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Debate rages over Heinz Field turf

| Wednesday, Oct. 18, 2006

Things went so smoothly for the Steelers on Sunday that coach Bill Cowher fielded two questions about the playing surface at Heinz Field and zero about quarterback Ben Roethlisberger at his weekly news conference Tuesday.

Roethlisberger turned in a near-flawless performance in the Steelers' 45-7 thrashing of the Kansas City Chiefs, but the field didn't appear to fare quite as well.

Early in the first quarter, Steelers wide receiver Santonio Holmes turned what should have been about a 10-yard reception into a 50-yard gain after Chiefs cornerback Ty Law slipped and fell down. Holmes probably would have gained even more yards had he not slipped while making a cut near the Chiefs' 25-yard line.

Plays like that have once again led to questions about the playing surface at Heinz Field, though Steelers chairman Dan Rooney said yesterday it "couldn't be better. It is perfect."

Rooney added that players who had trouble with their footing in the game weren't using the right cleats.

The hybrid DD Grassmaster is in its fourth year of use at the stadium where the Steelers and Pitt Panthers play and where the WPIAL football championships are held in late November.

The Steelers are one of only three NFL teams (the Denver Broncos and Philadelphia Eagles are the others) that use DD Grassmaster, which is regular grass that is held together by fibers sewn into the sod.

"I did not see the (Steelers) game, but I do recall that it holds up OK until we get into the high school playoffs. We're, fortunately, done about then," Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt said. "But when you get that much play on it, it's going to wear. There's no two ways about that."

The playing surface at Heinz Field has not always gotten high marks in NFL players' surveys -- it was voted 27th out of 31 NFL surfaces in a players' association poll -- which comes across as odd to CBS analyst Phil Simms.

Simms did color commentary for the Bengals-Steelers game here Sept. 24. Beforehand, he asked some of the Bengals about the field's reputation for having slippery spots as well as areas where there is only dirt instead of grass.

To his surprise, Simms said, quarterback Carson Palmer and wide receiver Chad Johnson, among others, told him they loved playing at Heinz Field.

"I said, 'Well if (the field) is not an issue to them, I don't care,' " said Simms, who will work the Steelers' game Sunday against the Falcons in Atlanta.

Simms would be the first one to say that the surface at Heinz Field beats the alternative.

Simms played on artificial turf at the Meadowlands during his 15-year career with the New York Giants and said, "It was awful for everybody."

The footing is firmer on artificial surfaces than on grass. However, players appear to be more prone to serious injuries on artificial turf, particularly ones involving the knees.

"I would never like to see artificial turf," Cowher said yesterday. "I'm very happy with what we have. It may be a little unsettling for some players, but for the health of the players, it's the right thing to do."

Jim Sacco, executive director of stadium management at Heinz Field, said the grass is maintained every day of the year through fertilization, cutting and other measures.

Players, he said, are going to fall from time to time on any surface and in any sport.

Sacco said Heinz Field is not getting used more this football season than in past years, adding that the surface was as good as he has ever seen it for the Chiefs-Steelers game.

The grass has gotten better because of sheer maturity, Sacco said, and the field hadn't been used by Pitt or the Steelers since Sept. 30.

"The field," Sacco said, "was in perfect shape."

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