This match-up is a little harder to gauge than the previous two. I really like Miami's top-two guys, Chris Chambers and Marty Booker. Chamber's receptions have increased every year he's been in the league, culminating in a career high 82 catches in 2005. Chambers should be even better this year with Culpepper throwing him the ball. It's a miracle he had some of the seasons he did with Fiedler, Frerotte, and Feeley throwing him the football. Chambers will get his, there's no doubt about that, but if the Miami passing attack is going to be substantially better in 2006, Marty Booker will have to have a much better year. Booker caught a meager 39 balls in 2005, but he did average an impressive 17.6 yards per catch. If Booker is not more effective getting open on a consistent basis, the Steelers will be able to key in on Chambers, potentially causing Culpepper to throw some balls into tight coverage.
Wes Welker and Derek Hagan are the next two guys on the depth chart, but Hagan is an undrafted free agent, and Wes Welker is a 5'9" speed guy that's hard to get the ball to in traffic. I'm far less concerned about those two than I would be if I had to prepare for Santonio Holmes, Willie Reid and Nate Washington.
Like the Steelers, the Dolphins relied heavily on their big, soft-handed tight end last year. Randy McMichael caught 60 balls for 582 yards and 5 touchdowns a year ago. McMichael got off to an incredibly fast start , catching 14 balls in the first two weeks, and touchdowns in the Dolphins' first four games. Teams started to pay more attention to him as the year went on, however, and he only scored once more in week 12 against the Faders (I mean Raiders). If you take a look at Chambers' 2005 game log , you'll notice he picked it up when McMichael cooled off, scoring 6 TDs after McMichael's final score in week 12. Clearly Miami has a multi-dimensional passing threat, and now that they have a legitimate All-Pro throwing the ball, they may just put it all together for a highly productive year.
If you ask me how I feel about the Steelers receivers for the whole season, I'd say I feel great about our chances to have a great passing attack; if you ask me how I feel about Week 1, I'd have to admit I feel less confident. Obviously Hines Ward is a question mark. He may pull a T.O Super Bowl performance and perform brilliantly...he may have to call it quits after coming up gimpy. We'll see. That leaves us with Cedrick Wilson, Santonio Holmes, Willie Reid, Nate Washington, and Heath Miller to throw to the ball to. As I mentioned yesterday, I believe Batch feels most comfortable with Cedrick and will throw the ball his way multiple times tomorrow. Batch and Wilson did hook up for a 23 yard score in week 3 of the preseason. I really love the preseasons that Reid and Holmes had, and I can't describe how excited I am to see how they do filling in for Randle El this season, but I'll admit I'm not sure they'll have a huge impact in their first ever NFL game with a backup QB behind center. I hope I'm wrong. I wouldn't, however, be surprised to see either one of them involved in one of Whisenhunt's patented razzle-dazzle plays.
There's only a few Tight Ends I'd take over Randy McMichael and Heath Miller is most certainly one of them. The Steelers once again proved their Draft-day brilliance with their choice of Miller in the first round. The sure-handed Miller caught 39 balls for 459 yards and 6 TDs. Even more encouraging is the fact that he seemed to get better and better as the year progressed. I expect Miller to have at least 5 important catches tomorrow night. It's imperative for Batch not to have to make throw after throw to the outside against an improved Miami secondary.
Edge: Miami (but only because of the uncertain status of Hines).
Onto the trenches and the kicking game this afternoon and evening. Stay tuned. If there's any resident Dolphins experts out there, let me know if I'm full of it on any points.