With "Welcome back Max!" signs up all over Heinz Field, on a gorgeous sunny afternoon, I took the sidelines with a lot of hope for a breakout from the funk that had beset the Steelers in the first quarter of the 2011 season.
* The team captains came together and shook hands on the field for the coin toss, and the Turk up in the booth noted, "Hines and Cortland Finnegan had contact and no fight as of yet."
* I thought Mike Tomlin was making a statement by deferring the coin toss and putting his defense on the field. As I stood on the sideline by the defense as they prepped to go out, Tomlin walked over and started pumping up the defense and slapping some heads. There was no doubt about it. It was up to the defense to set the tone, and after the first play from scrimmage, and 21 yards by Chris Johnson, I started to get a knot in my gullet.
* It was obvious early on they were going to attack Lawrence Timmons, because of his move to the outside from his Mack-backer position. I talked to Lawrence after the game and he said he knew they were coming after him and he got himself in no-man's land on the first Johnson carry (meaning he did not set the edge), but after that he got into the flow and felt good.
* After the Titans' TE Jared Cook caught a pass inside the 5-yard line, Steelers LBer coach Keith Butler practically ran onto the field after LaMarr Woodley. "Butts" was honked off at LaMarr for giving a free release to the TE and he was letting Woodley know about it. Two plays later, LaMarr blew off the line of scrimmage beating Titans OT Dave Stewart to the edge and got a lean with a mighty uppercut that would have put a smile on the face of George Foreman, and Woodley sacked Matt Hasselbeck. From groundhog level, it was an awesome display of power and speed that finally put a smile on the face of Butler.
* During the first drive of the game by the Titans, I noticed that the Steelers were intent on delivering some pain to Johnson. Ryan Clark whacked him out of bounds, drew a penalty, then did it again later in the drive, this time within the rules. After another run by Johnson, as Johnson got up, Brett Keisel got his beard on and dander up as he gave a little shoulder bump to Johnson as they crossed paths. The Steelers felt that they had given him a beatdown last year, made him quit, and wanted to do the same on this day.
* To go from the couch to the starting left tackle position, and play the whole first quarter on only three days practice is a good start. As Jonathan Scott took over and gave Max a breather in the second quarter, I was feeling pretty good about Max's play. Play a while, rest a while. Ooops. Marcus Gilbert just went down and this rotation thing is going out the window.
* Speaking of facial hair, that and hair care products were well-represented on the same play when Troy Polamalu undercut a route over the middle to knock away a ball. At the other end of the pass play thrown by Hasselbeck, Keisel and his beard whacked the Hasselbeck. Dare I say it, Troy's play was "Head and Shoulders" above the rest of the guys on this play.
* No, Troy, I am not making fun of you … really!
* I don't know where in the game Troy pulled off this astonishing play, but on a screen pass out to the flats, he came up and ducked inside Titans tackle Stewart and made a play when he was the only Steelers defender in the same zip code. That screen had six points written all over it. In a classic "David vs. Goliath" confrontation, the 5' 10" 207lb Polamalu O-layed the 6' 8" 315lb Stewart like a matador encountering a charging bull. I threw Jolly Ranchers instead of flowers.
* What a running game can do for the passing game! It's 1st-and-goal from the Tennessee 7-yard line. Ben Roethlisberger goes play-action to the RB, Isaac Redman, and the Titans' linebackers bite like the German forces did at Pas De Calais as the Allies storm-trooped Omaha Beach on D-Day. Because the Steelers had showed the ability to run the ball, MLB Barrett Ruud and company had to honor the play fake and charged forward at the snap only to realize they had been "okie-doked," which left Hines Ward catching the ball and trotting into the end zone in the vacated area for a quick six. Hines' post-TD dances are starting to suspiciously look more and more like his pre "DWTS" form than the swashbuckling dancer that brought home the Mirror Ball trophy. Somebody get Kym Johnson on the speed dial.
* Steelers offensive line coach Sean Kugler is standing in front of the "Hog-pen" or the bench area where the offensive line sits while the defense does its thing. Sean mulled over a snapshot taken from the press box showing the Titans' defensive alignment at the snap of the ball on a play in the previous series. Koogs sees something, calls over Bruce Arians, and they are in deep discussion. The very next series, Jonathan Dwyer blew through a gaping hole in the Titans' defense for 76 yards. That's coaching at its very best.
* Keenan Lewis closed on a Titans receiver in the fourth quarter with a reactive burst of speed that blew me away, and I had to blink a couple of times to make sure I saw what I thought I just saw. The WR ran a short hook route and Keenan, playing off, reacted so fast and hit through the man rather than at the man driving him into the ground with authority. I'm thinking a few days later that somebody back in Tennessee is sitting in a hot tub wishing he had run a go-route rather than hooking it up.
* At the end of the day, my unofficial score card had Starks with 54-plus plays, and only 8-minus plays, a fabulous effort that is even more impressive when one considers that Max had to play nearly the entire game, save for a brief respite when Gilbert and J-Scott were manning the tackles. To do this, thinking that you're gonna get a rest in a rotation, is one thing. When Gilbert went down, Max knew there was no safety net. Big boy came through like a champ. Player of the day in my book, hands down.
* As Big ol' Max lumbered up the tunnel to an impatient coach Tomlin waiting outside the locker room door, Coach Mike made Max feel at home with a little verbal jab intermixed with a smile. Then in absolute candor and with sincerity etched deeply on his face, Mike shook Max's hand and said, "Welcome back."