Up-close breakdown of Steelers' loss to the Bengals

Sideline reporter Craig Wolfley has the inside on the Steelers' 16-10 loss to the Bengals.

On this day in the season’s first clash against the Cincinnati Bengals, the Pittsburgh Steelers chose to honor Myron Cope and unveil a special edition 40th anniversary Terrible Towel which was voted on by the fans this past offseason. Every time Myron, the Terrible Towel and the genesis of the Towel are brought up, I remember the conversation the great former Steelers linebacker, Andy Russell, had with Cope when Myron asked Russell his opinion about having a towel 40-some years ago.

“It’s a gimmick, Myron,” Andy said in attempting to discourage Myron from such nonsense. “We don’t do gimmicks” -- or something along those lines.

It may be the only swing and miss in the long, storied, great career of Russell, Who, by the way, should be wearing a yellow jacket as a member of the Pro Football Hall Of Fame. I’m just saying.

* Not to mention the conversation I had with former Steelers offensive tackle Max Starks the first time the Steelers wore their 1934 throwback “Bumblebee” uniform back in 2012, as they did versus the Bengals.

“No self-respecting fat guy should be made to wear horizontal stripes,” said the 6-8, 375-pound Starks.

* The pre-game anticipation of the return of Ben Roethlisberger reached a crescendo during the player intros. I couldn’t help but get caught up in a momentary time warp when I saw the flags waving over the stadium and Ben running onto the field. Back in medieval times, when the king was in the castle, the flags were raised, trumpeting the presence of the one who could make life better for those around him. For the hogs in particular, and the offensive unit as a whole, I was hoping it would be a triumphant return to action. It reminded me of the “Blond Bomber,” Terry Bradshaw. We all knew we were better off with No. 12 in the huddle. It’s a belief thing.

* After the 12-play, 80-yard opening drive that ended with Ben throwing a 1-yard touchdown pass to Antonio Brown, I had an eerie feeling that it was too easy. It stemmed from a game in which Tunch Ilkin and I played years ago. We marched down the field after taking the kickoff and stuck it into the end zone. After Gatorade-ing up with some celebratory slurps, and sitting on the bench, I remember telling Tunch the drive was too easy. Likewise, this one just didn't feel right.

* On a first-and-10 in the first quarter, Cam Heyward, who’s having a Pro Bowl year, overpowered Bengals guard Clint Boling and drove him into the lap of QB Andy Dalton, knocking down the pass. You really need to try to wrap your brain around the kind of raw power it takes to drive a 6-5, 305-pound hostile unfriendly backward and right into the lap of his QB. Heyward has a great “bull rush,” an ability to come straight down the middle of a player. The key to such a rush is to put your forehead in the chin of your opponent and “climb the body.” The under-and-up leverage was one of Chuck Noll’s central coaching points back in the day. When you are able to master this, you have created a huge leverage advantage by which you can virtually drive anyone backward, no matter the weight differential. Works just as well when you’re foolishly not paying attention to your fuel gauge and run out of gas, by the way.

* Bengals OT Andrew Whitworth jumped offside and the Turk up in the booth called Whitworth "the best non-athletic left offensive tackle in the league.” Whitworth has a huge upper body, but he has quads like Sesame Street's Big Bird. The man can play, though.

* On the last play of the first quarter, Bud Dupree rushed upfield, tossed aside RT Andre Smith (who’s listed at 325 but I’m betting that’s before breakfast following a week-long bout with the flu) and closed on Dalton from behind, sacking him after Dalton stepped up into the pocket. It was a great example of what closing speed is all about. Some guys have great speed but they can’t disengage from the blocker. Or, if they are able to get off the block they can’t seem to close on their prey. Bud doesn’t seem to have any of those problems. When Bud came over to the sidelines, Keith Butler gave him a head slap to reward him. Keith has to be happy with the continued improvement of Dupree, and Jarvis Jones as well, on the outside. They are two young, raw guns who are making their marks throughout the first half of the season.

* The Bengals continued to exploit the protection that cost the Steelers in Kansas City. Bengals DE Michael Johnson, standing upright over Ramon Foster, hit the “B” gap on the fly between Ragu and Alejandro Villanueva, who had positioned himself on a wall left where he had turned a tad too much to the outside. Villanueva couldn't really see Johnson coming as he slammed into the right side of Villanueva. Ragu picked up the twist that had Wallace Gilberry coming around behind Johnson. The hardest part of pass protection is protecting the hip of your wingman. If you allow your partner to be picked, and something’s “going away” from you, you can be certain that “something’s coming back.” It’s a staple of pass pro. I can’t tell you the number of times in my 12 years I came to the sideline trying to explain that to the coaches.

* Bengals punter Kevin Huber hit a “Shankopotamus,” or a 25-yard punt, which made its way to the Steelers bench. Mike Mitchell caught the ball while sitting on the bench. Bill Hillgrove proceeded to correct Tunch and said it was a “Hookapotamus.” 
* After Le'Veon Bell was bent over backwards by Vontaze Burfict, an audible groan could be heard from the stands as the replay of the tackle (and injury to Bell’s knee) was shown on the Jumbotron. All eyes were on Lev while he was on the table being checked on by the doctors, and few were watching the play resume on the field. The look on Lev’s face as he rode in the cart said it all. It’s excruciating to face your season’s end after putting in all the ridiculous work from re-habbing last year’s knee injury, going through OTA’s, training camp and the preseason, pay your dues for two weeks, hit the ground running and playing like the best back in the league for six weeks only to see the season end with a horse-collar-less tackle from a guy who just got on the field after his own year’s hiatus. Sometimes you can only shake your head. 

* If there ever was a more exact case of “deceleration trauma” than the hit Mitchell put on Bengals WR Marvin Jones, I don’t recall it. It was a great example of the new hitting rules. Mitchell hit with his shoulder to the midsection of a stretched-out Jones, dislodging the ball with a violent collision. Deceleration trauma, properly defined, is when somebody is moving forward at top speed, only to get hit so hard that they come to a complete stop in less than a step. Big ouch.

* There’s a man who knows his way around Heinz Field. At the two-minute warning of the first half, Stan Savran presented Central Catholic Coach Terry Totten and Cardinal Wuerl North Catholic Coach Jason Gildon awards for “Coach of the Week.” Jason, of course, is a former linebacker for the Steelers. He was selected to three Pro Bowl teams from 2000-2002, and is currently the Steelers all-time career sacks leader with 77. He could show a thing or two to the young guns playing the outside linebackers.

* In the second half, Steve McLendon blew by Dalton on a pass rush and barely seemed to touch Dalton, who fell to the ground in the wake of Steve closing on him, so Steve was credited with a sack. McLendon has been getting more playing time in the sub-packages, along with Heyward. With the absence of Stephon Tuitt due to knee injury, Steve has looked good in showcasing his pass-rush abilities when he’s not playing nose tackle, where he’s almost always dealing with two guys.

* Heath Miller is “tougher than woodpecker lips,” according to Tunch. After Heath caught a 10-yard pass in the second half he took a lick right in the chops from a Bengal. A flag came out and added 15 more. Heath got up and didn’t even have to adjust his grille. He is one tough hombre.

* The game was starting to resemble the vicious games we had in the latter part of the '80s against the Jerry Glanville-led Houston Oilers. Cheap shots were as plentiful as potholes after a hard winter and the fellas on the field were having trouble containing their animosity toward each other. There were taunting penalties, unsportsmanlike conduct, post-whistle pushing and flagrant during-the-play overt acts of unkindness. It then spilled over to the Steelers' sideline when, after a Chris Boswell third-quarter ffield goal, team doc Tony Yates punched me in the shoulder in glee. Tony was on the staff when I was a player and he’s as bright-eyed and bushy-tailed as ever. Gee, that punch kinda hurt too. But don’t tell him I said that. I’ll never hear the end of it.

* McLendon just busted another runner for a tackle late in third-quarter action. Playing in a nickel, or 4-2 sub package, Steve can get off blocks and head up field attacking with full power and not worry about absorbing a double-team or keeping his linebacker clean when he’s got the 1-gap green light. Steve’s got power like the “Incredible Hulk,” one of my favorite comic book superheroes when I was a kid. I remember when Steve first came to the Steelers. He was an undrafted free agent back in 2009, a very quiet young man from Troy University. Not many people had the foresight to see the diamond-in-the-rough that John Mitchell could see. While certainly not a pencil neck, Steve was much smaller than he is now. With a work ethic comparable to James Harrison's, Steve has busted his hump so hard and beaten long odds to become an excellent player in the league.

* If anyone best exemplifies leaving it all out on the field, it’s Heyward. After bull-rushing and driving back yet another unfortunate nameless, faceless Bengals offensive lineman, Cam chased Dalton out of the pocket only to see Dalton shovel the ball to Giovani Bernard for a big gain. Rather than quit after an exhausting car-pushing episode of “Rush the passer,” Heyward sprinted downfield another 20 yards or so to tackle Bernard from behind. There is no defensive player in the league who is more dogged and relentless in pursuit of the pigskin. J.J. Watt may be more athletic, but I have yet to see ANYBODY grind like Cam. He is "The Terminator,” in word and deed. He never quits, he never stops. He’ll be back. So will the Steelers.

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