It was a beautiful opening weekend, a day after the 9th anniversary of 9/11 and a palpable, patriotic flavor dominated the pre-game festivities. The U.S Army Silent Drill Team ran a "silent count" better than any offense I've ever seen. This was followed by Staff Sargent Jesse Neece, an active duty soldier, who sang a stirring rendition of the National Anthem. A flyover followed, and then the action.
* On the first play from scrimmage, Chris Kemoeatu pulled to his right to lead Rashard Mendenhall, pushing a pile of human mass backwards which gave Mendenhall a solid 4-yard gain. Right from the git-go, you could see this was a made-for-maulers trench battle day, a two chin-strap fistfight of a game.
* The Steelers' first series, in fact, set a tone for the rest of the game. Four short passes to get the Dennis Dixon settled in. They were all high-percentage passes that gave Dennis little to read, but got rid of the willies. But more significantly, the Steelers ran some two tight end with motion plays for a reason. One, to make the Falcons declare whether they were in man or zone coverage, and two, the Falcons were trying to put their top pass rusher, John Abraham, to the open side of the field. So after Abraham lined up on the weak side, the tight end motioned and lined up on Abrahams side. Bruce Arians was playing chess in three dimensions early.
* I talked to Steelers assistant special teams coach Amos Jones before the game and the name Jason Worilds popped up as a Special Forces dude that needed to play big. On the first kickoff after scoring a three by the Steelers, it was indeed Jason Worilds crashing and bashing his way down the field and making the tackle. As a matter of fact, Jason either made or was part of the first three cover teams tackles.
* On the Steelers' first defensive series, I watched James Farrior fill on a Michael Turner run and I'm convinced that while James is older, and I believe that Larry Foote is going to be key to keeping James playing at a high level, it will get done. Farrior lit up Harvey Dahl, a mountain of a man, with speed, positioning and quickness while bringing Turner down for little gain. It was simply an outstanding play but especially so when you look at the size differential.
* Speaking of the vets, Aaron Smith is so good because he does the fundamental basics of hand to hand trench fighting better than anybody I've seen on either side of the ball since Tunch Ilkin. From that balanced three-point stance he stuffed the tackle with his hands inside like he was keeping a car from rolling downhill. Smith did a great little two-step to the inside to cover his gap (this is what I mean by gap-sound) all the while holding Tyson Clabo at bay. Then when the back moved one-gap out, Aaron threw an uppercut that spun the mammoth Clabo like a turnstile and moved in on the tackle. Punch-to -lockout stacking the point, cover the gap with your feet, uppercut to disengage, release to tackle. Textbook.
* Ike Taylor showed how to play "Butt ball" in man coverage against Roddy White. Butt to Roddy, with inside positioning, low hand checks, turn the head when Roddy turns, fight for the ball when it arrives, incomplete pass.
* There's a difference when a quarterback sees it, knows it's man coverage and by his execution you can tell Dixon has a comfort level playing "I spy" cover 1 (man). First and 10 in the second quarter, Dennis knows by the shift that it's man. So he steppped up in the pocket and delivered a strike to Heath Miller for a 17-yard gain. Dixon looks poised and confident when he knows where he's going with the ball. Finding the windows in zone coverage is tough on a young QB. It was tough early on for Ben Roethlisberger, and it's tough for Dennis. Game reps are the cure.
* The defense, outstanding on this day, played the stack, whack and wrap to perfection holding Turner to a zilch gain in the first half. On a short-yardage situation, Aaron stacked the point, Casey Hampton slid down the line of scrimmage to whack Turner, and Lamar Woodley wrapped the package up by pounding Turner into the turf.
* I'm only guessing here, but when Dixon threw the INT right to Mike Peterson, he had to believe it was man coverage. Miller was 10 yards deeper and wide open running an out pattern behind Peterson. Dennis came back to the sidelines and gave it the "My bad" look and hand gestures to Arians.
* Back-up TE David Johnson is getting better at leading up into the holes from the fullback position. Previously David would charge the line, and then squat in the hole. It's a learned technique to block with power from a single foot takeoff with a 5-yard run versus the flat back, rollover the front foot from a three-point stance on the line of scrimmage that Johnson excels at.
* Bummer moment when Max Starks sat down on the first 18-wheel-flatbed-diesel-powered-golf cart I've seen on the sidelines. Losing Max, who had played great except for turning Abraham loose on a rush, is a big loss, pun intended. Max has a low ankle sprain, which of course would be a high ankle sprain on anybody under 6'8".
* Ditto for Hampton. The look on Hamp's face said it all when he talked to trainer John Norwig on the bench when he pulled a hamhock. Hamp did the heel drag on the ground (one of the tests trainers have you do) and I could see by his facial expressions that he was done. I can't tell you with words how painful it is to have to pull yourself out of a hotly contested game when you know your guys need you.
* Dixon didn't run much, but just the threat of Dennis taking off alters the rush of the defense. On more than one occasion, the non-stop Kroy Biermann had the up-the-field edge on Flozell Adams, but rather than continuing up the field, Biermann downshifted and actually moved back into a bull rush on Flo because Bierman could sense the widening gap he was leaving by trying to get the edge. The need to keep the pocket collapsing uniformly and not let gaps widen help slow a pass rush.
* Through most of the game, Rashard Mendenhall didn't appear to press the edge on the front-side runs, but cut back. After the game I talked to Arians, because, knucklehead that I am, I was wondering whether Rashard is too quick to take the cutback. BA confirmed that I am a knuckle head, but said the cutback was always there, and Rashard had no choice but to take it because of the charge of the Falcons' D Line.
* Lawrence Timmons said after the game that Matt Ryan stared down his receivers. Late in the fourth quarter, the Steelers showed cover-2 with both safeties high and dry. Just prior to the snap, the Steelers' went cover-3, which put Ryan Clark as the single high safety playing the middle, and Troy Polamalu rolled underneath on White's out cut. A great call and a great athletic INT for the flying-Samoan human crash test dummy that might want to get a little Grecian Formula sponsor for a few grays in that million dollar wig-buster of a hair-do. I interviewed Troy on the field after the game, and it's startling to contrast the affable, humble and gentlemanly man that transforms into some sort of a super-hero once a week. Troy is simply amazing.
* I need to correct a thought I made over the broadcast after Jeff Reed missed the game winner. I thought the defense initially looked bummed out and discouraged. Now I believe what I was seeing was disbelief. J-Reed missing a 40-yard game-winner is like one of those Circus knife throwers throwing blind folded at a blonde assistant and never missing. Until the one that draws blood. It just doesn't happen.
* A boat load of thirtysomethings on defense means there is the potential to run out of gas in overtime. It also means that you have a boatload of battle-hardened dudes who have been there, done that and can reload with the best of them. That's what I saw from the Steelers' defense after they took the field in OT. No panic, no frantic gesturing. They just came out with a get-it-done attitude that included the customary just rip/no dip uppercut from the Silverback that drew the second holding call on Falcons left tackle Sam Baker. I'm thinking James Harrison likes the umpire sitting in the back of the line.
* Twenty two Double was the call, and with a great power surge on the front side double-team block of Trai Essex and Adams, it was "Green Grass and High Tides Forever" on a 50-yard romp by Mendenhall that ended the game and sent the "Dirty Birds" back to Falconland.
* A very drained Mike Tomlin greeted every player coming up the tunnel after the game. Mike looked like he coached as hard as the players played. As it should be.