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Steelers Radio Network sideline reporter with his must-read notebook

The Steelers Radio Network sideline reporter takes in another strong performance from a novice "Hogg," and so much more.

Every time the Pittsburgh Steelers break out the “Bumblebee” uniforms, I'm transported back to talking to Maximillian Weisner Starks IV, the 6-8, 375 pound mammoth offensive lineman who played for the Steelers from 2004-12. After the first time the Steelers went old school and wore them, Max looked at me, looking at him, and quipped, “No self-respecting fat guy should be made to wear horizontal stripes.”

Adios, Bumblebee uni's.

* I watched Chris Hubbard pre-game, during the game and post-game. Chris was making his first professional start, and like B.J. Finney the previous week “Hubb” had a decidedly different frame of mind before the opening kickoff. Chris was fiercely locked into that concentration that a first major-league start brings. Add to it the concern in moving from guard to tackle. Add to that the immense talent of Muhammad Wilkerson as his main antagonist, for whom you have to move a position out from the comfortable phone booth fighting guard spot to which you've become accustomed. You're now in the open spaces of tackle. So, yes, you might have some pre-game yips. But Chris displayed none of that.

* Speaking of one of my favorites, the aforementioned Finney, I caught him just before kickoff jamming to AC/DC and the song "Thunderstruck.” But unlike a guy who played before him, Doug Legursky, B.J. did not play air guitar.

Ross Cockrell drew coverage on Brandon Marshall and battled him all day. Though Marshall went on to rack up 8 receptions for 114 yards, they were much of the no-real-damage variety, save for the spectacular one-handed grab Marshall made in the end zone for a touchdown. But on a third-and-1 on the plus 17-yard line, Cockrell made the play he needed in denying the ball to Marshall. Recovering from a Marshall “nudge,” as he planted on his break to come back to the ball, Cockrell got his hand in the way to break up the pass. After the play was over, Mike Mitchell protested to an offical about Marshall’s push-off technique. Brandon is huge, as far as NFL WRs goes. He’s 6-4, 230 pounds. A little push goes a long way versus the 6-0, 191-pound Cockrell. But as I was watching Mitch demonstrate the push technique employed by Marshall, I couldn’t help but smile. Working the refs is a time-honored tradition in football. Everybody does it, especially the good ones.
* In listening to the broadcast, I heard Tunch relay a conversation he had with Landry Jones. Apparently the QBs have taken to warming up with a rugby football. A rugby ball was originally called a “Quanco.” The rugby ball is bigger than a regular football, so when the QBs throw a regulation football after throwing the more awkward and oversized quanco, it feels like a youth football. In theory, it’s kind of like Tom Brady deflating the ball. Only this is legal.

* Late in the first quarter, Al Villanueva and Ramon Foster made a “seal” block on the backside of a run. Or at least so I thought. A seal block is a double team between two linemen on a hand-in-the-dirt down lineman and a second-level linebacker/defender. I say "I thought" because it looked from groundhog level as if the Big Ragu left early to get after the linebacker on a Le'Veon Bell run to the right side. In leaving early, Ragu may have violated one of the sacrosanct rules of offensive line play: never leave your wingman. If Ragu got off the double team a little early, it then left Al having to grab and hold whomever was in the gap. Al was called for holding, and on the way back to the huddle he gestured angrily at Ramon and Ramon gave him the “sorry-but-I-had-to” look. Of course, it didn't mollify Al, because he’s taking the fall, but I’ve seen and experienced this stuff many times over the years, both as a player and sideline non-combatant as I am now, from the sidelines.

* Watching Al and Ragu took me back. Years ago, back in the day, on Monday Night Football in Cincinnati, I gave a dummy call to the left tackle next to me, Ted Peterson. The problem was it could have been interpreted as a live call on the play, but because Cincy was so familiar with our offense I tried to get a little too cute to mess with 'em. Bottom line, Ted took the call as real and we ended up turning a Bengals defensive linemen loose on our QB. Ted, as we stood in the huddle after the play, after we had picked up the pieces of our QB from the disastrous “dummy” call, started yelling at me: “You can’t do that!” And for a moment I thought Ted and I would start duking it out in the huddle. Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed. Good times.

* First play of the second quarter, Jets RB Matt Forte busted loose for a 28-yard run. Watching film earlier in the week, I was impressed with Forte in that he still has power, good hands and the vision in finding the hole, but the breakaway speed of the nine-year vet is no longer there -- although, he did look pretty good on this play. Mitchell hunted him down by using the sideline as a 12th defender, closing with a good angle and then “trapping,” or knocking down, Matt’s attempted stiff-arm with a chop-down motion of his own. The hand skills of the defensive backs have grown over the years. Not many people will appreciate the skill of Mitchell to take the proper angle as the last line of defense, and then pin and hand fight while running at top speed before bringing down the hunted. Mitchell showed again why he’s one of the top dogs on defense.

* So I warned Chalooch that he should be careful not to jinx Hubbard by talking about him too much. It's poor form to highlight offensive linemen, because as soon as you start talking about them they will inevitably screw up. Tunch, as usual, eschewed my admonition and pooh-poohed jinxes. Sure enough, on the next play, Wilkerson got his rush on and Hubbard suffered his worst play of the first half. Though Wilkerson didn’t sack Ben Roethlisberger, there was heat in the kitchen. When will Tunch ever learn?

James Harrison is still a force out there despite his 38 years of age. Ryan Clady was having his hands full with "Deebo," and the Jets were finding it necessary to "chip,” with TE Kellen Davis, before Davis ran his pass route. A good chip block, if well-timed, takes away the upfield rush of an ears-pinned-back mutant doberman pass-rusher. And if you’re one of the original chippers from my era, such as former Steelers RB Rodney Carter, it can be a knockout blow. But Deebo is too crafty and Kellen Davis is too passive. Advantage, Deebo.

* There was an audible, collective groan, followed by boos as Sammie Coates dropped the easiest touchdown pass he’ll ever get in his career. Sammie went from the high of a 72-yard TD bomb in the first quarter to an easy drop. Sammie’s face looked much like Markus Wheaton's in Philadelphia. The pressure of letting down not just your QB but the nine other guys who busted their tails to get you to that point can be overwhelming to some guys, not to mention the extra 65,000 bystanders looking in on your bad moment. Some guys will fade like a flower under a blowtorch after dropping one of these. I was anxious to see how Sammie would react.

* The defense heated up in the second half after Keith Butler stepped up the pressure by sending five guys. In the third quarter, Stephon Tuitt busted loose, bearing down on QB Ryan Fitzpatrick on a pass rush. Fitz “climbed the ladder,” stepping up into the pocket to avoid Tuitt, who slipped and fell to the ground. Stephon planted on his inside foot and ran out of what Keith Willis used to aptly describe as “gription.” Keith was an excellent pass-rushing DE from my day, playing for the Steelers from 1982-1991 and recording 59 sacks. He might've had more with better "gription." Am I right, Stephon?
* In the third quarter, Antonio Brown broke loose on a 33-yard punt return. Cutting back toward the middle of the field, A.B. was met by Jets S Calvin Pryor, who popped up out of nowhere to make a tackle after shedding a block. Mike Tomlin had both hands gripping his head as he walked toward A.B. coming off the field in a gesture of “if only.” Whatever the ensuing conversation, it had to involve reading the blocking scheme as it develops. It was that close to busting open.

* On a third-and-9, A.B. and Ben appeared to be on different pages of the same book. A.B. ran an out, Ben threw a little behind him. Ben looked a little hot under the collar as he came to the sideline and yelled “Fifteen yards and settle!” in A.B.’s direction. OK, that settled the matter on who was in the wrong.
* Villanueva is showing signs of what a dominant force he can become. On consecutive occasions, the Jets attempted to run a twist stunt to Al's side. And on consecutive occasions, Big Al knocked down the trailing pass-rusher as he came around the corner on the twist. The second time it was DE Sheldon Richardson, and the way Al manhandled a guy I think is a pretty good ballplayer was impressive.
* Later in the game, 6-4, 300 pounds of bullrushing DE Jarvis Jenkins attempted to go down the middle of the 6-9, 340-pound Villanueva. Al ate up the bullrush like so much pizza. Decidedly. And a lot.

* Not sure I've enjoyed interviewing anyone post-game as much as I did Chris Hubbard. I expected Chris to play well. As a matter of fact I even had modest hope he would play very well. But even the optimist in me didn’t hope that Chris would play very, very well, as he did, especially considering the defensive line he was up against. The Steelers have had two young bucks step up to plug important holes in the starting lineup the last two weeks, and they both played "above the line" in all aspects. I think Mike Munchak is getting it done, big time. I can’t overstate enough how difficult it is to prepare and field two guys making first starts on back-to-back weekends, and to do it like they’ve done it before. Tip of the hat to Munch and his assistant Shaun Sarrett.


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