No sooner had I hit groundhog level at Paul Brown Stadium when I realized the game officials meant business. All of the officials were present and accounted for and standing like guards on a watchtower with their heels on the 50-yard line, unlike Game 2 in Cincinnati. There was no chance for a re-enactment of the Vontaze Burfict versus Vince Williams face-off during the pre-game stretch period.
* Just before the coin toss, both Burfict and Adam Jones did a low “flyby” of the Pittsburgh Steelers' bench as they sprinted from their end of the field to the Steelers end zone after most of the Steelers had moved to the sidelines. They were closer to the Steelers sideline than theirs. It was a deliberate, thought out, thumbing-my-nose act of immaturity by two really loose cannons. It was a portent of things to come.
* Bengals' first drive of the game, third-and-11, A.J. McCarron dropped back to pass and Bud Dupree rushed upfield against the “Dancing Bear,” Bengals RT Andre Smith. The 6-4, 325 pound Smith has great feet (thus the nickname), but can get lazy with his hands. He did, and Bud didn’t. Dupree threw a monster uppercut, lifting it high as he drove hard cutting his angle, pressing the edge on McCarron who became flushed out of the pocket. Bud is learning that when you throw an uppercut you’ve got to rip with the intent of lifting the center of the man (in this case 325 pounds, but I’m guessing that’s before breakfast, lunch and dinner as well as several snacks) with the resulting “under and up” advantage that a high uppercut finish gives you. Bud used to throw an uppercut without lifting and getting his center under the opponent’s center of mass. Now he’s getting leverage on his rushes. Even better, this was with a four-man rush, which is what you ideally want to be able to create pass rush pressure.
* Later on in the first quarter, Cam Heyward used the leverage principle to go “Boling for Dollars” by driving Bengals LG Clint Boling backward into the lap of McCarron, who threw the ball away. When Cam gets that locked out, climb-the-body bull rush on, he‘d get movement on a tank.
* Bengals Pro Bowl S Reggie Nelson has had a terrific year, posting eight interceptions, but he’s a run-stopper as well. Jordan Todman, showing some seriously nifty running when he broke one for 14 yards before being pushed out of bounds by Nelson on the Steelers sideline. Maybe a little too out of bounds. A skirmish of sorts broke out on the sideline and I couldn't see much with all of the bodies swirling amidst what was becoming a very tense atmosphere in Paul Brown Stadium. Steelers O-line coach Mike Munchak was flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct for, among other things, apparently checking to see if Nelson’s hair is fake or real, like Donald Trump’s, and/or pushing Nelson. I have a hard time believing Munch was doing anything more than trying to untangle from an awkward situation which happens on occasion when opponents crash your sideline. The intensity of the game gave the impression that every bump was a shove, and every shove a cheap shot. From my limited perspective it didn’t appear to be anything with malice intended.
* In between the end of the first and beginning of the second quarter, Mike Tomlin was having an in-depth discussion with the referee, and I’m presuming, because I can’t read lips, that Mike’s gestures seemed to mimic pushing and that his conversation had to do with whether or not Munch’s penalty was fair. The officials were going out of their way to keep things under control.
* In the second quarter, with the rain coming down steadily, the pocket collapsed on McCarron, who threw up a “duck,” and Antwon Blake came down with a timely INT and showed some broken-field running skills during the return. As I’ve said many times before, Blake is a battler. He has his limitations, but there’s no asking for -- nor giving -- of quarter with this guy. He plays hard. He competes. And he keeps lining up. There’s a lot to be said for that.
* The first guy I saw break out in a big smile on the sideline was Markus Wheaton. “Wheat” had fumbled on the series before to give Cincinnati the ball on their own 46-yard line. I’ve had the privilege of getting to know Markus from our weekly radio show, and I’ve found him to be a talented, hardworking and sincere guy who I know must have felt horrible about putting the ball on the ground. I found out afterward that this was the first time Markus fumbled a football in a game. Ever. High school, college and pros. I’m betting he hugged it up with Antwon.
* Ryan Shazier was having a good night as he’s starting to blossom into the devastating force at linebacker the Steelers thought he’d be. Aside from showing up on run defense consistently on the downhill bang, his coverage skills are also improving. When he broke up a pass intended for TE Tyler Eifert, it was timely, clean and skillfully done.
* Later on in the second quarter McCarron went deep to A.J. Green only to see a friendly fire incident with Blake and Mike Mitchell vaporize each other. Blake got the worst of it, and after they get to the sideline Steelers Doc Jim Bradley walked over to check Blake out. Now Doc is trying to make sure Antwon is OK, but Mitchell came over to add his two cents. And then Will Allen walked over with Will Gay. I had to laugh because as each guy came over to check on his teammate, Doc had to re-focus Blake on whatever he was doing to make sure he’s not hurt. Finally Doc says enough of the visitation with his patient and shooed away all the DB’s. Antwon’s good, and in good hands. The boys were just checking on one of their own.
* Speaking of Doc Bradley and checking guys out, I know that he’s has another service call lined up with Wheaton. Markus caught a ball over the middle only to run into a slobber-knocker of a hit from Bengals SS Shawn Williams. Williams struggled a bit getting up after the hit, but Markus popped right up as if to say “That’s all you got?” A china doll, as we used to refer to WRs back in the day, Markus is not.
* One slobber-knocker deserves another. Adam Jones returned the second half kickoff only to exchange DNA with Vince Williams, such was the closing force of Williams running under the kick in coverage. Vince vaporized Jones on the hit. I’m betting that if Pacman checked his lineage on Ancestry.com he’d find a little bit of Williams DNA now registered on his timeline.
* “I’ve been waiting for that!” chortled the Turk up in the booth over the airwaves. Jarvis Jones threw a great uppercut on Pro bowl and first-team All-Pro LT Andrew Whitworth. Jones, who’d been making some excellent plays of late, drove hard on the edge turning the stile of Whitworth. Jarvis slapped the ball out of McCarron’s hands and into the hands of Cam Thomas, who picked up the ball and began running with it to a background call in my head that featured ESPN’s Chris Berman screaming “Look at the rumbling, stumbling…” Great play by both.
* After a Ben Roethlisberger-to-Darrius Heyward-Bey pass hit the ground incomplete in the third quarter, an amiable Cody Wallace stuck out his hand to help up Bengals DT Wallace Gilberry. Cody can’t seem to make friends, because Wallace looked up at Cody and then slapped his hands away defiantly. Defensive players seem to get miffed at Cody because he blocks until the whistle. Or the echo of the whistle. Or, well, one thing you can never say about Cody is that he doesn’t give max effort. Snap to whistle, he puts more effort in than most.
* Fitzgerald Toussaint, besides having an awesome name, can flat out play. He and Todman have provided the necessary spark in the ground game that the Steelers needed to make the Bengals respect their run reads and not just tee off on Big Ben. On back-to-back third-quarter carries, Fitz picked up seven and then five yards while displaying nice "gription" and vision. Both players represented themselves well and look like they belong. One aspect of Fitz’s game that stuck out to me is that he really protects the ball well.
* On a run, David DeCastro showed Burfict the sky. In an awesome display of power and technique, with just enough ill will to make it interesting, DeCastro overpowered Burfict on a drive block and slammed him to the turf with a thud I could ALMOST feel in my bones on the sideline. There’s nothing that matches the satisfaction of pancaking an opponent. Pancaking a guy who’s as chippie as Burfict is icing on the cake. And you know offensive linemen like their cake. With plenty of icing to be sure.
* I have only one word to describe Martavis Bryant’s catch in the corner of the end zone: Odell-ish.
* Shazier Sha-zammed Giovani Bernard with another of those DNA exchange-type of hits. Watching Ryan get his see-do on, as in see it/do it, is akin to a snap of the fingers in reaction time. I have to admit I was surprised that no flag was thrown. Not that it was a dirty hit, but one that the NFL is bound and determined to get rid of. It was a beauty, though I’m certainly not excited about Bernard being hurt and happier still that he's OK. But that hit was part and parcel of yesterday’s NFL. Ryan might want to get a picture of it and frame it. Big hits are on the endangered list.
* After Shazier’s fumble recovery was reversed with replay, the fans started to get their Cleveland on and began chucking plastic bottles, cans and reportedly some batteries. Things got ugly the way things get ugly before a major storm erupts. And moments later, when Ben was sacked, piled on and kneed by Burfict and had to leave the game by golf cart, they shelled Ben and showed no class whatsoever. Where’s Sam Wyche when you need him for another PSA on throwing objects from the stands?
* In the fourth quarter, things were still looking ugly, and with Ben out the Bengals prospered. McCarron went deep to Green and drew a 42-yard pass interference call on Allen. I wasn’t surprised that a flag came out. I wouldn’t have been surprised if no flag was thrown, because it was a bang-bang play. What surprised me was how the field judge, who was on the coverage, could even make a call because he was on the backside of the play that was on the front side of Green, which made it seemingly impossible for him to make a call. Not only that, after both players crashed to the ground, he paused, looked up and around for a moment, and then threw the flag which I took to mean someone else or something else confirmed or encouraged him to throw the flag.
* It has been a tough, hard-fought, battering-type game. As I stood on the sideline, the wear and tear of a good day’s rushing and catching the ball was apparent of Toussaint’s face. He had a gash on his nose with blood running down over the bandage which was close to coming off. All in a day’s work.
* There’s little I can add to the overwhelming coverage of the back-to-back selfishness by Burfict and Jones. The Steelers' sideline exploded with life after it seemed all life was slowly leaving as Ben tried to get them down the field. Everybody seemed to freeze for a heartbeat of time after Antonio Brown was trucked by Burfict. The medical staff led by trainer John Norwig sprinted onto the field. Tensions were high and things got nastier as Jones got into the act after Burfict tried to tap AB while he was being helped off of the field, which precipitated the Gilberry, Joey Porter and Jones flag incident.
* There were no handshakes after this game. Both teams headed straight to their respective locker room, and I knew it was serious, security wise, when I saw Tomlin come back out to the field with Steelers head security man Jack Kearney and other officers to ensure safe passage for Ben, who was still on the field doing TV interviews.
* An ironic side note to all this is the sign that is displayed on the wall of the Bengals locker room. It reads: "The key to winning is poise under stress” -- Paul Brown. I’m thinking somebody missed that one.