Starring roles shift for season opener

PITTSBURGH – Up until four days ago, it looked like the NFL's Thursday night opener at Heinz Field would star Ben Roethlisberger and Daunte Culpepper, two quarterbacks who'd made remarkable recoveries.

But with Roethlisberger's appendectomy, the featured match-ups now involve blind-side pressure: Can Jason Taylor batter his childhood friend Charlie Batch? Can the NFL's most feared man, Joey Porter, get after Culpepper, the NFL's biggest and strongest quarterback?

The Miami Dolphins come to town as one of the chic picks to win the American Football Conference this season. They won their last six games last season – including wins at New England and San Diego – to finish 9-7.

They added Culpepper to a team that's needed a quarterback since Dan Marino retired in 1999. Culpepper's coming off reconstructive knee surgery after tearing three ligaments in his right knee last Oct. 30. He's come back to play in three preseason games in which he compiled a passer rating of 93.5.

Culpepper, 29, has made three Pro Bowl appearances in seven years. The gigantic 265-pounder last played against the Pittsburgh Steelers on Dec. 2, 2001 at Heinz Field. He completed 12 of 17 passes for 140 yards and an interception in a Vikings loss. He injured his knee early in the fourth quarter and missed the rest of the season. He came back to lead the NFL in passing yardage in 2004.

Porter was asked to compare the Culpepper of 2001 to the Culpepper he's seen on film this preseason.

"He was a much bigger guy, much bigger," Porter said. "A healthy Culpepper and how big he was, instead of running and sliding he'd try to take you head on. I remember playing against him in the Pro Bowl game and Jason Gildon had him on the sideline. I just knew he was going to slide but he dropped his helmet on him. That's the difference from Culpepper then to Culpepper now. Back then he was still about 260 pounds and could run real fast and didn't mind taking on the head-up with a linebacker, so the difference now is he'll probably slide instead of going head-on with you. His arm hasn't changed. He still has a gun. And he still has the wits of a smart quarterback."

How well is he moving around this preseason?

"He looks like he can run," Porter said. "It looks like his leg is holding up. He scrambled one time and he looked pretty good. That's preseason. Everything changes when the live bullets are coming. This is not preseason anymore. This is the real season."

Culpepper's targets are tight end Randy McMichael and wide receivers Chris Chambers and Martin Booker, Wes Welker and rookie Derek Hagan. Second-year man Ronnie Brown is the running back. With Sammy Morris suspended, the Dolphins may have to give the ball to Cleveland castoff Lee Suggs as well.

Defensively, the Dolphins are led by Taylor, a graduate of nearby Woodland Hills and the University of Akron. He went to the same Homestead elementary school as Batch (Steel Valley, Eastern Michigan) and played against him once in college and once in the pros. Taylor sacked Batch in a 2000 game and is second only to Michael Strahan, by one, for most sacks in the NFL since 2000.

Taylor will play his first pro game in Pittsburgh and he will be a marked man. Last season the Dolphins began using more 3-4 alignments and Taylor was the key. Now he's the key to the Steelers' blocking schemes.

"Jason Taylor's a versatile player so they can stand him up a bit and with the same personnel they can go with a 3-4 or a 4-3," said tight end Heath Miller. "They do that a little bit and as long as we recognize what they're in and we're all on the same page then we'll be alright."

How important is the recognition?

"It determines how you're going to block certain protections and how you're going to block running plays," Miller said. "But I think we won't have any problem recognizing it. It should be pretty apparent for us all to see. We just have to communicate."

The rest of the Dolphins' defensive line consists of 37-year-old Keith Traylor (337 pounds), 33-year-old Dan Wilkinson (340) and 33-year-old Kevin Carter (305). Middle linebacker Zach Thomas is 33 and last season had his fewest tackles since 2000. The Dolphins' secondary is revamped. Only one starter, strong safety Travares Tillman, was with the team in 2005.

"We're comfortable," said Steelers receiver Hines Ward. "It's not like Charlie's a rookie and everybody's throwing up their hands. We feel confident in Charlie.

"Yes, it's a blow to our offense not having Ben in there, but Charlie's capable enough to go out there and get the job done. That's the confidence we have in Charlie and that's the confidence Charlie has in himself."

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