It was an unusual chain of events that had brought about the signing and return of a very special player in the realm of Steelers history – James Harrison. The talk show I do with Tunch Ilkin had been bombarded all week long with speculation on what the impact might be of James getting back into the Black and Gold. We were about to find out.
* On the sidelines prior to kickoff I got to catch up with Dick Haley, father of Steelers offensive coordinator Todd Haley and a key personnel to the 1970s Steelers. A terrific guy, Dick was director of player personnel for the team from 1971-90 and oversaw the drafting of that magnificent draft class of 1974 which produced four Hall of Famers (Swann, Stallworth, Lambert and Webster, and by the way undrafted free agent Donnie Shell who SHOULD be in the Hall). It was mucho fun to talk with Dick. I haven’t had the pleasure of seeing him for quite some time.
* Player introductions were going to be a real treat as far as I was concerned. I had the feeling that with Deebo’s return, there might be an opportunity for the Steelers to allow James the chance to light the Heinz field crowd up by having him introduced in pre-game. It was set up like a full house in poker. The last starter to be introduced was Troy Polamalu, which drew a huge roar. That gave way to the bearded one, Brett Keisel, which upped the ante a good bit and had the crowd hollering for more. The crowd was electric, anticipating the return of the man who epitomized the Joe Greene, Jack Lambert, Greg Lloyd and Joey Porter mindset and style of play. When James was introduced, the crowd was on its feet and roaring for all they were worth. James had to feel the love that flowed out of the stadium. I would call it a special moment that I hope James gets CC’d from the video department. Those are the moments that 20 years from now play well with your kids.
* Going into the game my thoughts harbored to the conservative side:
1.) A Lovie Smith coached team coming off 10 days of rest after annihilation on a national stage? This was not going to be a walkover.
3.) Three-technique DT Gerald McCoy coming back, even though hampered by a cast on his hand, was a ball of fast-twitch muscle fibers. Tampa Bay had been missing him the last two games like a front tooth.
4.) Pro Bowl linebacker Lavonte David was too good to be having the defensive drought he was going through. Although his numbers were down coming into the game, he was overdue.
5.) There was this guy the Bucs had signed on the Tuesday before the game. A WR named Louis Murphy ... Why was that name familiar? I couldn’t figure it out. Hmmm.
6.) But I took comfort in the knowledge that of the top four tacklers on the Tampa defense, two of them were safeties and one a CB. After Le’Veon Bell’s game in Carolina, I figured he would give the Bucs fits.
* After the Steelers’ opening series, which featured two sacks, a fumble, and followed up by Tampa Bay scoring seven, the gullet wasn’t feeling too good. After the first of three facemask penalties allowed Tampa to tack on three points a series later, the churning increased.
* On a third-and-7 from the Tampa Bay 7-yard line, Ben Roethlisberger rifled a short pass to slot receiver Justin Brown, who dropped the ball in the end zone after a slow cork screwing tackle took him down. That was a long jog to the sidelines and a withering glare that met Justin from Mike Tomlin who said in a very terse voice, “Catch the ball, Justin!”
* When Antonio Brown scored two series later on a great throw by Ben, I watched the official standing by as Antonio temporarily lost his mind and used both the ball and went to the ground in a post-TD celebration – both violations. Yup, the flag came out and I had a feeling that AB might catch some heat when he got to the bench area. Tomlin had some serious words for Antonio, whom he corralled on the sidelines before he even got to the bench.
* When Roethlisberger tried to draw Tampa Bay offside on a fourth-and-1, I was stunned that McCoy held his water. When you watch game film on this guy from the end zone, he’s literally quivering in his stance, he’s wound up so tight. If David DeCastro, Maurkice Pouncey or Cody Wallace had sneezed, I would have bet money McCoy would jump. He didn’t, and just when I figured the Steelers would call off the dogs, Ben took the snap and followed Maurkice for a first down. That was a great job by the hogs up front concentrating on the snap.
* Every now and then I would hear the name Lou Murphy, or I’d see him line up. What’s the deal about that I kept thinking? Why is his name bugging me?
* After the Buccaneers took the second-half kickoff and marched down the field, I began to get that churning sensation that had quieted earlier in the second quarter. I gotta bring some Tums with me. Chalooch, up in the box with Bill Hillgrove, was having the same sort of acid burning, but his was self-inflicted from the chili he ate pre-game. Not a Tums to be found anywhere.
* The “Muscle Hamster,” Doug Martin, took the handoff from Glennon and swept around left end for a 3-yard touchdown. Sean Spence moved up to tackle Martin and got held like a long lost cousin by the Tampa OT Anthony Collins. I mean, blatantly. Not even a subtle hold, this was out in the open field right in front of the officials. Collins immediately turned around looking for the flag, and not seeing one joyously began celebrating the touchdown. However, I saw Cameron Heyward heading for the official in the corner of the end zone and Cam must have said something that got his goat, because the flag came out. Nothing good ever comes out of arguing with an official when you’re a player. Nothing.
* There’s that Murphy fella again. He caught a 31-yard pass early in the fourth quarter and that’s when the thought of somebody named Murphy in a Raiders jersey, with Bruce Gradkowski at quarterback, began to seep into my consciousness. This couldn’t be the same guy, could it?
* When Vincent Jackson caught the winning touchdown, it became a little uncomfortable trying to breathe. There simply wasn’t any air left in Heinz Field. The crowd seemed stunned as if it couldn’t comprehend that the Steelers had just lost the game. And the guy who caught the 41-yard pass to tee it up on the Steelers 5-yard line? Yep. Murphy.
* The post-game handshakes were stressed and uncomfortable. I did get to hug up with former teammate and Steelers linebacker, and later Tampa Bay linebacker and now coach of the Bucs L’s, Hardy Nickerson. Hardy looks great and he’s obviously doing a good job there.
* As a post-script, five years ago Lou Murphy caught two of Bruce Gradkowski’s three touchdown passes late in the game to lead the Raiders to a 27-24 upset over the Steelers.
* This game had had an awkward feel to it after it kicked off. Unfortunately, there’s something to be said for setting the tone in the opening moments of a game. From the opening series to the last series, whatever could go wrong, did go wrong.
* Murphy’s law, not mine.