You can’t make ‘em any better than this, I thought, as I hit the field with a smile on my face. Sunny, but not too hot, no humidity, and now with all the pre-game music pumping through the sound system at Heinz Field coming from my era, I was in Fat City as far as I was concerned.
Yep, there’s nothing like Opening Day in the NFL to set your spirits lifting like an eagle on mountaintop wind currents, and I was floating on the breeze. And with the latest version of the Cleveland Browns coming to town like the ill-fated opponent of the Harlem Globetrotters, the Washington Generals, I figured there wasn’t much to worry about.
I couldn’t have been more wrong.
* There was a pre-game ceremony honoring my former coach, Chuck Noll. Ringside on the field was like a warm hug from an old friend. Smiles and tears, memories and cheers, all were woven through the stories exchanged from Merril Hoge to Mel Blount to Tunch Ilkin. Jerome Bettis was there and of course Marianne Noll, coach’s wife and one of the sweetest people on earth. Mrs. Noll was accompanied by her son Chris and his wife and children. Art Rooney II and the Ambassador, Mr. Dan Rooney, presented Mrs. Noll and family with commemorative Steelers helmets.
* While I prowled the sidelines during the warmups, I couldn’t help but notice massive Cleveland DT Phil Taylor, all 6’3” and 335 pounds (listed) of him. As far as I can remember, Joey Porter started the fashion of tucking the jersey up under the front of the shoulder pads to display his abs during pregame. No 335-pound man should be showing his abs. If Joey had a “Six-pack,” then Taylor was sporting a “keg.”
* Three straight screen passes featuring two to Le’Veon Bell and one to Antonio Brown got the git-go pumping. The fans were in deep from the start and screaming wildly. I love screen passes. Coach Noll always used to say, “Be a good actor,” meaning let the pass-rusher think he’s rushing and whipping you. But you can’t be obvious about it, more subtle than just letting him go. So I wouldn’t punch with arms extended, I’d encourage the defender to play an edge on me and let him sink an uppercut or swim (arm over). That way as I turned on him he felt like he was home free. A nice push in the back to “aid” him along and then I got to hoof it to get to either the kick-out block or pick up the inside bleed of linebackers.
* Awww, Beach! As in Kelvin Beachum, of course. Kelvin sealed on the backside of Bell’s 4-yard TD run. The problem was Bell cut it back to Kelvin’s side, and Kelvin, thinking he was cutting off the inside of the defender, got caught as Bell brought it back to his side. The defender started to disengage from Kelvin, who then reached out with his left hand and held him. All I can say is “He who is without sin may cast a stone.” I shall therefore remain mum on the subject.
* Things only got better on the next Steelers drive. Featuring shotguned no-huddles and a Markus Wheaton toe-tapper of a beautiful sideline 40-yard gain, it culminated in a LeGarrette Blount 7-yard-ballistic-enema-to-Justin Brown TD run. When Blount gets his mojo started downhill, you’d best be moving your man out of the way or it’s gonna hurt, my friends.
* The second quarter highlight had to be Antonio Brown’s amazing foot-in-the-grill “Hai Karate” move on Browns punter Spencer Lanning while returning a punt for 36 yards. Yeah, it may cost AB some coin. And the players sprinting from the bench to the sidelines in amazement after the fact was humorous enough. But watching Mike Tomlin strike a “Karate Kid” crane posture on the sideline was hilarious. Brown got flagged, but no way should he be fined. He looked to be hurtling the punter, got caught when Lanning just sank in front of him instead of going low to tackle, and let’s face it folks you have to put your foot down somewhere.
* Bell did his best impression of “Shoeless” Joe Jackson by trucking half of his 38 yards after faking his own shoe out. He scored with just one shoe on. To quote a former teammate of mine, Keith Willis, “Can’t lose your gription.”
* In the third quarter, the worm began to turn. Cleveland came out in no-huddle and proceeded to ram it down the throats of the Steelers’ defense. The Browns went 80 yards in 6 plays, scoring in only 93 seconds of game clock. Seriously?
* It was serious when Brett Keisel hit the sidelines and Tomlin gave him an earful. Motivational stuff like that deserves an audience so the next thing I know “The Diesel” had the entire defense around him and was giving them an earful. It didn’t stop the bloodletting.
* After the Browns scored on their second drive of the second half, what started out as a brushfire was becoming a bonfire. The Browns took only 2:33 to reach paydirt this time, which caused the happy, smiley feeling I’d been carrying in my gullet to knot up. This time the entire defense was brought together by the coaches and every one of them from John Mitchell to Dick LeBeau, to Keith Butler, to Tomlin got in a big sideline conference that I can only imagine was not a pleasant place to be.
* After Cameron Heyward busted loose to sack Brian Hoyer on the Browns’ last offensive series, William Gay came up with two gi-normous defensive stops to force the Browns to punt. The sidelines were starting to come alive in “Mudville.”
* The atmosphere on the sideline was creeping back to confidence from confusion over the way the Browns had come back to tie up the game. The reason for this confidence? They were watching No. 7, the man who seems to -- as the Turk up in the booth noted before Ben Roethlisberger and Co. took the field -- “live for these situations.”
* When Shaun Suisham booted the ball through the uprights, mayhem in the form of pure joy over winning gave way to a sense of relief. As I waded through the post-game hand slaps as Steelers greeted Browns, and eventually ended up interviewing Wheaton for the Steelers Radio Network, I sensed this was a joyously subdued team that made its way to the locker room.
* On the outside, the players were extremely happy as all last-second wins are meant to be. But wrapped inside was a pervasive sense of what they had almost let getaway, which would have been crushing, given the superb first half.