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NFL Season Opens With Miami-Pittsburgh

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PITTSBURGH (AP) _ The NFL season begins tonight with the Miami Dolphins taking on the Steelers in Pittsburgh. The Steelers will be without quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who had an emergency appendectomy on Sunday.

Charlie Batch will start at quarterback, with Brian St. Pierre as backup. St. Pierre was moved from the practice squad to the 53-man roster yesterday, two days after being re-signed by the team.

The Pittsburgh Steelers play their first game that counts since winning the Super Bowl. Finally, the player who received the biggest signing bonus on the club gets to show what he can do.

Rookie receiver Santonio Holmes? Newly signed cornerback Ike Taylor? Super Bowl MVP Hines Ward?

No. How about backup quarterback Charlie Batch _ who, except for two winning spot starts last season _ often is one of the least-seen players on a most-visible team that has gone an NFL-best 26-6 the last two seasons?

Batch couldn't ask for a much bigger stage this time as he fills in Thursday night for out-of-action quarterback Ben Roethlisberger in the NFL's season-opening game against the Miami Dolphins. Batch once helped the Lions make the playoffs, but still calls this the biggest game of his career.

It's not because Batch gets to go against former elementary school classmate Jason Taylor, the Dolphins' star defensive lineman, for the first time since both played college ball in the Mid-American Conference.

``I'm really looking forward to this because I haven't been able to take part in an opener for a while,'' said Batch, whose last such start came with Detroit in 2001. ``I'm excited, I really am.''

The Steelers won their final four in the regular season and four more in the playoffs to win their first Super Bowl in 26 years, but Batch threw exactly one pass in those games. He wouldn't be starting this one if Roethlisberger hadn't needed an emergency appendectomy on Sunday, forcing him to miss at least one game.

That's why it may be easy to forget Batch was once seen as one of the NFL's best young quarterbacks, one good enough that the Lions gave him a $10 million signing bonus before the 2000 season. To this day, that's about $1 million more than any Steelers player has gotten.

``He's pretty athletic. He knows their offense well,'' Dolphins coach Nick Saban said of Batch. ``They are not as quarterback oriented an offensive team (as some other teams). They run the ball really effectively. They have a really good play-action game.''

The Dolphins were as quarterback oriented as any team when Dan Marino ran the show, but they haven't had a Pro Bowl QB since him _ until now. Daunte Culpepper missed the Vikings' final nine games last season with three torn knee ligaments, but has returned months earlier than expected and with a new team.

Quarterback play is always important in deciding an NFL winner, but especially so in this opener. If Culpepper can get into a rhythm early with his receivers against one of the NFL's toughest defenses _ the Steelers have nine of 11 defensive starters back from February _ it might force Batch to throw more than coach Bill Cowher would like.

One important matchup is Ike Taylor, who signed a $22.5 million contract only last week, against Dolphins receiver Chris Chambers, who had 82 catches for 1,118 yards and 11 touchdowns last season.

The Steelers would prefer to get the lead early, then turn running back Willie Parker loose on the outside against a Miami defense that excels in the pass rush but might be vulnerable against a runner with the speed Parker possesses.

``Their defense is playing with a lot of confidence now because they ended the regular season on a heck of a win streak,'' Batch said. ``When you come into the next year with a lot of experience, and still have a lot of your guys back, it makes for a tough test for us.''

Maybe, though, tougher still for the Dolphins, who probably would prefer to open the season against an opponent other than the returning Super Bowl champion in its home stadium.

Not that Jason Taylor, who grew up watching the Steelers and understands how Pittsburgh embraces them, expects the atmosphere and opening-night pageantry to have much influence on the outcome.

``What's the difference? We don't watch the (pregame) concert,'' he said. ``We will go out for the pregame warmup, we will play football and get back on the plane and get home. It's the same thing we do every week. Who cares who we are playing or what they have going on at halftime? We don't watch that stuff.''

Batch knows he will be excited, and said calming those emotions will be important to him settling into the offense quickly in his first start since Nov. 13.

``Yes, it's a blow to our offense not having Ben out there,'' said Ward, who is expected to play after missing the four exhibition games with a sore hamstring. ``But Charlie's capable of going out there and getting the job done.''
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