As a Super Bowl rematch, the exhibition game between the Steelers and Arizona Cardinals last night fell flat. Anyone looking for excitement could have found more at the newly opened Rivers Casino next door.
But then, exhibition games often go that way, probably why only 58,330 turned out at Heinz Field last night. It was another example of why the NFL wants to reduce the preseason by two games.
The Steelers, however, won for the second consecutive time over the past six months against the Cardinals, 20-10.
The game was salvaged somewhat in the second half by players who were not playing in a Super Bowl rematch, they were playing in their first professional game. Steelers rookies such as Ziggy Hood, Joe Burnett, Mike Wallace and Isaac Redman had to walk out of Heinz Field feeling pretty good about their pro debuts.
Redman scored both touchdowns in short-yardage situations, something he also did Sunday in the team's only goal-line drill of camp. The undrafted rookie from Bowie State ran one in from 3 yards and the other from 5. Second-year quarterback Dennis Dixon was at the controls for both touchdowns.
Another Pittsburgher accounted for a third touchdown, but he wore red and white. Former Pitt quarterback Tyler Palko completed all five passes on a 59-yard drive that ended with his 20-yard touchdown toss to Onrea Jones with 3:30 left in the game.
Both teams went with their starters for two series and both starting groups left with the game scoreless.
"We still have some things to work on," is how Steelers offensive tackle Max Starks put it.
Ben Roethlisberger completed 4 of the 6 passes he attempted for 33 yards. Backup Charlie Batch was 1 of 2 for 45 yards, and both veterans were done before the end of the first half.
"Overall, without looking at film, I think it was OK," Roethlisberger said. "I think we had a couple plays with a few breakdowns, but it just felt good to go against someone other than your own guys."
The best play of the night gave the Steelers the lead for good, and it occurred on the last play of the third quarter with half the fans still in their seats.
Three rookies combined to make it happen. Hood, rushing from left defensive end, put pressure on Arizona quarterback Brian St. Pierre to force a throw that ended up in Burnett's hands. (Hood, their first draft choice, added a sack of St. Pierre later). Burnett, a fifth-round pick, ran it back 42 yards to the Cardinals' 3.
On the first play of the fourth quarter, Redman ran a nifty off-tackle play, breaking one tackle and bouncing it outside to score. Later in the quarter, he ran two plays in a row, starting at the 9, and scored off right guard from 5 yards out. Combined with his two scores in the goal-line drills at Saint Vincent, Redman looks like a guy who knows the way to the end zone.
There was a burst of excitement at the end of the first half, a near Super Bowl repeat. As in the Super Bowl, the half nearly ended with a long interception return by the Steelers, this time by cornerback Anthony Madison. He picked off Matt Leinart's pass at the 9 and weaved and ran it back to the 35 before he was tackled with no time outs left.
Not only did Madison fall a tad short of James Harrison's 100-yard return for a touchdown in the Super Bowl, the interception was taken away from him and he was given a pass-interference penalty in its place.
It took the Steelers' second-team offense to snap everyone out of it, and Jeff Reed to put them ahead, 3-0, with a booming 50-yard field goal that made it easily.
Batch had a better first exhibition game than he did last preseason when his collarbone was broken on a botched play. Last night, his first series ended with the first score of the game.
Limas Sweed made that score possible when he caught a deep pass from Batch that covered 45 yards.
Sweed adjusted nicely along the right sideline, pausing for a slightly underthrown ball to get good position on cornerback Michael Adams. He made the catch at the Arizona 39.
"He is going to grow as a wide receiver and make some big plays for us," said veteran Hines Ward.
Sweed, trying to replace Nate Washington as the No. 3 receiver, had two nice catches in the first half, the other a leaping grab in traffic for 11 yards on third down. But he also dropped a third-down pass at the Arizona 8 in the third quarter.
The Cardinals tied the score after Madison's interference penalty on his interception. Arizona got the ball with no time left on the clock at the Steelers' 11, and Neil Rackers kicked a 29-yard field goal to send the teams into the break tied, 3-3.
The Steelers had a chance to take the lead on their first possession of the third quarter, but they sent backup kicker Piotr Czech out to try a 36-yarder, and he failed.
Rashard Mendenhall started for the slightly injured Willie Parker at halfback and played the entire first half. He carried nine times for 24 yards and split out wide several times when the first team went to an empty backfield.
Wallace, a third-round pick, caught a nice slant from Dixon in the third quarter for a 22-yard gain to Arizona's 22 before Czech's missed field goal and had a second reception for 13 yards.
Czech got a second chance and made good on it when he booted a 44 yard field goal with 1:41 to go.
Ed Bouchette can be reached at email@example.com . First Published August 14, 2009 4:00 AM