View From Sideline: Better Days Ahead

Craig Wolfley provides notes, insights, and an important reminder after spending Sunday night on the sidelines watching the Steelers lose to the Patriots.

The evening air was as crisp as the pre-game warmups. I had hopes that the warmups would equate to an outstanding game the way my pre-game bowl of New England clam chowder did to a hunk of Prime Rib that was so tasty my mouth waters as I write this.

The electricity in the air amped up and bubbled over to the crowd from the playing field as kickoff neared. It was as if all of Heinz Field was a giant Coke can and somebody was shaking it to build the explosive power to pour out on the Patriots. In reality, the Steelers had as much carbon-ization as a glass of milk.

* Tom Brady took the Patriots on an 8-play, 70-yard touchdown drive that ended with an extraordinary Brady-to-Gronkowski 19-yard touchdown throw. I say it was a great throw because from the end zone view Brady could barely see Gronkowski, who was bracketed by Will Gay underneath and Ryan Clark over the top. To drop that throw in there like he did was amazing. But that's just me. Good coverage from groundhog level, better throw and catch.

* What did surprise me was that after the defense came off the field, there wasn't one defender who looked honked off. Instead, they all had a quizzical look on their faces as if to say "What happened?" That would speak to the surgical precision and ease with which Brady moved the Pats all night long.

* I have a theory here. It probably doesn't hold any water and maybe my "ramnesia" is showing. But after watching Ben Roethlisberger in the first half, I had a feeling from my vantage point that he was being influenced by Brady over on the other sideline. How so? Well, years ago a great sprinter from Canada named Ben Johnson had a coach named Charlie Francis. Charlie said that he wouldn't let any of his other sprinters run against Ben in practice because they would want to do so well, so want to keep up with Johnson, that they would inevitably get hurt in the trying. Johnson's mere presence lining up against them would force them to try to do things in which they might alter their style of running. And an altered style of running can lead to injury, or a lesser performance.

So watching Ben scan the field for the big play with shorter targets seemingly at his disposal, I had the impression that he might be caught up in a personal battle of trying to outgun Brady, and that he was missing, or doing things he wouldn't normally do. Hey, Ben's a great quarterback and loves competition and what better competition than Brady? Ben looked so much better in the second half that it was like the first half was an aberration. Is it something conscious, something that he would set out to do? No. Ben's a great pro, and he's been through a lot of wars. He's a fabulous quarterback in his own right. I have found myself years ago attempting to keep up with the John Hannahs and the Anthony Munozes of my world and not doing the things I do best. So, can there be a subtle desire to lock horns with the best and have a go? Just me thinking out loud.

* I watched Hines Ward as he was helped from the field and saw him trip over some of the grass. When Hines hit the bench I saw him motion with his left hand to the left side of his head to the trainer as they were asking him questions, presumably about where he received the blow to his head. Basic cognitive stuff to check on what time of next week Hines checked into. When I heard the initial report that Hines had a neck injury, I knew immediately that Hines was trying to get himself back in the game. Obviously Hines was gaga, even if it was only short term. But if Hines, being the incredibly tough dude that he is, told the trainers it was his neck, then he could possibly get back into the fray. Fortunately for Hines, the Steelers have people like trainer John Norwig, who is terrific at his job and Hines couldn't fool him or eminent noggin-ologist Dr. Joseph Maroon. Watching the hit live, seeing Hines down on the ground trying to "get right," and then watching the replay, confirmed in my heart that which I knew already: Hines was done for the night.

* This is where I struggle. Having been in the exact same state of mind and position on the ground after a wicked hit, and coming out the other side of it ok (debate all you want on that one), I want to say let the guy go back and play. He's all right. But I'm from another era, another way of thinking. And the old-school culture from which I come is not the healthiest of institutions from which to graduate. The medical community has really moved forward in the treatment and diagnosis of traumatic brain injuries. I'm finding myself not so quick to say put him back in.

* Brady's 3-yard TD sneak found Troy Polamalu testing the flexibility of the QB's neck. Logan Mankins, a real western cowboy in the style of former Steelers great Jon Kolb, went after Troy and that of course brought James Harrison in to act as the equalizer. Brady escaped the melee to emphatically spike the ball with a full overhand delivery. Tommy boy was making a statement, and wanted everybody to know it.

* The Patriots started the second half like the first. Brady took them on a 10-play, 78-yard drive that was as surgically precise as Jack the Ripper in that there is mucho carnage still lying on the Heinz Field turf. What struck me is again the seeming ease of the Patriots' ability to slice and dice the defense. The lack of rush was apparent, and even though the Steelers made Brady dust the seat of his pants off once in a while, they were not able to get enough pressure on Brady to turn him into the erratic thrower he was in Cleveland.

* Mike Wallace showed me one thing that I wasn't sure he had, the Ward-like "tougher-than-woodpecker-lips" toughness of which the Turk up in the booth often speaks. Most of what we've seen from Wallace has been of the roadrunner variety while catching home-run balls. I saw a gritty side of him taking some nasty shots after the catch and jumping up unfazed afterward. This young man has Pro Bowl talent for years to come.

* Maurkice Pouncey put the "bouncey" into Pats LBer Gary Guyton on a screen pass. Sheez-louise, Pouncey whacked Guyton and dropped him like a bad habit. And yes, Guyton did bounce when he hit the Heinz Field turf.

* Personal line battles aside, the fact that the Pats got sacks off some three-man rushes made Sean Kugler's words to the Hogs on the bench of "Play smart" even more poignant. When the guards have nobody on them, they can give a little more help to the guys doing heavy lifting at the moment. Also, and this is difficult, but you have to keep your eyes alert for delayed LBer blitzes. The Pats ran through late several times on delayed dogs.

* Picking up delayed rushes is difficult; you almost have to have ninja skills to sniff them out sometimes. Usually when they get home it's because the line wasn't staying on the same level (staying side by side) and keeping square to the line of scrimmage. I'm not speaking as one being overly critical who has never missed a delayed rush. Been there, done that, almost got somebody killed and got chewed out but good for it, too.

* The bottom line to this game is this, and the Turk said it so eloquently during the broadcast: How the Steelers looked against the Patriots is how the Patriots looked two weeks ago against the Browns. Better performances are ahead.

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