The quote of the game has to go to a friend of mine who wryly observed, "The key to this game may be that the key is already in the ignition."
What my friend was so astutely alluding to was a lack of real fire and commitment by the Cleveland Browns for this game, that maybe the players already had their bags packed and engines metaphorically started for homeward destinations and the off-season.
* Jarvis Jones has had his ups and down throughout the season. There's no question this young man is going to be a player, but he's still in the read, react and hope-he-read-it-correctly stage of his career. To quote a former Steelers nose tackle, Chris Hoke, "Hope is not a strategy." Meaning that he plays at times without conviction or certainty because he doesn't have his game brains, that wonderful mingling of talent, technique and football knowledge that jumps off the playbook page and unfolds in real time on the field, rather than as mere x's and o's along with the commensurate slow reactions. In football terms, you would say that he suffers from "Paralysis by analysis."
* On a third-and-7 on the first Browns drive, QB Jason Campbell threw a "Now" route, or quick screen pass, to Josh Cooper in the flat. Ike Taylor was off over another Browns WR to the same side. Browns LT Joe Thomas sprinted to the outside intercept point to take the first man that shows. Jarvis Jones read the whole thing in less than two heartbeats. Jarvis streaked to the outside, took the proper angle, broke down just enough to slow his glide path before contact by getting his vigor under control, and beat Thomas' attempt to cut him off at the point of attack to drop Cooper like a bad habit. Outstanding play by Jarvis, one that says his game brains are growing and he's taking a step forward.
* Jonathan Dwyer has been making the most of his short-yardage opportunities. Johnathan has really stepped forward in maturity and dependability ever since being released by the Steelers. Dwyer is one of those guys who has a God-given, woke-up-with-feel for the game when he carries the ball. He is an instinctive dude to be sure. J-Dwyer carried the mail on a short-yardage opportunity in the first quarter with Will Johnson plowing the gap ahead of him. Dwyer busted out a 6-yard run when he only needed one. Unfortunately for Johnson, he didn't get his keister out of the hole he had led Jonathan into. Jonathan hit him like a fender bender on the Parkway East. Will got up slowly like he'd just been Maytagged in the spin cycle of a washing machine. Hard charging, running-with-the-bulls type backs like Dwyer are hard on the backsides of lead blockers. If I heard it once from Chuck Noll and Tom Moore, I heard it a thousand times after a running play, "Get your feet out of the hole!" That goes for butts too.
* The bearded one, Brett Keisel still has it. First he sacked Jason Campbell and coerced the ball from Campbell by crashing down on the Browns QB like a one-man Tsunami. Chris Carter jumped on the pigskin.
On the next series, Troy Polamalu played peek-a-boo with Campbell, going from a linebacker depth in the box to zooming out to play deep middle before the snap. Campbell audibled to a run play that Joe Thomas missed, and Keisel took advantage of a free run to track Edwin Baker down from behind. If there is any way that the Steelers can bring Keisel back, I'm all for it.
* In the second quarter, Heath Miller was called for holding, and I loved his reaction. When the flag hit the turf, all the hogs were up and looking about for the preliminary call from the ref. Heath's hands started to come up, palms up in a whadya-mean-I-was-holding posture and you knew who the perpetrator was even if you can't read lips. All the other hogs showed immediate relief as they scampered back to the huddle, moving on to the next business matter now that their name was in the clear. Meanwhile, Heath was seeking verification that they were calling his number, that they indeed got the right man, and immediately started to plead his case. Then he asked for full disclosure. I've done it many times myself.
* Whenever I've been accused of holding or ___ (fill in the blank), it always followed a 5-step plan of denial. Act surprised, show concern, admit to nothing, deny everything, and finally ask for proof.
* In the second quarter Le'Veon Bell showed why his star is on the rise. On a simple 14-straight, somebody busted up front and left Browns DE Billy Wynn to walk straight in on Bell. Le'Veon ghosted him. I mean, Wynn had a straight, not overly out-of-control ram technique on that brought him straight to a wide-eyed Bell, who took the handoff and then simply disappeared like some David Blaine street magic in front of Wynn and a whole stadium full of folks to finish off the score. The only thing Bell didn't do was utter the magic word "Abracadabra" before he poofed on the befuddled Wynn.
* Browns kickoff return man Fozzy Whitaker almost pulled off a Bozo-no-no when he caught a Shaun Suisham kickoff and stepped out of bounds at the Browns' 11-yard line. Back and forth the officiating crew went to make sure they got the call right. Referee Mike Carey and Steelers coach Mike Tomlin had a several-minute discussion which – while I wasn't privy to the conversation as it went back and forth – had Tomlin at one point reaching into his back pocket for the red flag before deciding not to.
* In the second half, Antonio Brown continued his meteoric rise in the record books of not just the Pittsburgh Steelers but of the NFL itself. Brown recorded his 16th game in a row of catching at least 5 passes for 50 yards in each game. Antonio has a million-watt smile and when the camera finds him (as it inevitably does), Antonio finds the camera. So Antonio sat on the bench as the announcement was made about his latest record. The Jumbotron zoomed in on Antonio, who immediately noticed and started playing to the crowd with a big smile and wave -- until WR coach Richard Mann came along and shoved some pictures in Antonio's face, seemingly unaware of his player's latest record-breaking accomplishment. Antonio looked like the kid who just got busted at school for clowning around by the teacher and he immediately became the serious-minded student for a few moments until Mann, satisfied that he had made his point, left to go elsewhere. Antonio promptly resumed his smiling antics for the crowd, which responded in kind. All caught on the Jumbotron. Good for this young man. He's been through a lot to get where he is, and I hope there's much more in store for him.
* Cortez Allen flashed a look of disbelief after he undercut a route that had a Campbell smoker zing through his hands. Cortez read the in-cut all the way and almost had to slow down to intercept the ball. Still, these are the plays (along with a catch instead of a PD) that everybody, including Cortez, expected of himself all season long.
* Watching Cortez drop the ball reminded me of training camp two years ago. Cortez was battling for the CB job with Keenan Lewis and Curtis Brown. Cortez let a couple INT opportunities slip through his fingers one day in practice. Tunch Ilkin and I had just finished having Cortez on the air for our radio show and GM Kevin Colbert was the next man up. As Cortez left, Kevin smiled, winked and asked Cortez if he was an ÏNT man or just a PD man (interception or pass-defensed). Cortez returned the most sheepish, broad grin and said, "I'm an INT man." Here's hoping that Cortez stays healthy and continues to track upward in his development. Not only is he a first-class young man, but a real student of the game and a guy that has great potential.
* I couldn't help but move closer to the sideline and study the face of Shamarko Thomas as he prepared to double-team the Cleveland Browns' gunner along with Markus Wheaton. Shamarko studied the man over him as if he were dead meat. The laser focus that emanates from his eyes reminded me of the eyes of a shark that I swam with at the Tampa Bay Aquarium before Super Bowl 43. How that all transpired is another story all together. Suffice it to say that radio reporter Tim Benz had it right when he started to call Shamarko, "Shamarknado" after the Sharknado movie on TV. It fits.
* When I interviewed Keisel after the game for the Steelers Radio Network, I truly wanted to give him every opportunity to say what he wanted without saying adios. Brett knew going into the game that this could be his final hurrah, and the way his eyes searched the stands as we talked I knew he was looking for his wife and family, because the one thing every player wants before he walks off the field for the last time is eye contact with his bride, as if you could revel in these last minutes as a player and do it together. I did, Tunch did, all married guys or players who had significant others in their lives will spend those last moments trying to remember "the moment" forever together through each other's eyes.
* I would like to say thank you to Jim Wexell for allowing me to write on his wonderful site and also write a thank you to all the good folks who have stayed the course, who took some time out of their busy days to read this most humble column this past year. I pray that God blesses all of you and that 2014 will be a prosperous and wonderful year for you! ?