Pre-game warmups are a time that brings out the stars, and this night in the 'Burgh, under the lights, with the big stage of Sunday Night Football featuring Al Michaels and the much-maligned Cris Collinsworth, was no different.
From Pittsburgh’s own Billy Gardell to Hall of Famer John Stallworth, rock band Styx, former Steelers Chris Hoke and Greg Lloyd, General Michael Hayden and of course, the man about to receive the much coveted Hall of Fame ring, Kevin Greene.
* I saw Kevin on the field and chatted him up for a few minutes. He’s a great guy and I enjoyed catching up with him. So as we parted I gave him a big ol' congratulatory hug before ascending the stairs to head up to the press box for a bit. I came across linebacker Art Moats just outside the Pittsburgh Steelers locker room and I gave him a hug, too. I said, “That’s hug mojo straight from a Hall of Famer to you, Art,” which Moats found amusing. You can spread good mojo like Tinkerbell spreads fairy dust, didn’t you know that?
* If there was any question or trepidation about going after the Chiefs CB Marcus Peters, you wouldn’t know it from the Steelers' first play from scrimmage. Peters had notched four INTs already in this young season, and my own film study in preparation for this game said Peters was an aggressive go-for-it type of coverage guy whom you could burn, or he could burn you. He’s talented, but if you watch the Houston and San Diego game films, they went right at him. So did Ben Roethlisberger and Sammie Coates, hooking up for an explosive 47-yarder was a prelude of things to come.
* First-quarter action and the Steelers are still throwing the ball. TE Jesse James lined up next to Alejandro Villanueva and acts like he’s going to block Chiefs DE Tamba Hali, only he bailed at the last second to run a delay route. There was most definitely a miscommunication between Jesse and Big Al, because Al had turned inside to help out B.J. Finney. Hali got up field and had a free run at Ben. Now I’m watching on the sidelines as Jessie and Al are continuing the conversation which started out on the field, as they hash it out and get it straight.
* Stephon Tuitt got up into the “B” gap and stripped the ball from RB Spencer Ware. The ball rolled right into the hands of the human ball magnet, Ross Cockrell, who recovered an important fumble back in Cincinnati last year in the playoffs, if you recall. The ball seems to find Ross, just one of those things you can’t explain, only that it does. Now, in all fairness, sometimes while the ball is finding Ross, Ross isn’t finding the ball as two passes defensed in the first two games (Wash, Cincy) were dropped interceptions. But Ross does have a knack for being around the ball and he’s also developing into a pretty fine CB as well.
* After Darrius Heyward-Bey scored on a 31-yarder, the Steelers went for two on the conversion. Markus Wheaton caught the 2-pointer and in stark contrast to last week when Markus dropped a pass in the end zone Markus walked by me on the sideline and I could see a little smile on his face. Not a touchdown smile, but a two-point conversion smile, which is infinitely better than dropped-touchdown frown, no doubt.
* The pass rush was hot on QB Alex Smith. While throwing from what Mike Tomlin aptly described as “the well” that pass rushers built around Smith by collapsing the pocket, Smith had his attempted screen pass tipped into the air by Cameron Heyward. Jarvis Jones caught it on a dead run, only to be tackled by Smith and suffer a Chuck Noll-style “Small number” slapdown. Coach would always point out when a small number (meaning a QB, RB or WR) took out a bigger number (meaning an O-lineman, D-lineman, LBer etc.) and it, of course, was a disparaging commentary on the play. I could see Moats razzing Jarvis, who was passionately attempting to defend himself and explain why he didn’t make it into the end zone. A pretty funny sight to be sure.
* In the second quarter, the Chiefs wickedly fast punt returner, Tyreek Hill, returned a punt 78 yards for a touchdown. It seemed to re-focus the crowd after Ben had led the Steelers to a 22-point lead in the first quarter. There was a collective sigh of relief as flags flew into the air. The bad blocks were pretty blatant and out in the open, but you never know if the officials are watching.
* Heyward didn’t get this sack, as Vince Williams officially recorded it, but Vince can thank Cam as Heyward, making like a four-wheel-drive vehicle, tractored Chiefs G Zack Fulton right into Smith’s lap. I mean that was some serious ham-hock powered bullrushing going right down the middle of Fulton. That’s the worst feeling in the world as an offensive lineman. To be overpowered on the most basic of rushes leaves you feeling puny and powerless. Makes for a long night.
* James' touchdown was terrific, but it was actually the post-TD catch aerial act that caught my eye. Ryan Harris, subbing for the injured Marcus Gilbert, came running over to James in the end zone after the catch. In a good bit of jet-flying, hip-bumping, high-fivery, Ryan got more air than any other offensive lineman I’ve maybe ever seen. What’s that saying? Something about “When pigs fly?” Or better, “When Hogs fly!”
* So I’m standing on the sideline, minding my own business, when after the James TD and into some pre-kickoff, the defense is massing together near the 35-yard line. A guy holding a long “boom mic” hangs it over the heads of the unit to catch some sounds for TV. Tomlin walked over and began speaking to the defense. I guess Heyward didn’t appreciate the mic picking up on anything his coach was saying and reached up and swatted the offending mic away like it was an over-sized fly. The guy wielding the boom mic took the hint and moved on to another area. Smart move.
* Finney, in making his first start, played very well. In the second half, from out of the blue, Chiefs S Eric Berry came a-flyin' on a blitz. He timed it well, and I could see it from the snap, from groundhog level. B.J.’s hands were on a defensive lineman he had punched off to the inside, and for a heartbeat I thought B.J. was going to miss the sprinting Berry. But B.J. came off the down rusher to be-donk the fast moving Berry. The hit ricocheted Berry like he B.J. playing pool and just announced that he was going 8-ball corner pocket Berry. He did, although I can’t verify if he actually called the shot mind you.
* Wheaton just scored a touchdown and now I’m watching as they go to video review and Markus is looking a little tense as the ref gets under the hood. Did he or didn’t he get both feet in bounds? And, according to the “Turk up in the booth,” it’s highly important for Markus to get that bad taste of a dropped touchdown pass from Philadelphia out of his mouth. That’s the pistachio nut theory. If you eat a bad pistachio, the only thing that will get rid of the bad taste in your mouth is a good pistachio. Mints won’t do it, other nuts won’t get the job done and neither will a two-point conversion. Only a good pistachio gets rid of the taste. Same thing for dropped touchdown passes. You gotta catch one. He did, and that bad taste is gone.
* Tuitt is massively strong. He and Heyward were blowing up the B-gaps all night long, like a Penn Dot demolition crew. Late in the fourth quarter Tuitt got a heavy push on his adversary, Chiefs 6-5, 321-pound G Laurent Duvernay-Tardif, which translates to “Caught Bull By Horns.” It’s hard to put into words the strength a man has to have to push another man, all 321 pounds of him, violently backward that fast. The next time you watch the bulls running in Pamplona, Spain, picture yourself on the horns. Then you’ll appreciate what Tardif and the other guard, Fulton, must have felt like on occasion.
* After the Chiefs went on an 18-play drive that failed to score late in the third quarter, Tomlin let out a war whoop loud enough for me to hear through my headphones. The head coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers wasn’t content in being up 36-0 at this point. Coach Mike wanted the shutout.
* Seeing Le'Veon Bell out on the field is always a treat. Reminds me in some ways of Barry Sanders in that you don’t want to miss what he might do next. A 44-yard run in the fourth quarter was another highlight-reel moment that I found even more interesting when I spotted Maurkice Pouncey 40-plus yards downfield blowing up some poor schmuck while leading a search-and-destroy mission for Bell. Outstanding work.
* After the game I interviewed Finney. He’s an excellent young man who had just entered into the club of NFL starters. It’s funny, but as my producer counted me down I stood there looking at B.J., and slowly it dawned on me that 35 years ago as a young man in his second season with the Pittsburgh Steelers I had made my first start at home against the Kansas City Chiefs at left guard. So I was basically interviewing myself.
* And my best question might have been this: When did I get this old?