With all the pre-game hoopla surrounding the Pittsburgh Steelers coming into Cincinnati for the rematch, and the amount of animosity that preceded the Steelers' arrival in the Queen City, it was therefore no great surprise when, while transiting from the airport to the team hotel in buses, the Steelers were greeted by Santa Claus wwith a “You’re number one” hand sign, or something to that effect. Bad Santa.
* The testosterone at groundhog level at Paul Brown Stadium was as thick as molasses. After Le'Veon Bell was deep-sixed with a torn MCL in the first meeting, the die had been cast. Bad blood. That’s what they call it. Bad blood. Both teams had spent a generous portion of the six-week intermission from Game One getting their grit on for Game Two. And it got nastier when Vontaze Burfict crossed the 50-yard line to confront Vince Williams. After a short conversation and a head butt, both teams swirled around each other like somebody stuck a leg of lamb in a tank full of piranhas.
* James Harrison, helmetless, waded into the swirling mass of humanity on a peacekeeping mission. Football 101 as I learned it back in the day, was to never engage in any potential fists-flying situation without your lid on, and making sure to “Buckle up for safety.”
* Thankfully cooler heads prevailed and both coaches managed to separate their teams and get the emotions under control. I was absolutely amazed that the officials didn’t throw a flag on Burfict for crossing over to the Steelers' side of the field. What’s the point of having the rule if you don’t enforce the rule? And I guess head butts only count when the game starts.
* Things got nasty early on a DeAngelo Williams first-quarter run. Williams covered the ball with two hands tightly while Burfict wrestled him to the ground. But it didn’t stop there. Burfict seemingly attempted to drive his helmet through DeAngelo’s helmet while Williams was on the ground. David DeCastro smartly got to the pile, as all Steelers linemen did throughout the day, and scraped Burfict off Williams and the pileup, which was quickly including several other thudding, pushing and shoving bodies. Burfict, it appeared, looked to be trying to “horse-kick” up at DeCastro while in an upside-down posture. DeCastro flicked Burfict aside and kept his cool. Good move.
* I can’t remember the last time I saw Domata Peko, the Bengals' veteran NT, end up looking the opposite way from where he started a play. The Big Ragu, Ramon Foster, got his four-wheel drive on during a run play and pancaked Peko as if his license plate read “IHOP.” In the absence of Maurkice Pouncey, Ramon has stepped up as the leader and “Lead Dog” of this offensive line. I appreciate the skills Ramon brings to the battle. Maybe not the athlete some other guys are, but he’s the very essence of what it means to be a Junkyard Dog. Toughness, nastiness and he makes a mean lasagna.
* Williams’ 1-yard TD run was highlighted by his faking out of Bengals MLB Rey Maualuga. Rey went airborne, thinking that DeAngelo was going to attempt a dive over the pile. Williams simply sidestepped the flying Bengals backer and scored easily. Much easier than Maualuga’s crash landing. That surely left a mark in the morning.
* Frankly, I don’t know what Mike Mitchell is supposed to do. Tyler Eifert catches a ball over the middle and Mitch closes on him at an angle of intercept. Mike, going low to prevent a helmet-to-helmet hit, ends up donking Eifert in a helmet-to-helmet hit as Eifert dives forward to the ground. Mitchell draws an penalty, which infuriates everybody on the Steelers' sideline, but in my view was a done deal. With all the bad mojo building between the teams from the get-go, and somebody coming over the middle for a major collision, had Mitchell just breathed on Eifert a flag was coming out.
* Stephon Tuitt may have had the play of the game when he smartly stepped in front of Giovani Bernard to intercept a shovel pass from Andy Dalton on the Bengals' first drive. Repetition and paying attention to details produces big-time plays such as this. Seeing it in practice, listening to your coaches and, when the opportunity presents itself, make the play! The fact that Tuitt got a fist bump from defensive line coach John Mitchell, who doesn’t hand those out indiscriminately, would attest to how far the star has risen in Stephon’s growth as a player. This young man is becoming dangerous as a player.
* Fitzgerald Toussaint ran off-tackle for three yards and a cloud of fists. Apparently, Antonio Brown went in too low on an illegal crackback block, which set off another melee of slapping, smacking and hacking among too many players to name. It was beginning to look like a Jerry Springer show with all of the side altercations flaring up. As A.B. got into it with a Bengal, I thought “Don’t punch, A.B., protect your hands.”
* The buzzword began circulating that Dalton injured his thumb. A.J. McCarron took the next series and then Dalton appeared on the big screen in a t-shirt and a cast on his right hand. The rumor was true.
* The power and speed that the Steelers' inside linebackers bring to the big bang showed up in a Jeremy Hill 3-yard run late in the second quarter. "Law Dawg," Lawrence Timmons, was the first, popping and then disengaging from the offensive lineman to get a piece of Hill. Timmons could only partially get a grip on Hill, and it appeared briefly that Hill might escape. But Ryan Shazier swooped in from the backside and provided the necessary bang to plant Hill like he was Johnny Appleseed on Arbor Day.
* I had just become comfy along the sidelines in the third quarter when “Big Play" Willie Gay lived up to his monicker. With an uncanny knack for turning picks into pick-sixes, Will got a read, jumped the now route at the line of scrimmage and trotted into the end zone for his fifth consecutive interception-turned-touchdown. Will then proceeded to dance in the end zone and, when he picked up a partner in Brandon Boykin, drew a penalty flag for excessive celebrating. The Turk up in the booth remarked that maybe the flag was for excessively ugly dancing. Will joined Joey Porter on the sideline for a little more celebrating, probably figuring he might as well since he already had been flagged.
* In the third quarter, things got even nastier. There were more cheap shots taken here than at a presidential primary debate. A.B. pulled off a spectacular one-handed catch with Dre Kirkpatrick defending. Dre was honked and started chirping with Steelers on the sideline who were giving Dre the business, so to speak. They were letting him know from the that AB had schooled him. Dre, sensitive to having just been beaten, and drawing a flag to boot, created more of a problem than was necessary. People began moving around toward the source of the agitation, and the officials started moving over, and then Mike Tomlin coolly stepped in and got things under control. All this carried on through the officials reviewing the catch, which eventually was overruled. But Kirkpatrick was called for defensive holding, so the point became moot.
* There was some awesome football being played in between the dust-ups, and one of them was Cam Heyward's one-hand sack of McCarron. The Bengals QB attempted to run up the middle out of the pocket and Cam corralled him with a grab of his big meaty hand and slammed him while fending off a 300-plus-pound hoofer. That’s some serious grip strength to be sure. Heyward has distinguished himself as a true Pro Bowler in my most humble opinion, and it would be a shame if he doesn't get a ticket to Hawaii.
* Robert Golden had a golden moment when he intercepted a McCarron overthrow. Bodies began hitting the deck immediately. We always used to say that when there was a pick, it was akin to the inmates taking over the asylum, because there were defensive guys who had your number who might be looking for a little frontier justice.
* Keeping your head on a swivel is at a premium as you try to tackle an interceptor without getting blind-sided. One guy who didn’t swivel his head very well was Bengals OG Kevin Zeitler. He was air-mailed by Shazier and landed a mere five yards away from me on the sideline with a thud so loud I could hear it through my headset. Normally I would say that Ryan “showed him the sky,” but judging Zeitler’s view from the helmet and the angle at which he landed, I’d say it was more probable that Ryan “showed him the esca-loser.”
* Seriously? Late in the fourth quarter, Williams carried the ball, did a jump cut to the outside, spun off a guy and then put his shoulder down to run over a Bengal, who had to take the play off. Tunch Ilkin was yelling about “32-year old legs don’t do that.” But they do when they belong to DeAngelo Williams.
* I saw the “Beloved Agitator,” Cody Wallace, at the end of the game. Cody had been in more dust-ups than a Hoover Vacuum Cleaner salesman before Christmas. I asked Cody how the day had gone. In a very funny, almost sheepish voice, Cody said with a twinkle in his eye, “Well, I had a lot of warnings.”
* When the final gun went off, it was a funny sight to see the main protagonist who had started the near-melee before the game, Burfict, walking around the field by himself looking for somebody to shake hands with after the game was over. Didn’t look to be any takers.