Sunny it was at Baltimore’s M&T Bank stadium, and the first surprise among a number of them was the artificial turf having been replaced by “over-seeded Bermuda grass.” Didn’t know you could over-seed Bermuda grass.
Shortly thereafter, as I stood on the sideline long before kickoff, a lady trainer came by with Challenger, the bald eagle that descends from the upper echelon prior to the National Anthem and onto the rawhide glove fitting a handler. I was within five feet of the handler and the power and majesty emanating from this glorious bird was beyond my communication skills. You have to be there up close and personal to appreciate it. Unless of course, if you’re a rabbit. No, you don’t want to be within the same zip code if you’re a rabbit.
* Mike Wallace came by during warmups. I always enjoy seeing Mike. He’s a good, young man. He’s more mature now than the rookie attempting to navigate the WDVE parking lot in the winter as Hines Ward directed him over the phone years ago. That's when Mike was coming to do the Hines Ward show and I was sitting in for Tunch Ilkin as the host. Being from New Orleans, Wallace had never seen snow before, and his skidding and sliding around the lot was testimony to that.
* Ravens DT Brandon Williams charged out of the tunnel for pregame introductions, and at 6-1, 340 pounds he made me think of “10 pounds of potatoes in a five-pound sack.” After watching him play, he made me think he was the most dangerous sack of potatoes at the grocery store.
* No doubt the introductions were a bit wild and woolly for the Ravens. Terrell Suggs was intro-ed and came charging through the lineup of his teammates and accidentally ran over one of the smaller numbers. It was a bit of foreshadowing.
* To complete the pre-game, the Ravens rolled out former Pitt standout and Ravens NT Tony Siragusa, who carried a torch onto the field. Not known as a pass rusher, and rather slow afoot, Tony was stout against the run. I remember back a few years ago when Siragusa beat his man for a sack. After getting back to his feet and walking by the offensive lineman he had just beaten, Tony turned to him and said, “You should be ashamed of yourself.”
* After two plays, Maurkice Pouncey came out of the game and the doctors and trainers checked his hand. B.J. Finney checked in, and the fact Pouncey didn’t come back for a while caused me to guess it was his thumb. If you dislocate a finger, it’s easy to pop back in. If you break it, same thing, tape it and bite a bullet. But if it’s a thumb you’ve sprained, broken, whatever, that’s a different matter for a center. You can’t squeeze the ball if it’s your snapping hand.
* Speaking of foreshadowing, midway through the first quarter the Ravens' “Angry Elf,” 37-year old 5-9, 195-pound WR Steve Smith, caught a ball over the middle, eluded Mike Mitchell and picked up 30 yards. Smith, though talented, might be the most combustive WR in the history of the game. Every reception, target or block in which he’s involved seemingly ends in some sort of dust-up with whomever on the play. I’m thinking he needs to switch to de-caf.
* Artie Burns corralled his first professional INT and was slapped over the head silly by his teammates as he carried the ball to the sidelines. It’s obvious this young man is well thought of and well accepted into the brotherhood of his defensive teammates.
* So Shamarko Thomas makes a great play on a first-quarter punt to keep the ball out of the end zone. I mean he toe-tapped the line and held his position a fraction of an inch before the goal line. Thomas then tossed the ball backward and it was touched down inside the Ravens 5-yard line. The Steelers felt the ball should've been at the 1-yard line but the officials said the 4-yard line. Danny Smith became hot under the collar and Mike Tomlin discussed the matter with side judge Allen Baynes. I’m not real fluent reading lips, but Smith disputed the call. I saw Baynes say, “It doesn’t matter,” while appearing to be slightly flustered. Danny was arguing that it did matter. At this point the only thing that mattered was Wallace going 95 yards a few moments later for a touchdown.
* When Ryan Shazier is healthy, he's one of the most explosive players in the league. Ravens RB Terrance West took a handoff and a face full of Shazier at the same time. The ball blew out of West's hands and backward for several yards, so forceful was the hit. Ryan showed keen instincts in beating the backside cutoff attempts of the two rookies on the left side of the Ravens line and shooting the gap to make the hit. Though the ball was recovered by the Ravens, Shazier’s wallop on West was indicative of the defense’s desire to stop the run, and again a reminder of how great a player Ryan can be if he could string some games together.
* From where I was standing on the sideline, I had a great angle of Darrius Heyward-Bey hoofing it on a go route with Ben Roethlisberger chucking the ball a long way. DHB “dug deep” to almost catch up to the ball, but disaster came in the form of a covering defensive back spiking his foot to the ground, causing DHB to look like he had a broken leg when he rolled over. I was standing a few yards away from Steelers trainer John Norwig. Talk about a guy who loves his players and cares deeply about them, John hit the ground sprinting for DHB before Darrius stopped rolling from the fall.
* On a third-and-2, David Johnson went into lateral motion from his WR position, moving toward the slot, and just before the snap he started forward into illegal motion and was flagged for it. D.J. dejectedly headed to the sideline and the look on his face was not one of seeking comfort, as Tomlin likes to say, but more like a mea culpa, seeking forgiveness.
* Ravens rookie OT Ronnie Stanley doesn’t know what to make of James Harrison. Or how to stop him either. James had been bull-rushing, driving the 6-6, 320-pounder into the lap of Joe Flacco. After feeding Stanley a number of bull-rushes, James went into his “just rip-no dip” rush and spun the much larger Stanley like a turnstile. Harrison dropped Flacco for his first sack of the game, and season.
* Obviously, a halftime of instruction didn’t help Stanley figure out how to block Harrison. In the third quarter, West tried to run the outside zone toward James’ side. Harrison took Stanley and bench-pressed him into the backfield and knocked West down for a 5-yard loss. Pretty impressive for a 38-year old OLB.
* I watched some of last year’s Ravens-Steelers game in preparation for this clash. Ravens OG Marshall Yanda is a great player. He’s tough, strong and recovers from bad positions to get the job done. Last year I thought he got the better of Stephon Tuitt. Not this year, though. Stephon was playing great on this day, never better than on a Kenneth Dixon run in which Tuitt overpowered Yanda, then overpowered Dixon to knock him down for a 1-yard loss.
* Buck Allen blocked a punt and Chris Moore recovered it and rolled into the end zone to give the Ravens an ultimately insurmountable 21-0 lead in the fourth quarter. The Steelers bench area was as flat and despondent as I’ve seen all year. It was so bad that even Arthur Moats, who always has a smile on his face, couldn’t muster even a grimace.
* Sammie Coates came past me on the sideline after dropping the ball in the end zone. Sammie was clutching his hand, the one which he already had a broken finger. It seems he’s added another busted-up finger. To what extent, I don’t know. But it was bothersome enough to have two fingers in a splint. I don’t know what three would look like.
* Ben willed himself into the end zone on a desperate 4-yard run. As he came off the field slapping hands with his coach, the look on Ben’s face was a mixed bag of emotions. Regret, remorse, some self-reproach maybe. Though Ben’s TD dive had closed the gap to 21-14, knowing there were just 48 seconds remaining was a reality check on how things might have been with an uptick of offensive production a little earlier.
* No one seemed to be able to figure out what happened after Chris Boswell's onside-kick attempt. People were literally scratching/rubbing their collective heads trying to figure out what they just saw. I was, too. Across the way, on the Baltimore sideline, Mitchell was involved in a dust-up. I couldn’t see the what's or who’s of the action, but Cam Heyward pulled Mike out of the mess and had some words with him. I’m sure Cam was encouraging Mike to be cool, which he did and things settled down.
* I interviewed Burns after the game for the Steelers Radio Network. He was calm, cool and collected. Artie showed some real class in doing the interview. Though he got beat on Wallace’s TD, Artie also had four tackles, an INT, a tackle-for-loss and two passes defensed. And he never appeared to be rattled at any time. I think this young man has a great future ahead of him.