In taking the field at Sports Authority Field at Mile High during pregame warm up, I was struck by the two officials who walked up to each other and fist-bumped. A double-fisted fist bump. I don’t know. Maybe I’ve missed it before but I don't recall seeing officials fist bump. Look, I realize this isn’t groundbreaking news, and I’m sure it’s not unique, but it caught my attention in a funny way that maybe is specific to a concussed brain. I can only say that it just struck me as funny.
* Obviously the story of pregame was in watching Ben Roethlisberger throw. From a number of tossed lobs just greasing the shoulder up, to throwing 12-yard slants with a touch of mustard on them, to 25-yard heaters on the out cuts to finally culminating in some 40-yard go routes, everything looked to be green-lighted for Ben. I remember back years ago when Terry Bradshaw played his last game at Shea Stadium in New York against the Jets. With an elbow that seemed to be held together by duct tape, the mandate given to us on the line was that “Nobody can touch him.” The inference being that if you had to hold some jersey to keep Brad clean, you held the guy. If you had to trip a guy roaring through the line, well stick that leg out and trip him. And if you had to tackle somebody to make sure he didn’t hit the Blond Bomber, well by golly you tackle that man. I had a feeling it was pretty much the same today as it was back then.
* Well, well, well. First play out of the Pittsburgh Steelers' box and Big Ben goes downtown with a rocket that traveled maybe 55 yards in the air and over the outstretched hands of Markus Wheaton. I guess that settles the issue of Ben’s arm problems. Ben is one tough dude.
* Storyline No. 2 two could well be who would step up and provide catches and yards in Antonio Brown’s absence. The Steelers' second series provided some of the answers. Facing a third-and-8, Sammie Coates caught a pass and shook free while displaying a burst of speed in outrunning his cover man for 37 yards before he was pushed out of bounds by Broncos safety Darian Stewart. Sammie looked like he had been doing that all year long, not just recently activated and drawing a helmet for Sunday. By the way, and I’ve not heard too many people take notice, but Darrius Heyward-Bey gave great effort to get out ahead of Sammie and get a block that gave Coates an extra dozen yards or so. Superb effort by DHB.
* One of the advantages to being a seasoned veteran like James Harrison is that you’ve pretty much seen everything, including just about all forms of trickeration. When Peyton Manning continued his pre-snap pantomime on a third-and-2 from Denver's 40-yard line, I felt the hairs stand up on the back of my neck. Peyton, doing his thing before the snap, started waving off a WR while moving towards his own sideline (I happened to have witnessed a few of these myself in years past). Broncos RB Ronnie Hillman took a shotgun snap and started to run toward the line of scrimmage. James drew a direct bead on Hillman, never so much as being slightly confused by all of Manning’s gyrations, and mulched Hillman like some killjoy spotting and blowing up an inept street magician’s card trick. Hillman had a body language look of “Whose great idea was this?” as James helped him up.
* “Tunch Spilkin” strikes again. During a radio break in the first half, I heard Tunch yell and then a great amount of fumbling was heard through my headsets down on the sidelines. I started chuckling to myself, knowing what probably had happened. Apparently the evil twin of my brother, Tunch Ilkin, otherwise known as “Spilkin,” for the number of times that he has spilled liquids in a variety of shapes, colors and thermal temperatures. Before dinner, after dinner, during dinner that man is always capable of getting someone doused.
* One of the things that I noticed while watching game film before the Broncos rematch was that the inner Denver three -- Malik Jackson, Derek Wolfe and NT Sylvester Williams -- are peekers, guys that tended to play a little high after the snap of the ball while trying to locate the ball visually rather than just playing through their low pad-level reads. Plus, Wolfe and Jackson were on the light side for defensive linemen, each checking in at 285 pounds or so. If the Steelers would stay on their double teams a little longer and concentrate on throwing the three-technique guy into the lap of inside linebackers Brandon Marshall and Danny Trevathan, they could get their running attack going. It’s exceedingly difficult for a linebacker to run to the ball or get his downhill bang on when there are flying 285-pound bodies in their laps. On a first-and-10, Fitzgerald Toussaint ran behind some serious double teams for 15 yards and a first-and-goal.
* The other thing that has really helped the Steelers rushing attack of late was the fact that Big Al Villanueva, playing left tackle, has learned to identify and destroy the most dangerous man on cutbacks rather than just go after his man, who may or may not have already run himself out of the picture. It’s all a matter of learning, and I will say that Villanueva has exceeded where many have failed. Learning on the job while holding down the blind side can ruin most men and the QB’s they are protecting. Al’s learning curve was the steepest I’ve seen in a long time, if ever. He has really come a long ways.
* It’s hard not to get caught up in checking out what Harrison is up to. James not only survives and thrives because of his physicality, but his game brains are second to none. He is a very smart football player. After sniffing out the attempted chicanery in the first quarter, Deebo gave chase on the backside in the second quarter to the Broncos' C.J. Anderson, who was running to his right side away from James. Harrison's assignment was to close from the backside after making sure there was no reverse. James has a natural instinct to chase. He chased his prey and dropped Anderson for a one-yard loss from behind. It's an outstanding, disruptive play that really exemplifies Harrison’s ability to decipher while on the gallop. James is 37 years young in every sense of the word. And he's STILL the Steelers' best outside linebacker.
* The swirling, gusting wind that kicked up sometime before kickoff in the stadium got worse as the game went on. “Money” (according to the Turk up in the booth) Chris Boswellstood 43 yards out, looking before the snap at field goal uprights vibrating in the wind like those goofy balloon men that you see shaking in front of car dealerships. I might be overdoing the shaking a tad, but seriously they were moving and vibrating so much that I thought Bos might have a tough time nailing it. He didn’t.
* Deep into the second quarter, I came upon former Steelers DE Travis Kirschke hanging out on the sideline. Travis was a valuable 13-year veteran who spent time with the Lions and 49ers before coming to Pittsburgh for two Super Bowl rings. We spent some time trying to figure out why the Steelers weren’t able to get the pass rush going, and then WHAMO! Stephon Tuitt slammed Manning to the turf as we were speaking. Peyton still completed the pass, but at least his uniform didn’t look so clean. Maybe Travis needs to stay on the sideline.
* Manning stood under center and took the snap on the following next play. He fumbled the exchange and I couldn’t help but wonder if that hard smackdown from Tuitt didn’t discombobulate the QB enough to create the fumble. Sometimes a hard hit or two takes a little finesse out of your fine motor skills. Just ask Spilkin.
* Martavis Bryant was the guy who seemed most suitable to stepping up his game with Antonio out. Antonio didn’t even make the trip for medical reason. (Although I suspect he’s so competitive the Steelers were afraid of him sneaking onto the field.) But Martavis caught a third-quarter pass from Ben and hit the accelerator like Hans Solo throwing the light speed switch on the Millennium Falcon. Fifty-two yards later, Bryant got tractor-beamed by Broncos safety T.J. Ward. But that was quite a show of power and speed by Bryant, who in my humble opinion is in the same class of broken field runner as A.B. and Le'Veon Bell.
* Still in the third quarter and OLB Art Moats is out of the game with a pectoral strain. So naturally you take Deebo and move him from his customary side on the defensive right to the left to give Bud Dupree a break. Broncos TE Virgil Green was lined up on the same side as Harrison and I’m guessing he had to be thinking “What’s he doing here?” At the snap of the ball Hillman took a handoff and ran at the same hole occupied by Mr. Harrison. It’s the classic “immoveable object versus unstoppable force.” Immoveable object won easily for loss of a yard. After Hillman got back to his feet, he paused and looked at the immoveable Harrison with a look that said “What’s he doing here?”
* Late in the third quarter, Ben thew over the middle to Wheaton for a 6-yard gain. DeMarcus Ware, battling on a pass rush with Big Al, had tried to bull rush while locking out with one arm on Villanueva. Al punched and then as Ware got the one-arm lockout, Al essentially karate-chopped Ware’s arm that was locked out onto his chest. Ware dropped like a rock. “Bruce Lee” Villanueva. I like it.
* In the fourth quarter, one of the sound men on the sideline, one who holds the acoustic dishes for TV sound, came up to me and said, “I’m keeping my distance from you. Back in 2011, I was standing next to you when Demaryius Thomas caught the 80-yard pass in overtime. Bad mojo.” I could only laugh.
* When I saw Toussaint after he had fumbled the ball away, I was immediately transported back to 1989. While playing a playoff game in Denver, a very talented young receiver named Mark Stock dropped a pass to end our last chance to overtake the top-seeded Broncos. Just as Mark was inconsolable after the drop, so too was Fitz after the fumble. Mark was an excellent young man. Having graduated VMI, he served honorably as “boots on the ground” in Operation Desert Storm. I hope Fitz follows Mark’s example and doesn't let a play define who he is, or what you can become. Stock went on to play some more years and do well in business.
* It was a most somber and quiet locker room that I encountered after the game. The look, the feel, the faces were very much the same as they were in 2011 -- and 1989. When you start the journey in sunshine, flip flops and sunscreen, only to catch the January train that the playoffs become, and that journey suddenly comes to a screeching halt, it results in an overwhelming numbness that dumbs down all your faculties to the very basics. Take off your gear, shower and catch the bus. That numbness you feel is from the knowledge of how much blood, sweat and tears were spent to get this far, and that more blood, more sweat and more tears will have to be spilled out yet again next year to just get this far into the Lombardi Party. Youthfulness will cloud a sober reality that exists for the veterans on this team. The aches and pains of an aging body act as a reminder of the diminishing window that exists for each player. Seize the day, seize the moment, for there is no guarantee you will pass this way again.
* Thanks again to Jim for his giving me the opportunity to write about a game I love so much, and to a team that epitomizes what it means to be a Pittsburgher in cleats. To all those who took the time to read these most humble thoughts, it has been my privilege and you have my sincere thanks.