Just My Opinion ...

Jim Wexell with his thoughts following the Steelers' division-clinching win against the Bengals.

From the notebook of a sportswriter who watched the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday night twice deflect my feelings of impending doom that are normally right on the money:

* The first, of course, was the doom that darkened Heinz Field when Le'Veon Bell went down with what looked to be a terrible knee injury.

* Thoughts of 2011 flashed through my mind. That's when the Steelers rode into the playoffs after a game in which Maurkice Pouncey and Rashard Mendenhall were injured, to join Ryan Clark and potentially the struggling LaMarr Woodley on the sidelines for the first-round game at Denver.

* You just knew then that the playoff ride was going to be brief, just as I was thinking last night with the Steelers' MVP on the ground.

* And then he popped up. A guy who said coming out of college that he had never missed a practice because of injury, and who's been surprisingly sturdy through 373 hard-fought touches this season, showed us again that we should never count him out. He did limp to the sideline a bit, and was held out with a hyperextension, but there's hope he can play Saturday night. That's more than I had expected when Reggie Nelson took him out with the knee shot.

* I've always thought Nelson to be a bit of a cheap-shot artist, ever since his days at Florida, but I can't complain about this one. Or, more precisely, I won't complain. As they all said, that's the NFL today.

* The second bout with doom washed over me as the Steelers broke their offensive huddle on third-and-8 at their own 37 as the clock wound down near three minutes. I didn't believe the offense would convert, nor did I believe the defense would hold, and I believed the Bengals would pull out the game and send a team that had worked so hard to rise above its struggles into a pre-playoff tailspin they most certainly did not need.

* Not only did the Steelers convert, Antonio Brown took the pass 63 yards to the house for the game-clinching touchdown.

* Had 'em all the way, I told myself on the way down to the field for the final two minutes.

* Having so many legitimate playmakers on the field is taking some getting used to.

* Like I never watched Hines Ward and Co. play before. But apparently a few barren years will do that to even veteran reporters.

* No, I didn't call for the firing of the coach and/or general manager at any point in the season, but please don't call me a homer. I criticized when I felt it was necessary.

* I did in fact criticize some of Mike Tomlin's playcalls early in the season, and I also remember praising him for his fake punt from his own 20 on fourth-and-10 in the opener. It was a brilliant move that got lost in the Browns' furious rally that fell short.

* Having said all of that, I have to criticize Tomlin for the fake punt he called Sunday night. And not because this one didn't work.

* After the opener, when former high school quarterback Robert Golden threw that perfect pass out of punt formation to Antwon Blake for a key first down, the Steelers began monkeying around in practice with Brad Wing throwing passes.

* Now, Wing is a punter. From Australia. He's not a former quarterback and he's not a hardened field player. In fact, he's a bit of an odd bird. Peculiar. Always been nice to me. Don't get me wrong. And I like unique people who've been through the public wringer. But I do not want him handling the ball. I'm not all that impressed with his punting so far, but more importantly there's no way I would ever let him throw a pass. I watched him in practice and he was terrible. I tweeted several times -- without giving anything away -- that I did not want to see Wing throw a pass in live action.

* Now you know why. That pass was atrocious. And it couldn't have come at a worse time. I have no problem with bold, aggressive playcalling, but I have no trust in Wing with a live "grenade" in his hands, if you will, and I wonder why Tomlin does.

* I read someone was quoted as saying Wing throws a great ball in practice. Well, that may be true. I missed a month of practices along the way, and have been so busy of late that I often miss special teams work. So maybe he has improved. But I wouldn't have even been allowing him to practice further after watching him that first week.

* So, Coach, terrible call.

* For about eight straight weeks I fielded questions about Shamarko Thomas not getting any playing time, particularly when Troy Polamalu left the lineup. Well, Will Allen certainly has quieted -- eliminated -- those questions.

* I only understood why the coaches gave Allen the niche of primary backup to both safeties. Good coaches find roles for every player, particularly intelligent vets such as Allen. But I did not think Allen still had this kind of game left in him. He's playing very well, and while I miss the great wildcard that is Polamalu, I do appreciate Allen's discipline in the defense.

* With the Steelers leading 7-0, the Bengals went for the first down on fourth-and-3 at the Pittsburgh 35. They isolated wide receiver Brandon Tate on inside linebacker Vince Williams and easily gained 14 yards. Three plays later, on third-and-6, QB Andy Dalton looked only at running back Gio Bernard, who was covered by Williams. Dalton went to throw, but Lawrence Timmons roared up for what surely would've been an interception. So Dalton began running, and Bernard kept running into open grass, and Dalton flipped it to him for a 17-yard touchdown pass.

* The next time the Steelers put their nickel defense on the field, Ryan Shazier was in there in place of Williams.

* As much as I enjoy Williams in the role of run-stuffer and blitzer in the nickel package, it was only a matter of time before someone took advantage of him in pass coverage. Williams did return to the nickel late in the game, but it appears there could be a change in the offing.

* I would no doubt miss Williams' hard-hitting and aggressiveness if this change does occur.

* When I mentioned the special skills of these playmakers, did I mention Bell's spin move on Vincent Rey that went for 26 yards to set up the go-ahead field goal? Or Martavis Bryant taking that screen pass and hitting the seam as if he was playing for Lombardi to score a 21-yard go-ahead touchdown?

* No? OK, well throw some credit in there to Heath Miller for his blocking on those plays.

* Blake is surprising a lot of us with his pass defense, but I don't think anyone is surprised at how difficult running backs are finding the yardage around his corner. Blake's a tough guy. He has an edge to him. And I'm not going to give him any lip anytime soon.

* Stephon Tuitt left another guy dazed and confused with a smoking-hot hustle hit down the field. And good thing for the Bengals that guy was a big tight end, otherwise they surely would've fumbled again.

* Another coaching mistake: Putting Dri Archer in to pass block on third-and-9. He whiffed. Badly. It may have been one reason why Ben Roethlisberger rushed that pass into a double-covered interception.

* Archer is a receiving threat on third-and-9. I get that. But I didn't like him there, then, and first-guessed it to someone in the press box.

* I don't, however, want to come out of this as being overly critical of Tomlin. As I said to the people who wanted to bury him earlier, his record speaks for itself. Just as it does today.

* As a final summation before heading into the playoffs, I believe I wrote in the spring that all the Steelers needed was to get hot in December because they have the savvy, experienced quarterback who can put it all together in the playoffs and tie a ring around the thing in the end. So I'll just stick with that.


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