The vibe heading into the stadium was gorgeous. Playoffs have been scarce around the ‘Burgh the last couple of years and as I made my way into the pressbox the playoff chatter had begun in earnest just about everywhere. Yet the old player in me began beeping the warning lights at the same time because you never, ever want to look further than the next game, and the next game was the here and now, the Cincinnati Bengals.
* You know it’s Christmas when B.E. Taylor and the fellas are ringside to sing the National Anthem and put out some of the best Christmas music going. I had to go over and hug up the guys. They are always a joy to see and hang out with.
* Ominous signs were afoot from the get-go when Ben Roethlisberger didn’t take the field for pre-game warmups. Whispers of possible illness began to materialize into reports of confirmation. There was pre-game info floating around that Bengals QB Andy Dalton had battled the flu, and that it had ravaged the Bengals' locker room. I also heard the Bengals players had worn doctors masks on the flight to Pittsburgh to prevent the further spread of the bug. If true, that had to be a sight.
* Ben doesn’t look well. I saw him by the turbine heaters that keep the players warm prior to kickoff. He had that pasty complexion on his face that makes one take a wide path around the heaters because being cold is preferable to getting sick. Playing when you feel like death warmed-over stinks, and unless you’ve had the joyous opportunity to play professional football while suffering from the flu, you just don’t know what you’re missing. Thankfully.
* The first noticeable adjustment that I’ve seen came on the second play from scrimmage for the Bengals offense. Dalton ran the option-read to Jeremy Hill, and James Harrison playing the backside on the option-read, squeezed carefully to the handoff point while keeping leverage and his shoulders square to the line of scrimmage and eyeballing Dalton. Dalton had a big TD run in Cincy while keeping the ball and James is making sure there wasn't a repeat performance here.
* Speaking of Harrison and what he means to this team, he hasn't had great success against Bengals OT Andrew Whitworth, but had a good jump on the snap count and sunk the rip on Whitworth from a third-and-6 at the Steelers' 17-yard line. Dalton dropped back to pass and just before Harrison could whack him from the blindside, LG Clint Boling cleaned up Deebo's backdoor rush. Dalton stepped up and threw a touchdown pass to Giovani Bernard. I was hoping that James’ time over in Cincinnati had given him a little inside knowledge on Whitworth. As they say, close but no cigar.
* Maurkice Pouncey shotgunned a snap back to Ben, who appeared to not know it was coming. The ball got away from Ben, and in the melee that followed he was unable to secure the ball, which was recovered by Wallace Gilberry. “Pounce” came over to the bench and seemed to be furious with himself, which I can understand, and Maurkice gestured emphatically while making a point to Mike Munchak about the circumstances surrounding the miscommunication of the snap. My first thought was that maybe Ben didn’t have the same voice strength from being sick that he normally has, and Maurkice thought he heard something that he didn’t or that it got late in the snap count and somebody missed something, be it code word or hand sign, or foot for that matter. There are so many hand/foot signs and code words that are prevalent today versus back in the medieval times when I played that I for one couldn’t tell you. We, metaphorically speaking, sent smoke signals in yesteryear compared to the Instagram communication of today.
* In the second quarter, Heath Miller took a shot in the end zone while leaping high for a pass that should be a poster-child advertisement for a “defenseless receiver." Pittsburgh Steelers head trainer John Norwig exploded on the sidelines in anger, and rightly so, over the non-call. An entire cadre of Steelers players, coaches and staff personnel on the sidelines was in disbelief. It probably would have looked better for Heath if he had laid down and milked it a little. Heath is too tough for his own good though and just popped up back to his feet as if it was touch football and somebody had just shoved him. And I mean Heath took one right in the grille. The officials all looked at each other like they expected somebody to throw a flag, but nobody did.
* In the second quarter former hockey enforcer Shaun Suisham kicked off and in the ensuing riot of a return, the “Kicking Canuck” got tangled up with a big’un, as we used to say. The Bengals Margus Hunt, 6-8 and 290 pounds of DE, got off the turf with the 6-0, 200-pound former hockey goon. Elbows were exchanged, but Suisham had a harder time reaching Hunt with his elbows. And frankly, I’m not sure Hunt even noticed.
* Later on I cruised over by the bench area and caught a glimpse of the trainers working on Miller. It looked like a scene out of one of the Rocky movies. With Norwig playing Mick and Heath as Rocky, Norwig was pulling bloody gauze out of Heath’s mouth and checking his teeth like the trainers do in between rounds of a fight. Let’s see, was that Rocky 1, or Rocky 2? Was his manager dead or alive? For those of you who are Michael Keaton fans, let me know.
* Still in the second quarter, Suisham kicked a 25-yarder that doinked off the inside of the left upright and went through to give the Steelers a 20-10 lead. Suisham jogged back to the sidelines with a cat-that-ate-the-canary look on his face that had me laughing. Give that man a side of Canadian bacon to be sure.
* Stephon Tuitt can run. I can remember back in OTAs hearing John Mitchell yelling at Stephon to run to the ball. John continued to remind Stephon in a loud way all during training camp to run to the ball. And then when Brett Keisel came back I remember hearing Brett yelling at Stephon to run to the ball at the Steelers' South Side facilities during practice. And then we saw Stephon blow up Jamaal Charles and force a fumble against Kansas City. Just now in the third quarter the big man ran to the ball and mulched the Cincy H-back Ryan Hewitt on a hit that I can only describe as a “Slobber-knocker.” I think he’s getting that “run to the ball” thing down.
* I have never heard a stadium quiet down quite as quickly as when Le'Veon Bell got low-bridged by Reggie Nelson. A hush settled over the stadium like a low-hanging cloud of doom. People stood up and craned their necks to see if Bell would get up right away. When Lev didn’t, a somberness flooded over many in the crowd and on the sidelines. After a bit, Lev got to his feet and carefully jogged off under his own power to the sounds of 65,000 plus fans chanting “M-V-P! M-V-P!”
* The hardest part of an injury in the aftermath is coming to grips with the fact that you’ve just been injured. It takes a while because you want to believe that it really isn’t all that bad, and it’s just a matter of time before the injured body part starts to feel better. So generally you kind of go through phases of denial as in “I’ll be right back,” or “give me a few minutes, it’ll come around.” I watched Lev as he sat on the table and the docs checked him out. I could see that he was struggling to get a grip on just what happened and what it meant for the immediate future. There was a flurry of checking and re-checking the knee by Doc Bradley, and then came the verdict as Doc leaned over Lev to tell him his night was through. Never an easy moment for sure.
* In the fourth quarter, the big screen went dark prior to the Bengals drive with 5:43 left in the game. Renegade came on, and in what only can be described as “Renegade Defiance,” as Tunch said on the broadcast, Bernard and Jermaine Gresham began to dance and agitate the crowd with their “Bring it on” gestures and some false bravado. Four plays later, Antwon Blake ripped the ball out of A.J. Green’s hands and recovered the ball to boot. It’s not nice to dis the Renegade, fellas. Bad mojination.
* After the game I saw Mike Tomlin standing outside the Steelers locker room, welcoming every member of the team in with a congratulatory handshake and smile. After Deebo shook hands with Mike and started into the locker room, I heard Mike say “I’m giving you off tomorrow.” Deebo laughed and thanked Mike for “being merciful.”