There's nothing like the anticipation of high velocity hits on a beautiful fall Sunday to get the ol' ticker pumping. Though the Cleve Brownies aren't quite the same dog with the same bite, just the name alone takes me back to hard hitting days gone by. And with the return of Ben Roethlisberger, the multitude of media outlets made for some crammed sideline viewing. As always, here's what I saw:
* I watched Browns rookie quarterback Colt McCoy warm up, and dare I say he looked a little skittish? Maybe spooked? I watched as Colt threw a few erratic passes, one in the back of the knees of his wide receivers. Unfortunately for the Steelers, this young man was anything but scared.
* Big Ben entered the stadium to an ovation worthy of a Jack Lambert or Joe Greene. It was a tremendous acknowledgement of number seven getting back on the horse, and certainly Ben realized the outpouring and took it all in. As he later acknowledged, he had tears in his eyes. I'm sure that mom and dad Roethlisberger (who were in attendance) enjoyed it as much or more than their famous son.
* The Steelers played a lot of "Double Eagle" where the two DEs, Aaron Smith and Brett Keisel, lined up over the outside shoulder of the guards for the Browns, rather than nose up on the tackles. Using this defense, the three interior positions of the Browns line were covered. Dick LeBeau was going for a front that would jam-up the much anticipated wildcat "Boss" play that has a guard pulling around the center and a lead blocker hitting up in the hole. Much of the short-lived wildcat formation ran into some strong resistance because of the penetration of Casey Hampton and Smith. Keisel, hampered by a pulled hammie, struggled in taking on some double-teams and eventually had to hit the showers.
* Also early on, it became apparent that McCoy was going on the one count a lot. Several times throughout the course of the game the Steelers had a great jump because they were able to anticipate the snap count. When you have a rookie QB, especially facing a hostile, ever-changing defense and a lot of crowd noise, the snap count is the last thing on a QB's mind.
* That anticipation of the snap showed up early in the first quarter when James Harrison drifted back from the line of scrimmage on a first-down blitz and timed the snap to blow by Tony Pashos at RT. Colt got the ball off but the Silverback popped Colt pretty good. All I could think was "Welcome to the NFL young man."
* Two plays later, LaMarr Woodley got the edge on a pass rush and sacked McCoy. Ok, the pressure's building, I'm thinking. Ryan Clark made a nice INT and clearly the pressure was getting to the young man, I thought. But somehow the kid held it together and we may be seeing a nice QB battle shaping between Ben and Colt in the not-too-distant future.
* Meanwhile, Ben showed a little rust too when he tried to jam a throw into Mewelde Moore, who had attracted a trio of coverage dudes. The INT return by Cleveland's Joe Haden was highlighted by Flozell Adams' great hustle and clothes-line tackle. Haden juked and went by Flo, who just put up one massive arm and Haden's upper body stopped while his lower body kept on trucking, a ballistic one-man limbo contest. Flo saved 4 points by hustling.
* Mike Wallace showed again that he's learning all the tricks of the trade when he gathered in a 29-yard TD pass from Roethlisberger with a subtle "disengagement" from the coverage. Not a push as much as a smooth release.
* The first of two thunderous Harrison hits happened in the second quarter when Josh Cribbs took the snap, powered over the right tackle, and a "Wolverine with its hair on fire" also known as Silverback crunched Cribbs and Josh checked into Monday for a short time. As Myron Cope used to say, "He zigged when he shoulda zagged!" This was nothing more than a great player hustling from the backside and finishing the play. I'm glad to see that Cribbs is fine. Nobody wants to see anybody hurt, but you gotta love the ferocity that James brings. I can already feel the PC police getting up on their soap boxes to caterwaul about the hit.
* Again and again I'm watching as the Steelers linebackers get a great jump on the snap count. Near the 8-minute mark of the second quarter, Lawrence Timmons timed it up again to hit into the line and wreak havoc. It didn't happen on this play, but the Steelers were running a lot of blitz with a "Fire-X" stunt that had James Farrior hitting into the A-gap and Timmons crossing behind him into the B-gap. These two seem to have mucho fun tearing it up on this blitz when they get the go sign from "Coach Dad."
* Harrison's second cruncher had Mohammad Massaquoi running a crossing route right in front of a trio of linebackers. When you see this from the end zone, Farrior, Timmons and Harrison are all across the board like predators waiting for lunch to stroll by. James handed out a severe case of de-celeration trauma which caused Massaquoi to relinquish the ball and take a seat by Cribbs. Massaquoi and Cribbs musta had a lu-lu of a conversation over on that bench. Again, it's good to know that the young man is OK. Life in the NFL is no day at the beach.
* I agree with the rules against thumping unprotected wideouts. I agree that leading with the head and launching should be banned. I don't believe that James did either of those. If you don't want your WR to get mulched, don't have him run a crossing route by the linebackers. Asking Harrison to slow down, allow the WR to catch the ball, and give him a couple steps to cover up, while making sure to hit properly and less forcefully, is like asking McCoy to locate the defenders in relation to his receiver and wait to throw the ball till the WR has cleared dangerous hitting angles instead of just looking for an open man. The game is simply too fast. There are inherent dangers that can't be legislated out of the game.
* Big Ben took a serious grill shot when he hooked up with Wallace for 50 yards in the third quarter. Ben was still hurting a little when he came right back to Heath Miller for 36 more yards on a play that had Heath running a post pattern, while Ben let him clear to the far side. One or more WRs (I can't remember as I was struggling with a Jolly Rancher wrapper that didn't want to come off) ran clearing routes to get the attention of the safeties. This requires two things, the offensive line giving the QB time, and a QB who's willing to take a shot to hold onto the ball that long.
* Timmons got his second sack when he was playing about 10 yards deep in pass coverage and looked like a Rottweiler who got bored, started sniffing around, saw a gap in the Browns' offensive line and then exploded in a fury to cover the 15-yards in a heartbeat to sack McCoy.
* Hines Ward, five yards and two or three Browns between him and the goal line: no contest.
* Bryant McFadden is a stud. He tackled Peyton Hillis on an off-tackle and lifted Hillis right off his feet. McFadden demonstrated textbook tackling form, complete with wrap-up and slam. Keep the head up, though, B-Mac. Eyes on your work.
* In the fourth quarter, Bruce Arians watched as the run game slowed down. BA went over to the "Hog pen" and let them know that they've been talking about running the ball, now it's time to show that they can run the ball. He did it loudly, and forcefully. Two 13-yard runs later the run game looked to be in high gear.
* The three-punt fiasco for Cleveland looked funny from where I was standing. After each kick (if I was looking at the right guy) the Cleveland special teams coach appeared to be waving to kick it over without hesitation after each Steelers infraction. In retrospect, I believe he waved one time too many.
* Max Starks came off the ball and had a free inside release at a Browns linebacker on Rashard Mendenhall's 2-yard touchdown run. Splat! Complete with a jelly roll on top to finish off the unknown, but still-conscious Brownie. And on a day like today, staying conscious was no minor accomplishment.