Backups get passing grade

MIAMI - You knew, at some point, the Steelers were going to be tested.

Though Pittsburgh fashioned a 3-1 start without quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, you knew there were going to be some bumps in the road.

That's just the way things go in the NFL.

The Steelers not only faced one of those tests Sunday in Miami, they passed it, though not without some problems.

The Dolphins shut down Pittsburgh's running game, limiting the Steelers to 58 yards on 27 carries. That forced quarterback Ben Roethlisberger into a lot of third-and-long situations and allowed Miami to unleash its pass rush.

To the Steelers' credit, they didn't wilt - though Roethlisberger did fumble twice on Miami's three sacks.

But those are the kind of things you run into playing on the road in the NFL. Even for a team such as the Steelers, whose fans travel better than perhaps any other team's, a road game is still going to be difficult to win.

Yes, the Steelers were fortunate that Roethlisberger's fumble into the end zone with just over two minutes remaining was not found to be recovered by Miami.

And certainly Miami has a gripe about the play - though NFL rules appear to be pretty clear about that kind of situation. If there is no clear recovery of the football, the ball goes back to the offense.

Though Miami linebacker Ikaika Alma-Francis came out of the pile with the football, several Steelers said they had the ball at the bottom of the scrum in the end zone and let go of it when officials told them the play was over and Roethlisberger had scored.

Referee Gene Steratore, a Washington resident, had no choice but to give the Steelers the ball back, giving them an opportunity to kick the game-winning field goal.

But the biggest test the Steelers faced on this day was of their depth.

They entered the game without defensive end Brett Keisel, who has a hamstring injury. Early in the third quarter, Aaron Smith, the other starting defensive end, was lost to a torn triceps, leaving the Steelers with only four defensive linemen.

Add to that the loss of linebacker LaMarr Woodley and right tackle Flozell Adams to hamstring and ankle injuries, respectively, and you have enough health and depth issues that would have added up to a loss for many teams.

Pittsburgh found a way to survive - at least in this game.

The injury to Smith looks to be the most serious. It will test this team's resolve and depth.

The Steelers, however, have found ways to overcome these kind of issues this season, something they did not do a good job of last year.

This team is mentally tough. Perhaps most importantly, it has more depth than a year ago.

When you can replace Woodley with Larry Foote, or Adams with Jonathan Scott, each of whom have been starters, you lessen the impact of those injuries.

The scary thing about the Steelers is that, though the final numbers would suggest that Roethlisberger is playing well, he's still rusty after sitting out the first month on suspension. For the second game in a row, he missed some open receivers and, as the three fumbles suggest, is having issues holding onto the football.

In other words, there's still plenty of room for improvement.

F. Dale Lolley can be reached at dlolley@observer-reporter.com