The sunshine buoyed my spirits as I got to the field and took up a sideline post. Nothing spectacular occurred during warm-ups, but this I did notice as I watched Raiders linebacker Quentin Groves gyrate and sing with the song blaring over the PA system: The 3-game winning streak has given some swagger back to the Raiders and I had the distinct impression that the menace was back in their stride. They are, after all, the AFC West division leader, as someone pointed out. Of course, my reply to that is, the AFC West? That's like being the tallest midget. What's the point?
* There are always turbulent times in the journey towards Lombardi Land. How you handle the adversity, and respond to said adversity, is indicative of whether you are a contender or a pretender. The response to last year's 18-12 loss to Cincinnati in the ninth game was another loss that turned into a 5-game swoon that killed the season.
* The groundwork to avoid the 5-game abyss began early in the week. Cutting Jeff Reed said that no one is safe. The leaders on the team kibitz and say we gotta step up and show 'em how it's done. Benching Trai Essex said there is a line, and your play better be above that line. Pads on Wednesday told the players that the whip is out, the "Department of Corrections" would not be handled with kid gloves. And the message underlying it all was that the Steelers need to be more physical. The only question left to be answered would be: How will the players respond?
* Early on, the chippiness was as prevalent as gun play at a Hatfield and McCoy reunion. There was more post-whistle pushing and shoving than at a Times Square taxi stand. If there were any more staredowns and running mouths between combatants, I would have thought I was at a UFC pre-fight weigh-in.
* On the second play of the game Ramon Foster locked up with Tommy Kelly on a Rashard Mendenhall run and drove him off the ball. What I like about Ramon is that he is a finisher. He doesn't pull off until the echo of the whistle. Foster drove Kelly over a pile and slammed him on his back. This is the way to start a game. Forget the 1-yard gain. You are making a statement. You have set a tempo and told your opponent what he can expect over the next three hours.
* Ben Roethlisberger became that vocal leader early when he let the hogs sitting on the benches know that the first series wasn't good enough. Ben has always been an encourager, not a whip guy. There was more whip to his voice than patting on the back after the first three and out. That's good stuff. Sometimes you gotta go schizo and do the good cop/bad cop routine all by yourself.
* I will say this was the worst officiated game I've ever seen. This is from one who participated in the record-breaking performance at Cincinnati in 1989 when we set a club record for most penalties in a single game. It looks like this will wipe my contributions outta the book.
* Anthony Madison doesn't get the props he deserves for his outstanding work on special teams. This guy is the next best gunner in the tradition of Sean Morey and Chidi Iwuoma. While covering a Sean Suisham (who has been dubbed "Sushi" by the attending Steelers Nation crowd) kickoff showed why he's so good.
* Max speed while gathering intel as Anthony races down between the 40's, and as Raiders speedster Jacoby Ford comes towards Madison, who is L-5 (5th to left of kicker), Madison moves toward the sideline while maintaining outside leverage and gap discipline. Madison keeps outside leverage, plays off the attempted block, then at the appropriate moment when Ford breaks up field, Anthony whirls to the inside to close the gap and creams him. Outstanding work by a man who specializes in a discipline that is as unappreciated as it is hard. Very few can do what Madison can do at the level he does.
* Roethlisberger's TD run was a determined run. Not pre-determined mind you, but a run in which I think maybe a week ago Ben might've hooked up at the 5-yard line. Not so today. From 20 yards deep, off on the hoof goes Ben. The Raiders were all running with their backs to him in man coverage. The defensive line of the Raiders ran a three-man twist stunt that the hogs crushed and compacted.
* The only guy with an eyeball on Ben is safety Steve Brown, who, when Ben took off, was five yards deep in the end zone. Ben motored to the 8-yard line and just when it appeared he was going to slide, he planted the foot and scored diving. Ben wasn't kidding about taking the bull by the horns and leading. He showed it with a gutsy run right there.
* Richard Seymour was spoiling for a fight the entire first half, I am told, by someone who was there, and that he was surprised by how dirty a player Seymour was. Seymour got the fight he was looking for when he el-kabonged Ben after the diving Emmanuel Sanders TD catch. At that point, tempers were boiling over to the max and it was a serious issue out there on the field.
* Seymour getting tossed may have been the best thing for him. There's an old code in the NFL that if you go after somebody's QB outside the boundaries, there will be retribution. Back in the day, when somebody pulled a move like that and didn't get thrown out and the TV networks didn't cover the game with 147 camera angles, the O-line would be after that guy like Sherlock Holmes's "Hound of the Baskerville" to make sure that guy didn't finish the game. Seymour getting thrown out was more of a humanitarian move than anything else.
* The frustration over the officiating was, in my opinion, boiling over. I think the officials let the game get away, but the way to calm everybody down is to take the offending player, warn him once in front of his coach, and let him know that the next infraction will result in a change of clothing. Yellow linen all over the field only seemed to fuel the bad intentions.
* Steelers offensive line coach Sean Kugler was amped at the half. When he came out for the third quarter, he told me emphatically "We are gonna play Steelers football!" Steelers football at its core has always been about the rough and tumble. Coach Sean was honked off at the stuff occurring out on the field and I'd put my money on him if he buckled up a chin strap.
* James Harrison's hit on Jason Campbell that negated an Ike Taylor pick-six was another lousy call on a day of lousy calls. Harrison has to feel like he's under a macro microscope. How can a guy "land with his full weight" on a guy that lands on his side. And James and Jason were lying side by side on the ground, chest-to-chest.
* Anatomically incorrect too was the Ryan Clark helmet-to-helmet hit. Unless Jacoby Ford wore a facemask on his back, I can't see how Ryan's hit was anything more than self-flagellation after Ryan got a stinger, or pinched nerve.
* Somebody please explain how Lou Murphy running out of bounds while Ike Taylor established inside position is a penalty? You couldn't convince the sideline, that's for sure.
* Emmanuel Sanders is really starting to look like a slick receiver. His TD catch was a thing of beauty. But on another attempt, Sanders was clearly held by Raiders CB Chris Johnson. What amazed me was that in a game so tightly regulated (maybe the NFL got confused and sent airport TSA agents), Johnson grabbed the jersey right at the shoulder level of Sanders and pulled enough to stretch the jersey. No call, right smack dab in the middle of the field.
* Darren McFadden came into this game with some gaudy stats. He left with less-than-gaudy stats. A second-half inside power lead run was played by James Farrior like a fiddle in the hands of Charlie Daniels. Farrior had another great game, and for the most part he displayed the "Follow the Fullback and he'll lead you to the ball" mantra of FB-dominated offenses. Farrior shadowed Raiders FB Reece and stepped into the hole to drop McFadden like a bad habit.
* What made the play special was Potsie's timing. If he scrapes and jumps into the hole too early, McFadden bounces it outside. If he's late, McFadden busts one. All the while the D-line is keeping Potsie clean to run parallel to the line of scrimmage and track McFadden. It was like watching a "Mutual of Omaha Wild Kingdom" episode about lions on the hunt.
* As for the defensive line, Ziggy Hood took a jump forward: No sacks, but a lot of face time in the backfield. Ziggy came close three times but couldn't quite close the deal. His two-gapping, point-of-attack smack, stack, and wrap work was terrific.
* What settled in the gullet after the dust settled on the field is this: The Steelers are a hungry team that showed it was willing to fight to keep any memory of 5-game lapses from sucking them down a "Black Hole".