With the Patriots coming to town on alumni weekend, the sidelines were filled with former Steelers, their wives and children, and they all mingled about in a cabal of memories and smiles. Hall of Famer Jerome Bettis headlined, and his former teammates such as Lee Flowers, Rodney Bailey, Casey Hampton and Kordell Stewart came back from points all across the country, none further than Chris Fuamatu-Ma’afala. Fu had traveled all the way from the Hawaiian Island of Oahu.
* Had a chance to chat up Zach Mettenberger while waiting to tape a pre-game hit. We got talking and I was pondering how much of the test on this day was going to fall on the shoulders of Maurkice Pouncey and his ability to communicate and direct traffic. As Zach said, there’s none better at doing it than Pouncey. I had been watching Patriots tape throughout the week and I saw practically every defense known to man. About the only defense I hadn’t seen was the “Sticky Sam,” in which Bengals defensive coordinator Hank Bullough put everybody on the line of scrimmage. Knowing how the Pats could morph between standing up or putting a hand down, communicating the numbers and the instantaneous moment of hesitation that various numbers might bring was going to be big.
* Chris Hubbard false-started on the Steelers' second series. It’s difficult to go from Big Ben’s cadence to Landry Jones’s because each QB has his own natural snap count that's ingrained in them. Offensive linemen are taught to anticipate that count and use it as an advantage. A hard count is a powerful weapon in the hands of a QB at home to draw the opponent offside, but when you have a young buck Hub, making his third career start with a backup QB, that advantage can become a disadvantage.
* After Jones was intercepted in the end zone, I saw Antonio Brown immediately head over to him, as Ben Roethlisberger moved alongside. Whatever you think about Landry and his skillset, it was evident watching the small group interaction that Jones was not in the least intimidated by the pick, nor was his confidence shaken.
* LeGarrette Blount carried the ball for seven yards on first down, and while I closely watched the post-carry body language of both Blount and Tom Brady, a deep chorus of boos rolled down from the Heinz Field stands. Obviously the faithful resent the way Blount walked off the field in Tennessee two seasons ago and subsequently found his way back to New England. There was a moment exchanged between Brady and Blount as if to say, “Oh, they don’t like you, well, let's do it again.” And the Patriots ran Blount again, this time for nine yards. Again, following the PA announcement of Blount carrying, the boo-birds continued. Again, the look, the smile if you will, and the decision to stick it in the face of the Steelers and their fans as Blount carried the ball a third time in a row. It was obvious that not only was this the Tom Brady Revenge Tour, but Tom wanted to feed LeGarrette his opportunity to drop a big number on the Steelers, too.
* Honest to goodness, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a WR talk as much smack as Julian Edelman.
* In the second quarter, Artie Burns was called for unnecessary roughness for slamming WR Chris Hogan to the ground while tackling him. Basically it was a belly-to-back suplex from wrestling. Honestly, I couldn’t see any other way for Artie to bring Hogan down because Hogan was battling to stay upright and the forces of momentum brought them to this conclusion, which is simply football.
* Artie had been chatting with one of my former teammates pre-game. The great hall of Famer Mel Blount was talking to Burns on the sideline, and I thought back to my first preseason game with the Steelers in 1980 and the third play from scrimmage. Mel, closing on a WR from the New York “Football Giants," encircled the WR and lifted him violently and backward, much the same as Artie had done. Mel being bigger, and freer to do so, did it with much more force though. The WR Mel slammed down was helped off the field. No penalty. How times have changed.
* Jones came to the sideline after throwing a 14-yard touchdown strike to Darrius Heyward-Bey. It was a beautiful throw, and a much needed resurgent drive for the Steelers to halve the Patriots lead to 14-7. I thought to myself that Landry needed that TD for his confidence, needed it to keep his chin up, so to speak. But honest to goodness, and I’ll say it again, you can’t tell the difference between Landry throwing an INT or a TD, other than the crowd cheering. He is confident and he is even-keeled. He doesn’t rattle the way I’ve seen other QBs. That’s a good thing.
* Le'Veon Bell caught a pass and Jamie Collins encircled Bell in a bear hug and proceeded to lift him up in what I thought was going to be a penalty, a la Burns v Hogan. I mean why not? The Brady Revenge-alooza, the return of LeGarrette, Bill Beli-cheat (per the sign on the wall), and just the much-hated New England Patriots at large certainly wouldn’t stoop to a revenge suplex, would they? Nah. Dont’a Hightower ran over and drilled Bell to stop the action and thus drew his own flag. To me, it came off as the officials having known they had blown the call on Burns and were making good on Hightower.
* I felt for Hubbard. DHB had just scored and the offensive line was four-fifths ecstatic and starting to break for the end zone to hug him up. The lone holdout was Hub, who, after Jamie Collins slipped to the ground, was flagged for a hold. I immediately recognized the look on his face and felt the subsequent awful accompanying feeling that comes with it. You are battling one second, hearing the roar of the crowd the next, and then seeing the yellow flag on the ground near you as your stomach does three flip-flops and you try not to vomit. Next play anyone?
* Hmmm. Edelman just dropped a pass on third down and he was wide open. Not a peep from him after that one.
* Standing on the sideline pre-snap while the Steelers had the ball with 11 seconds left in the half at the NE 14-yard line: There’s a timeout and it’s obvious the Steelers will take one more shot into the end zone before kicking a field goal. Mike Tomlin looked intently out onto the field and I heard him say “end zone or outta bounds” to no one in particular. Jones threw to the corner of the end zone for DHB, but an underneath-playing CB Malcolm Butler leaped high and barely got a hand on it to knock it away. The Steelers took the three.
* Moving into the second half, Jarvis Jones continued to make plays. His pass rush had been heating up and when he spun Patriots LT Nate Solder around he caused a flag and it resulted in the rarely seen double of back-to-back holding calls. Solder could have been called for at least three, if not more, holds on this day. He reminds me of the old OT from the Cleveland Browns, Doug Dieken, who used to hope to get holding calls early in the game. He believed in the old mantra that if they whistle you for a couple, "they feel sorry for you." Funny, that never seemed to work for me.
* Butler and AB got into an onfield spat, and a play or two later Brown got the ball on a reverse as Butler shadowed him behind the linebackers. Butler looked to be moving at high velocity and hit high gear to chase AB down, when all of a sudden Pouncey stepped up to the interception point at the second level and this rather gleeful, bent-on-nailing-AB tear that Butler was on came to a crashing half with a blast from Pouncey.
* I took up a position behind the Patriots offense that gave me an end zone view as Brady dropped back to pass. When he planted his back foot, I could see Rob Gronkowski running down the field on a seam route. I had a perfect view to what Brady was seeing: the helmet of trailing safety Rob Golden and the upper body of Gronkowski. As soon as the ball left Brady’s hand I knew it was either a TD or a dropped pass because there was no way to defend this mismatch. You see the size differential, and you know it’s a difficult matchup, but’s it’s not until you see it from ground-hog level, as the QB sees it, that you truly appreciate how big of an undertaking it is to defend Gronkowski.
* The Patriots have been doing a lot of “five bigs” pre-snap. They would show five potential rushers and then drop two into coverage. With a lead and the chance to play it conservatively, the Pats were keeping all things Lev Bell in front of them and not giving him any room. When Lev would go into motion, at least three guys on defense would point and bark it out. It’s obvious that today the Patriots had made Bell public enemy No. 1.
* Steelers long-snapper extraordinaire, Greg Warren, raced down the field to recover an Edelman fumble on a fourth quarter punt. Warren came back to the sideline sporting a big smile to a lot of high fives and head slaps.
* Funny, but all quiet on the Edelman front once again.
* When Brady took a knee to seal the win, there was an overwhelming sense from the Steelers of having left points and plays on the field. Guys looked about as if there should be more to this game, but there wasn’t. The feeling wasn’t exactly that the Steelers should have won, but that they could have won, and done so against all the odds. Kind of a familiar feeling I must say. To quote the late great Yogi Berra, “It was Déjà vu all over again.”