There couldn’t be a more exciting time and place to be than at Heinz Field on the Sunday before Christmas with a “Win and you’re in” game against the visiting Kansas City Chiefs.
* I watched the team warm up while drinking in the collective atmosphere amongst the players, the fans and all the pregame folks hanging out on the sidelines during warmups. There was a new sense of excitement that rippled through the crowd that had been missing the last two years. It was a playoff atmosphere. The anticipation that permeated all the pre-game talk shows, small group conversations, and chit-chat amongst colleagues and friends revolved around the “smell” of playoffs.
* The National Anthem was sung by Pittsburgh’s own homegrown superstar-in-the-making, Chris Jamison, from the TV show “The Voice.” I had the pleasure of interviewing Chris on the radio show Tunch and I do while he competed successfully on that show. Chris finished third, but by the roar of the crowd I’d say he’s No. 1 in Pittsburgh.
* The counter-trap that David DeCastro, Will Johnson and Le'Veon Bell have been running down the throats of the last several teams loomed large today. Kansas City had been bleeding 100-yard rushers over the last four weeks. So on the opening play from scrimmage, when the Steelers came out in a two-TE, two-RB formation, I pretty much thought the Steelers would start to ram the ball down KC’s throat. DeCastro pulled and Johnson was the trailing kick-out man, but Chiefs LBer Joe Mays showed how to “Trap the trapper.” Teams we played back in the 80’s, because we were a trap-centric offense, would teach their guys to close the trap by trapping or running into the trapper as quick as possible and not wait to take the pulling guard or tackle on. It was a slobber-knocker of a hit as Mays shot through the gap and made a terrific collision with an every-bit-as-tough Johnson that would have set off airbags had it happened in cars. Bell gained maybe a yard or two, but the Steelers were on notice that the Chiefs weren't going to let them have their way with the counter trap.
* On the very next play, Ben Roethlisberger went upstairs on an outside release go route for 44 yards to Martavis Bryant. All week long I had feared Justin Houston and his 17 sacks were going to get on top of Marcus Gilbert in a bad way because of Houston’s exceptional ability to trap or knock down the hands of OTs, and Gilbert traditionally carries his hands low. But Marcus sat up tall and strong on this rush and punched the chest out of Houston, who was re-directed around the horn of the pocket and was as harmless as a rubbernecker on the Parkway.
* Over the course of the Chiefs' first series, 14 plays which resulted in a field goal, James Harrison threw three just-rip, no-dip pass rushes on Chiefs OT Eric Fisher during three separate pass attempts. Fisher, though an excellent athlete, got caught bending at the waist and Deebo spun Fisher like he was a turnstile at Grand Central Station during rush hours. Harrison got home with Cameron Heyward for a sack on one of them, and Smith could hear Deebo breathing on him on the other two. By the last play from scrimmage, Fisher was overplaying for the upfield uppercut and James ran a twist stunt with Heyward, which completely fooled Fisher as he barreled to the inside, grabbing Fisher and picking the guard. Heyward ran a tight arc around the corner to make the sack. It looked to be a very long day in the making for Eric Fisher.
* Antwon Blake broke up a touchdown pass to WR Dwayne Bowe with a bit of larceny, thievery and/or Houndini-sleight-of-hand. Though giving away several inches to the 6-3 Bowe, Blake stripped/ripped the ball out of Bowe’s hands while battling in the end zone. This young man is making plays while competing for every ball that comes his way. He’s the “Rocky” of the secondary.
* In the second quarter, Harrison continued his assault on Fisher and beat him like a Mike Lange “Rented Mule,” and chased Smith out of the pocket. Jason Worilds, who was exceptional this day, joined in on the chase to push Smith out of bounds and get the sack. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the 77-year old Godfather of the zone blitz, Dick LeBeau, moving like he was 30-something down the sideline to root on his twin masters of disasters. I thought LeBeau might have knocked Smith out of bounds if Worilds hadn’t. Don’t tell me Dick LeBeau is too old.
* Later in the second quarter, Worilds and Stephon Tuitt chased down Smith yet again. Smith wisely was trying to get out of bounds and Tuitt corralled him around the upper body just as Smith stepped over the white line. Smith went to the ground but before he hit the deck, Mike Tomlin, who was right there with a big smile, raised his hand as if he were hailing a cab and said, “He’s OK. He’s fine” to the referee trailing the play. I had to laugh. In the eight years I’ve been watching Mike, he always has something to say about everything, whether arguing a call, coaching, or making a pre-emptive strike to a ref who must've been thinking about dropping a flag. BTW, there was no flag on the play. Just saying.
* Fisher is living out the Tim Burton-directed “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” in real life. Fisher tried to run-block Harrison, who drove Fisher backward into the ball carrier, De'Anthony Thomas, and then trashed Fisher before wrapping up Thomas by driving him backward like he was driving a sled before slamming him to the ground. It was a classic Harrison display of sheer overwhelming strength, technique and ferocity. At halftime Fisher might want to re-think that whole second-half thing.
* Third quarter, third-and-4 with KC at its own 41. James Harrison sacked Smith again, after making life miserable for you-know-who again. I guess Fisher didn’t go for that mysterious, non-definable injury to sit out the second half. The “Turk up in the booth” remarked that Harrison was politically correct to have helped Smith up off the dirt after driving him into the dirt.
* In the third quarter, Bowe caught a pass along the sideline. Blake grabbed Bowe around the shoulders and ended up swinging from Bowe’s shoulders like he was holding onto a merry-go-round. Blake regained his feet after a quick swirl or two around the much taller Bowe and took them both out of bounds. They were now engaged in what we used to call a “Chinner,” or a face-to-face (chin to chin), conversation, probably centered around family ancestry, that sort of thing. Blake will not back up to anybody; this guy is such a battler. And, for the sake of journalistic integrity, I should state it would’ve been a chinner if Antwon was standing on a stool. Technically speaking, you see.
* On the first play of the fourth quarter, Heyward got his pass rush on and beat a couple of linemen, banged over Jamaal Charles like a speed bump (Charles must have thought it was a good idea to try to slow Cam down) and was all over Smith, who threw incomplete. The wreckage behind Cam looked like what would happen if a bull elephant blew through the wicker furniture department at IKEA. Common sense and my eyes told me Cam Heyward is a Pro Bowl DT.
* Halfway through the fourth quarter, Bell bangs it up the middle, and, while de-piling, Gilbert was slow to get up. I happened to be standing next to Jim Bradley, one of the Steelers' team doctors, and he began muttering under his breath, “Get up, get up, get up,” as he moved toward the field and Marcus. The intense concentration on his face broke a little like an overheated steam valve releases pressure when Marcus slowly rose. The Steelers' docs are terrific people, and their care for the players goes much deeper than just a professional thing. It’s personal.
* I grabbed Heath Miller for the post-game Steelers Radio Network on-field interview. While we were waiting for the go from the engineers, I remarked to Heath that he had a 7-catch, 68-yard day in the bag. Heath couldn’t have been more uninterested in his own results. The win meant everything to him. I have to tell you after being in and around this game for a quarter century or more, the good guys like Heath Miller are getting fewer and farther in between. Guys that celebrate the team, their teammates and their families rather than themselves and what they’ve done are growing scarcer by the year throughout the NFL. In a day and age in which many in the profession trend toward an “It’s all about me,” attitude, Heath Miller is by any standard exceptional, both on the field and off the field.
* Which now brings me to the blessing of Christmas. May God’s blessings through His Son Jesus Christ be upon all of Steelers Nation as we pause this week to share love, family and “Joy to the World” while remembering the reason for the season.
MERRY CHRISTMAS EVERYBODY!