There’s nothing like December football to get the engine in the old warhorse cranking. As I took up my post along the sidelines on a decidedly cool -- not cold, just cool -- Sunday afternoon at Paul Brown Stadium, I looked forward to the showdown with the AFC North division leader, the Cincinnati Bengals.
* Pre-game, as usual, brought some sights and sounds. I munched on some Peanut M&Ms while chatting up some of the guys. My former teammate, Merril Hoge, stopped by and hung out for a while. Merril’s son, Beau Hoge, had quarterbacked the winning effort for his high school for the Kentucky State High School Football Championship Game the night before, and Merril was a proud papa. Beau brought his team back from a 21-point deficit. Beau is headed to BYU to play collegiately, which will make Chris Hoke and Brett Keisel happy I’m sure.
* Stephon Tuitt was making his first start and I have to say he was noticeable. He filled the huge shoes of the bearded one, and I’m guessing it weighed heavy on his heart. He had more pep in his step while warming up and the look of intense concentration was apparent. Not that he would lollygag through warmups before, but when you’ve watched as much as I’ve watched, and played as much as I’ve played, you can tell a difference. Those first starts are intense.
* Right from the first snap I thought Stephon was a little tight and tentative in his first couple of series. You expect that from young bucks getting their first starting helmet. On one play he would get a great lockout on the guy across from him, and then on another he would bury his head in the guy’s chest, which makes you like a blind dog in a meat house. But Stephon played hard and with great effort. When you make your first start, things feel a little too quick and often like you’re barely just hanging on and you can’t catch your breath because of all the adrenaline pumping through your system. What made it harder was that Andy Dalton and the Bengals' offense started off no-huddle, which exacerbates the breathing thing, but as the game wears on you find your second wind and settle down. Then it just becomes football. And so it was with Stephon. He got stronger with each new series.
* In the first quarter, Bengals rookie center Russell Bodine (Bo-dine), whom all week I had pronounced Bo-dean, as in “Jethro Bodean” in the Beverly Hillbillies, got into a fight with Steve McLendon and it happened right in front of the Steelers bench, along the sideline. While locked up on a block, Bodine tried to head-butt Steve, who locked his massive arms out so the pugnacious rookie looked like Woody Woodpecker whiffing on a tree. To his credit, Steve didn’t retaliate right then, as the attending official moving in to separate them would have thrown a hefty flag on Steve. But I got the feeling Steve would deliver a little “frontier justice,“ as we used to call it, sometime down the road.
* On a first-and-10 heading in to the Cincy end of the field, Lance Moore made a killer adjustment on a ball for a 29-yard gain. Martavis Bryant blew through a seam route and Lance looked like he was “drafting” behind Martavis. In the wake of Bryant’s route, Lance stepped in and looked like the WR everybody expected to see pre-injury.
* Right in front of me in the second quarter, Ike Taylor got “nogginated” in a shot when Vince Williams went Superman on Bengals RB Jeremy Hill. Vince flew through the air to wrap up Hill, who got spun around along with Vince and both of them crashed into Ike, who was just fighting off a block. It was like watching a disaster film about to happen. I’ve been in Ike’s spot under different circumstances. You find yourself in a helpless position with incoming, and the only thing you can do is put up an umbrella like “Wylie Coyote” when an anvil's about to fall on his head. It’s gonna hurt, and there’s not a darn thing you can do to prevent it. Ooofff, I’m feeling you, Ike Taylor.
* For those keeping track, I think McClendon just evened his personal score.
* Ben Roethlisberger gunned a 14-yard in-route to Antonio Brown. AB shook on his break so hard, the covering CB Terence Newman lost some undergarments and I almost lost my balance. Appreciation of AB’s talents begins with his attention to details. The outstanding results AB produces week in and week out have their beginnings in those details.
* Right at the end of the first half, Bryant was trying to get behind Reggie Nelson along the back end of the end zone. Reggie is an 8-year veteran of the turf wars, and a long tall rookie, trying to get behind a crafty veteran, well it just isn't going to happen. Reggie got away with an illegal chuck as he banged Bryant out the back end of the end zone. A little seasoning by Martavis and I’d like to see a re-match of that play, like maybe the re-match at Heinz Field, because Bryant is going to be a monster if he keeps working at it.
* I’m surprised it didn’t happen earlier. In the third quarter, Carlos Dunlap drew a holding call on Mike Adams. Now, I’ve seen some complainers, and I’ve seen some lobbyers, but Dunlap takes the cake. This guy, though an excellent player and maybe the best on the Bengals' defense, had complained, griped and yakked the entire second quarter like a true professional lobbyist. After nearly every play in that second quarter, it seemed as if Carlos was in the ear of any zebra who would listen. Not that Mike didn’t deserve the flag on this particular occasion (and which I am reluctant to throw a fellow hog under the bus as one who has been occasionally flagged myself), but lobbying to the degree to which Dunlap did is rarely seen outside of places like our nation’s capital.
* He’s always working folks. After Le'Veon Bell scored in the third quarter on a catch and run, Brown came to the sideline and slapped it up with Big Ben. After a congratulatory moment or two, AB started lobbying expressively with his hands, explaining that he too was wide open. That's just how the greats are: Lynn Swann, John Stallworth, Hines Ward, trust me, they thought they were always open, even if they were double-covered.
* Tuitt grew in monster-age throughout this game. What a whack he laid on Dalton. Stephon blew through the QB like an elephant through a wicker chair. Dalton had to sit out a play, and a tip of the cap to Andy to come back in because that was a serious beef-a-lo hit.
* After Mike Mitchell flashed over the top to finish a great cover job and break up the pass to A.J. Green on a go route, along with Antwon Blake, who was “living on the edge,” Mike Tomlin let out a huge "Woo!" and a big smile and said “That’s how we live!”
* Halfway through the fourth quarter, my favorite Cincinnati ride kick-started. The infamous “esca-loser", or the escalator to the upper tier of Paul Brown Stadium, began carrying the Bengals faithful back down to the ground floor. Steelers fans, on the other hand, began making their way down to the vacated ringside seats and began waving Terrible Towels along with their cheers.
* Dick LeBeau was not ready to relax yet. In the fourth quarter, the defense had to rise up one more time to seal the game, and Coach LeBeau walked by the D-lineman sitting on the bench and pumped his fist and said, "C’mon, let’s finish out! Gimme a sack!” If there was ever a man aside from Chuck Noll that I would've loved to have played for, it would be Dick LeBeau. Trying to quantify to people what this man has done for the game as a Hall of Fame player, coach and human being, and the class he has exhibited while doing so, is like trying to explain the Internet to an ant. Can’t be done.