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Steelers staying with grass at Heinz Field

PITTSBURGH -- The Heinz Field maintenance crew won't be throwing away those "Keep Off The Grass" signs after all.

The Pittsburgh Steelers gave into their players' wishes and will keep their grass field, though it may not necessarily be the field that is currently in place.

While the Heinz Field surface is regularly rated by NFL players as one of the league's worst, a large number of Steelers players lobbied the team to keep the grass because they are convinced it reduces injuries.

"The majority of our players have told us that they prefer natural grass to any artificial surface," Steelers president Art Rooney II said in a statement issued Monday. "Grass is also the preference of our coaches and athletic staff. We discussed this with the University of Pittsburgh to make sure everyone is comfortable moving forward."

Pitt athletic director Steve Pederson also said the school favored grass. Pitt also plays its home games at Heinz Field, which opened in 2001.

"We have had in-depth conversations about the playing surface at Heinz Field since the completion of the season," Pederson said. "After the review, we all agreed that we are committed to a natural grass surface. We appreciate the great job the staff at Heinz Field has done to have the field ready for our games."

The Steelers currently use a grass surface called DD GrassMaster that has reinforcing strands of artificial fibers interwoven with natural grass. The team has not said if it will keep that surface or put down a different type of grass.

The Steelers received considerable criticism after a newly installed layer of sod became swamped by unseasonably heavy rain during their Nov. 26 game against Miami. There was standing water several inches deep, resulting in a nearly unplayable surface.

Both offenses stalled nearly the entire game, and the Steelers scored the only points on Jeff Reed's 24-yard field goal with 17 seconds remaining -- the first time in 64 years an NFL game went that long without any points.

After that game, the Steelers said they would study installing an artificial surface for the 2008 season. The stadium is used for an average of 22 games per game, including all home games by the Steelers and the University of Pittsburgh and at least five high school games.

However, Steelers running back Willie Parker -- the NFL's leading rusher at the time -- broke his right leg while cutting on artificial turf Dec. 20 in St. Louis.

Without Parker, the Steelers had almost no running game while losing their final regular-season game to Baltimore and their only playoff game, a last-minute 31-29 home-field loss to Jacksonville.

That injury may have swayed some in the Steelers' front office who were beginning to become convinced that, because of the heavy pounding the field takes each season, that switching to artificial turf would create a more uniform surface. It also would allow more non-football events to be held there each season.

But in a postseason interview with The Associated Press on Jan. 7, Steelers chairman Dan Rooney said the NFL was pleased with the grass surface for the playoff game.

"I think the grass held up really good," Rooney said.

Part of the Steelers' turf problems this past season resulted from rain or snow falling before or during each of their final four games.

After five high school and college games were played at Heinz Field in a 30-hour period Nov. 23-24, $150,000 worth of new sod was laid atop the permanent grass field within hours before the Dolphins-Steelers game.

But the new grass became inundated when 1 1/2 inches of rain fell before and during the Dolphins game, and the field didn't drain as usual because there were two layers of sod -- rather than the usual single layer -- above the drainage system.

There was heavy rain again the following week for the Bengals-Steelers game, but the new sod held up much better. The field was criticized again by some Jacksonville players after about a half-inch of snow fell during the Jaguars' 29-22 regular-season win at Heinz Field on Dec. 16.

"That's a lawsuit waiting to happen," Jaguars running back Fred Taylor said.

However, once the field finally dried out during a two-week gap without games, conditions were much better for Jacksonville's return visit on Jan. 5, although light rain fell during that playoff game.

Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press

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