I crossed over the playing field at the Georgia Dome to the Steelers' sideline for pre-game warmups and ran into former Steelers linebacker Kevin Greene, who played in the league for 15 years.
Greene retired after the 1999 NFL season and is third on the all-time sacks list. Kevin still has the “crazy eyes” of a competitor. We bumped into each other some back in the day and I can tell you from experience he was a great player and a pass-rusher extraordinaire. Not too shabby in the wrestling ring, either, as I recall.
* Speaking of former Steelers, RB Verron Haynes was also there and is in great shape as well. Verron looked like he could step out onto the field right then and there. Verron played from 2002 to 2007 for the Steelers, and of course got himself a Super Bowl ring in Detroit for his efforts.
* Steelers Nation represented itself very well at the Georgia Dome. I couldn’t believe the enormous numbers of Steelers fans -- with, of course, their Terrible Towels -- who were in attendance. Steelers fans are notorious for getting to the stadium early, converging around the first row and taking over the place during warmups. I could see multi-generational towels, as well as newbie towels, Terrible “Beach” towels, towels that were obviously older than their owners, and every sort of special edition Terrible Towel ever made. It was almost as if it were a Terrible Towel family reunion. Myron would've been apoplectic had he seen this display. What I love, too, is how the fans -- after opposing fans begin to wave their sponsored towels with a company logo to counter the Steelers fans -- about-face and stand at attention while holding their towels by the upper corners as a sign. One by one the other Steelers fans follow suit until it becomes a powerful display of unity amongst Steelers Nation.
* On the opening kickoff, "The Agitator," Cody Wallace, doesn’t disappoint. The kickoff was downed in the end zone, but as a Falcon trotted past, Cody chicken-winged him with a bump, just to let the guy know he was there. I was talking to Markus Wheaton sometime after the game and he said that after a kickoff that he doesn't return, he watches Cody because it’s usually entertaining. I must agree, because I’ve been doing it almost the entire season.
* The Steelers dressed up their counter-trap that they ran almost exclusively against Cincinnati by going two and three TEs (if you include Will Johnson as a TE) through much of the first series, and then they ran another trap the other way with the “Big Ragu,” Ramon Foster, leading the way. Unlike in my day, when we could sneak up on guys and earhole them with a blindside shot, Ramon isn't afforded the opportunity to sneak up on too many guys.
* It was obvious from the get-go that Falcons DC Mike Nolan was committed to stopping the run. Nolan was sticking eight and sometimes nine guys in the box. At one point it looked like 11 guys were on the line of scrimmage, which I remember DC Hank Bullough of the Cincinnati Bengals doing back in the '80s. We called it "Sticky Sam." That lasted until someone dropped a simple straightahead FB plunge up the middle and busted it for 40-plus yards and a TD. "Sticky Sam" went the way of 8-track tapes, clogs and bell bottoms.
* Le'Veon Bell kicked free on a firs- half run on which Martavis Bryant was initially flagged for a block in the back. The officials got together and caucused and picked up the flag as Bryant was deemed to have gotten the shoulder of the Falcons defender instead of the back. Bill Hillgrove, the legendary voice of the Pittsburgh Steelers, quipped, “You can’t go to jail for what you’re thinking.”
* Bell was getting his Kenny Rogers on: “Know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em.” After toting the rock on one play, Lev was caught by a Falcons defender. He broke free for a moment then was re-grabbed around the ankles by the prone would-be tackler. Bell struggled for a moment, sensed incoming, and then dropped safely to the ground underneath a heat-seeking, head-first Falcons defender who must've caught an updraft and missed Bell. Moments like that show you how mature Bell is. With all of his touches in a game, knowing when to seek shelter from the storm and practice a little self-preservation will extend his days.
* Jason Worilds just rocked Matt Ryan’s world. This was as clean a shot on a QB as I’ve seen, according to modern era “Save the QB” rules. The whole sideline was in an uproar, and I don’t blame them. Jason had to be thinking what else could he do besides walk up to Ryan, introduce himself, show some form of NFL player ID and then politely ask Matt to sack himself. This is where we’re going folks.
* In the second quarter, Markus Wheaton ran a crossing route over the middle and was surprised by a quicker-than-expected, slightly-behind-the-leg pass from Ben Roethlisberger. Markus didn’t even slow down. He simply reached back and one-handed the ball, trapped it against his leg, and ran for a first down. That catch was AB-ish in every way, and a trickle-down effect of a great WR on an up-and-coming young buck.
* Don’t tell me The Hogs aren’t all over stra-tee-gery. First drive of the third quarter the Falcons are attempting a FG. The offensive line has rallied in the Hog Pen, which is around the 35 or 40-yard line in the event of a miss. They are ready to take the field. But to a man they are yelling at the defense to “Watch the fake!” You can’t fool the fat guys.
* Cameron Heyward is having a Pro Bowl year. And just when you think you see something special, he comes up with something else. In one sequence, Cam knocked down a Ryan pass and then dropped Steven Jackson on the 2-yard line to force another Falcons FG rather than a touchdown. Power, speed and athleticism, Cam has grown into the player a lot of people envisioned when he was drafted in the first round back in 2011. He’s got a lot of growl in him.
* Another first rounder heading to a Pro Bowl is guard David DeCastro. On a pass rush in the second half, Falcons DT Paul Soliai got the inside rush going and then attempted to spin back the other way on David. Soliai got about halfway into his spin and DeCastro locked him into place with a little “Habeus Grabus,” along with a nice hand check to the hip. Sensing a pass-rusher about to spin is one of the more subtle aspects of pass pro. You can actually feel when a guy is about to spin. Big ol' Carl Hairston, then with the Browns, was the Dwight Freeney forerunner of the spin. Carl would throw an uppercut to get his body up alongside you, and then the moment you committed to stopping the uppercut he would spin back to your unbalanced side. Carl was the only guy I used to play the back edge on because you knew sooner or later he was going to spin on you. It was a fine line to walk.
* Antwon Blake gave up a touchdown to Roddy White on a free release slant route in the fourth quarter. Blake is such a battler, I love watching him play and if Santa Claus could put anything under his Christmas tree it would be a few inches of height. Antwon was right there with White, but just couldn’t reach far enough to swat the ball away. There’s an old-school saying that tells Blake’s story, “It’s not the size of the dog in the fight, but the size of the fight in the dog.” He’s got plenty of fight.
* I interviewed Jarvis Jones at the end of the game for the Steelers Radio Network. His thoughtful answers to my questions showed me how much he’s grown as a player and a man in his short time in the ‘Burgh. But there’s something else that I can’t quite put my finger on, the “look” a guy gets when he’s making or made that jump from rookie to solid player. An inner knowledge about yourself that says bigger and better things are on the way. I think they are for this young man.