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Sideline observations from the Pittsburgh Steelers' playoff-clinching win

Craig Wolfley's in early with his sideline report from the Steelers' win over the Cleveland Browns.

The sunless streak in Cleveland has continued for my entire 26 years combined in both playing and broadcasting. I believe I’ve seen the sun just once on game day in Cleveland. As a player I know for sure there was just one sunny day, but as a broadcaster I’m pretty sure that if there was more than one or two, it would be a lot. It might always be Danny DeVito and “Sunny in Philadelphia,” but Cleveland must mean “Mostly cloudy.”

* Though cold, the key was that the wind wasn’t a big player. I've been in Cleveland when the temperature dropped below zero, and I have seen wind blow a trash-can liner across the field and then shoot straight up in the air like a rocket taking off and out of sight. The wind was gusting a little but not so much that it played havoc with stra-tee-gery.

* Ben Roethlisberger hit Antonio Brown with a nice toss in the flat and Antonio turned and ran 13 yards only to get stripped of the ball by ILB Karlos Dansby, whose ILB running mate, Craig Robertson, picked up the ball for a 9-yard return. Antonio immediately signaled that he was down prior to the fumble and that they should throw out the challenge flag. But he didn’t gesture with the intensity of a guy convinced he would be vindicated by a replay.

* There appeared to be some discussion among the coaches as to the wisdom of challenging the call. It was a good thing they didn’t because the replay came up on the big board showing that A.B. hadn’t hit the turf before the ball was out.

* When the offensive unit hit the sidelines it had the look of a group that had the look of, ”Uh-oh, not this again.” 

* Early on, Will Allen was everywhere, making plays both big and not so big. Prior to an early snap, Brandon Boykin looked confused over the call, started to go one way but Will directed traffic for Boykin, finally taking his own position just before the snap. Austin Davis hit his primary target, TE Gary Barnidge, over the middle-left flat on a fourth-and-5 only to have Allen close hard on Barnidge and stop him dead in his tracks. I mean a dead stop, too. Barnidge got four of the five yards but Will hit him before he could square up and bring the big hurt and get a first down.

* If you wanted to see a “Classic Jurassic Park Meat-Eater Match-up,” then you only had to have a gander at Browns NT Danny Shelton and Cody Wallace having a go. I’m not going to highlight one, just take your pick. I felt the sudden urge to eat some beef-jerky.

* Ben’s TD pass to Heath Miller drew a curious cheer/boo chorus from the stands. The Pittsburgh Steelers fans rolled out the very familiar “Heeeaaattthhh,” while the Cleveland fans joined in with some “Boooooooo,” and the mixture made an interesting combination “Heeeaaa-oooo.”

* There’s that guy again, Allen, trailing behind on a Fire X, as we called it back in the day. Will sneaked up, timed his blitz so that both inside linebackers fired and ran a twist, rushing A and B gaps to one side, and Will shot through the gap left by the Browns' O-line. Allen dropped Davis for a 9-yard loss to set the Browns to punting in the first quarter. I like how people in the know describe Will Allen as “a prideful professional.”

* After Browns DB Jordan Poyer picked off Roethlisberger late in the first quarter, on a pass targeted for Martavis Bryant, Ben came to the sideline and had some stiff words for the young wideout. Learning is a neverending process of moving ahead in your skill set. Be it miscommunication in the huddle, a hand sign or a code word, or just flat-out messing up, you can be sure that you’re going to hear it from the big guy.

* There are few things that compare to the disappointment of getting injured as your team ramps up for what possibly might be a playoff run. When DeAngelo Williams was grabbed by the ankles and fallen upon by Browns 320-pound DT John Hughes, I felt a glitch in my gut that I was watching a 2014 game re-run of Le'Veon Bell and the Bengals. D-Will, as he’s called by his teammates, immediately grabbed what first looked to be his knee, and then ankle as he rolled over on the ground. It wasn’t a dirty play, just the price of running with the dinosaurs inside the tackle box.

* Seeing DeAngelo climb onto the golf cart was déjà vu all over again with Bell, Landry Jones, Big Ben (2x), and now Williams taking that ride this season.

* Browns WR Travis Benjamin went in jet motion running parallel to the line of scrimmage and took a hand-off from Davis. For a moment from groundhog level it appeared Benjamin just might gain the corner and turn up the field. Out of nowhere flashed that guy again, Allen, who ran Benjamin out of bonds at the line of scrimmage for no gain. If Will suddenly sprouted long hair, I’d swear I was watching Troy Polamalu again.

Steve McLendon is a beast. Huge, powerful and quiet, Big Steve talks with his play. Back in the day, hands to the face was something you did offensively to stop a bull rush, or if it was on the other side of the ball, the defensive linemen would go to your face and stretch your neck a little while driving you backward. Steve got all of his five yards worth when he was called for illegal use of the hands while going to the face mask. He made Browns C Alex Mack look like a Pez dispenser while bull-rushing Mack on a pass play. Good flexibility of the neck by the Mack.

Antwon Blake has taken some heat for his play this season. I’m not making excuses for Blake, who’s had some ups and downs, but he’s a battler, and you can’t help but have a soft spot for a battling dude. Run-heavy first and second downs are a good place for him to park some of his fine attributes, but it was on a third-and-10 late in the first half when Blake came on a blitz and dropped Davis like a bad habit, forcing the Browns kick for three. Befitting his blue collar “I slugged my way into the league,” mentality, Antwon did it with just the right touch of effervescence.

* Later on in the second quarter, Markus Wheaton showed great body control and hand/eye coordination in adjusting to, and then snaring, a 40-yard pass from Ben over the middle. Running that route required a lot of courage and focus because it can run you into an unseen defensive player coming at you with nasty intentions. It’s like trying to cross the Parkway blindfolded. Gave me a queasy feeling just thinking about it.

Stephon Tuitt may be the most improved defensive player this year. I had a good angle to peruse him against Cleveland OG Cameron Erving. When you're moving backward, you're being driven back and some of it is the strategic give-ground-grudgingly rule of pass protection. Easy, right? When you're moving backward quicker than you want, with your shoulders beyond your hips while leaning backward, that’s called being overpowered. So when Stephon got his bull rush on so fiercely that Erving was turned sideways, (like he was putting his shoulder to a door to keep it closed), what do you call that? Easy now …

* Déjà Vu All Over Again II: James Harrison played man coverage on Barnidge and picked off Davis at the Pittsburgh 1. Unlike Super bowl 43 and Harrison’s historic 100-Yrd return for a TD, Deebo only got six yards this time.

* Speaking of that historic return, I remember as James lay prostrate in Tampa Bay sucking air in huge gulps after his historic return, Steelers trainer John Norwig kneeled over Deebo. But James pushed him away while still laying on his back and said, “Get out of my face. You’re stealing my air!”

* In the third quarter Davis launched deep to Browns WR Terrelle Pryor on a go-route, Ross Cockrell, playing man coverage, positioned himself expertly in a fit-in position, where he's in the same posture as Pryor. Cockrell ran with his back to Pryor slowly but surely taking the go out of the go-route, eyes locked on the ball’s descending flight arc. The DBs call it playing “Butt ball,” positioning yourself so that the WR is on your backside and you use the out of bounds as another defender. Outstanding play by Ross.

* "Law Dawg" Lawrence Timmons threw a “Helicopter,” or spin move, on OG Erving during a fourth-quarter rush. He spun so tight off of Erving that George Perlas, the defensive line coach of the 70s Steel Curtain, would have said “He could spin in a three-quart bucket!” Timmons got the sack and stripped Davis of the ball. Arthur Moats made the recovery.

* Brown snared Roethlisberger’s pass for 17 yards in the fourth quarter and the Turk up in the booth started talking about Antonio’s “Quick to the tuck” ability, as former Steelers WR coach Scottie Montgomery would describe it. A.B. catches the ball and seemingly in one motion tucks it into his body. It’s not by happenstance, or just an amazing ability that he was born with. When you watch A.B., whether on the practice field or after practice catching the ball out of the JUGS gun, A.B, catches it and tucks it on every rep -- not every now and then, not once in a while, but every rep, just like a martial-arts master would train a fighting technique. Chinese martial artists have a saying: “10,000 reps equal no questions.” I’m guessing A.B. has no questions about the technique of “Quick to the tuck.”

* When A.B. came around the corner on a reverse/shuffle pass, he ended up giving Heath a shot in the backside. Mike Tomlin immediately let A.B. know he was supposed to turn it up inside the tight end, not give him a sore backside by running up the back of him. “Hear me now and believe me later” (In your best Arnold Schwarzenegger voice), getting a ballistic enema hurts.

* Listening to the crowd late in the game cheer at updates from the scoreboard was the only noticeable time that anybody was actively score-watching. Such was the focus of everybody on the sidelines. When the game was over, it was noisy bedlam among the remaining hardcore Steelers fans and the players enjoying the moment on the field. Steelers Nation showed up large on this day.


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