as originally published on Sept. 8, 2006 incorrectly said he had an ankle injury.

Gerry Dulac can be reached at gdulac@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1466.


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