Carolina blue painted the backdrop everywhere you looked at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, North Carolina. With the Sunday Night Football crew on location, and a game that could weigh heavily in the Steelers' future on hand, I couldn’t be happier than to be “Right here. Right now,” as former Buff Bills Coach Marv Levy famously uttered.
* Pre-game saw former Steelers WR Hines Ward saying hello to all of his former teammates down on the field. Particularly noteworthy was a cool “man-hug” between Hines and Brett Keisel. As these guys will learn a few years down the road, as Tunch Ilkin and I already have learned, you treasure your former teammates and appreciate each time you get together, because they become fewer and farther in between.
* The grass at the BOA stadium was terrific, what everybody would love to have as their manicured front lawn. The only down side to this surface is that it digs up a little too easily. From a player’s perspective, though, there is simply nothing better than playing on real grass. As one who played in the old days on so much artificial turf, and a lot of very abrasive artificial turf at that, waking up in the morning the day after a game and suddenly realizing you are stuck to your bed sheets from bleeding out is no fun at all, and it gets you some chastisement from your wife.
* Entering into this game I had a few thoughts: 1.) This Carolina defense doesn’t miss tackles. During the week’s run-up to the game, film revealed that the Panthers defensive unit had missed maybe 2-3 tackles. Total. In two games. 2.) Watching Panthers MLB Luke Kuechly was like watching a predatory big cat (a Panther maybe?) hunt down its prey. Mesmerizing at times, lethal at all times. 3.) DE Charles Johnson wasn’t as good on the rush without DE Greg Hardy (suspended) pushing the edge on the bookend rush opposite Johnson. 4.) The offensive line needed to get downfield after a catch or run. This defense tackles the ball extremely well and the hogs need to get around the ball in the event of someone getting stripped, including peeling guys off the pile. 5.) Protect the ball at all times. This offense, though not a high-powered one was a very opportunistic one and had cashed 6 takeaways into 3 touchdowns and 2 field goals.
* After watching Ben Roethlisberger throw the ball in pre0game warmups, I wasn’t surprised at the velocity and accuracy he displayed throughout the game. I really believe when Ben got mulched on the rush from Courtney Upshaw in Baltimore, he got a little jacked up when his sternum touched his backbone from the hit, and subsequently his accuracy dropped in that game. Just breathing can be a challenge after a hit like that.
* By halftime, the Panthers defense had missed more tackles on Le'Veon Bell alone, than in their first two games total. Lev is just scratching the surface of what may be an elite-level career. What he does with the ball in his hands, whether by hand-off or catching, is God-given. You can’t teach a guy to run like that.
* The 81-yarder that Bell dropped on the Panthers was a simple “14-straight” back in the day, with double-team gap blocking on the front side and backside by the Big Shaggies up front. Lev’s eyes were glued to Kuechly in a predator versus prey matchup that the old Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom TV show couldn’t have done better. Lev outmaneuvered Kuechly, got the other LB’er Thomas Davis to commit to a backside gap he shouldn’t have, and then it was off to the races.
* The other thing I appreciate about Bell is his willingness -- after patiently working a couple of gaps on a straight run only to see that he’s boxed in -- to drop his pads and shoot straight ahead about two feet off the ground and get what he can. He’s not afraid of contact, and he’s got a lot of strength in his hamhocks to be sure.
* As a side note, if you wonder how he can make those cuts, just Google his “Quick feet” workouts on Youtube. Bell’s feet are flashing so fast in his drills you’d swear he was a seriously muscled-up Michael Flatley from “Riverdance.”
* Side B of the best Steelers rushing performance since 1986 was LeGarrette Blount. If you want an accurate depiction of what “Blount Force Trauma” looks like, you don’t need to watch CSI on TV. Blount’s brutal run through Thomas Decoud on his fourth-quarter 8-yard TD gallop will fill the bill.
* Last week the Steelers didn’t tackle well, and this week? I watched Lawrence Timmons warming up, and he looked well recovered from his bout of “projectile vomititus” of last week. LT threw around some hits with a ferocity and savagery that is hard to put into words. Those hits were cannon-shot powerful and left their mark on a number of guys.
* When LT rocketed into a tackle in support of Ike Taylor wrestling Carolina’s excellent young gun WR Kelvin Benjamin to the ground in the third quarter, the impact cracked like a gunshot. Ike rolled onto his back and I knew that a forearm wasn’t supposed to look like that. Your elbow can bend to 90 degrees, but your forearm shouldn’t.
* The number of players surrounding Ike as he lay on the ground reflected what he means to this team. The guys love him and so do the coaches. When Ike stood up and made his way toward the locker room, none other than Mike Tomlin took a moment to give him an affectionate kiss on the noggin to let him know the deep appreciation he feels for the player, the leader and the man that is Ike Taylor. That’s pretty cool.
* I felt for Timmons. From the look on his face after the fact, and his concern for Ike while the docs were working, LT was pretty broken up about it. Friendly fire is a job hazard. You know it’s always lurking. You just hope your number doesn’t come up.
* Back to Ben’s accuracy. When Roethlisberger velvet-touched a 7-yard pass to Antonio Brown at the rear end zone flag while being chased and tackled as he threw, Ben didn’t get to view his handiwork. Ben was face-planted to the turf, and with the crowd being a rough mix of Panthers and Steelers fans, the roar didn't let Ben know if it was a TD, an INT, or an incomplete pass. As his teammates pulled him up from the grass, and they told him AB had scored, a big grin broke across Ben’s face. AB’s yard long toe-tapper of a foot drag is noteworthy. It was just another example of his attention to detail in another terrific performance.
* Ben’s growth as a top-tier QB was on display when Antonio ran a step-ladder drag route over the middle, losing his coverage as Ben waited patiently for AB to emerge in the window in-between cover corners for No. 84’s second TD of the night. Patience is a virtue and Ben was virtuous on this throw, to be sure.
* I just saw a “Three-Fer.” Cam Heyward ran over Carolina offensive lineman Trai Turner, and then ran over Cam Newton and knocked him to the ground. Not satisfied with a 2 for 2 outing, Cam ran to the sideline and met Joey Porter in a flying chest bump that blew up Joey and completed the trifecta.
* Ike’s a tough guy. After the game, I walked onto the field with him and William Gay, whom I was going to interview for the Steelers Radio Network post-game show. Ike had come back out to be with the boys, plaster cast and all. As we walked, I casually looked over at him and said, “You CBs are paper-mache.” It got a laugh from us both, because everybody knows Ike Taylor is as tough as they come. Believe me when I tell you folks, he will be missed.
* I have to say that as I stood on the field after the game was doing the final hit with Gay, I couldn’t help but backtrack over time to when it seemed everybody was calling the radio show that Tunch and I do on ESPN to say that the Steelers need to “Get rid of Willie Gay.” A sentiment we both wholeheartedly disagreed with, and said so. This young man who struggled in his first go-around as a starter never quit, fought back and has established himself as a fine CB, one who made some excellent plays on this night as well as the previous two. And in the wake of Ike T’s arm injury, I for one am thrilled Gay is on the team. Besides that, Will is rocking a serious Mohawk.
* I saw Will Allen in the tunnel outside the locker room as we made our way off the field. I said, “Will! You had a touchdown right in your mitts!” (on the Philly Brown muffed punt return). Will looked at me with a detached smile and a touch of anguish and replied, “I know. I had it and some guy hit me and ...” his voice trailed off into that shrug of regret you get when you leave a play or two on the field. The ones that you know will visit your dreams later on that night.
* By and large, the only real down-side to the whole trip were slightly dry cheeseburgers on the trip back to the ’Burgh. But then again, that’s what extra ketchup is for.