I’ve always loved the celebration of our armed forces on “Salute to Service” day at Heinz Field. Awesome in every way, and Sunday's celebration featured two prolific players who wore the black and gold and served our country, Rocky Bleier and Andy Russell.
They were ringside as the Air Force Parachute team jumped in with five paratroopers showing how it’s done on a slightly windy day. It brought to mind my son, Captain Kyle Wolfley, recently of the 82nd Airborne, to mind and made me wonder how I failed him as a father.
I mean, seriously, what normal people jump out of a perfectly good airplane?
* Walking into the stadium it was apparent this was not a normal day, nor a normal opponent at Heinz Field. There were many Cowboys jerseys showing up in the seats at Heinz. As the pre-game tension began to mount, kickoff approached and the din of the thank yous to our servicemen and women began to fade, you could feel the intensity meter begin to pulsate. By kickoff, it reached an atmospheric level.
* Prior to the Steelers defense taking the field, I heard a thump, and then a whump, through the high volume of sound coming through my headset. I turned to see Dan McCullers and Stephon Tuitt warming up. Tuitt delivered a two-handed “thump” punch to McCullers, who in turn "whumped" Tuitt so hard it moved Stephon back a couple feet. Bottle it, Big Dan, I thought to myself. Bottle that punch and save it for somebody sporting a star on his helmet.
* Dak Prescott is the real deal. On the second play from scrimmage I had a perfect angle to watch the Cowboys rookie QB hit the “easy” button and make a back-shoulder throw to Dez Bryant for a 19-yard gain, as if he’d been doing it for years.
* Ladarius Green made his much anticipated entrance on the two-point conversion following Le'Veon Bell's first-quarter touchdown. I had crossed paths with Ladarius in the tunnel during pre-game. I said, “Aha! We have an official Ladarius Green sighting.” Green laughed and I wished him well. Unfortunately for Ladarius, he didn’t come down with the conversion pass. As he walked the sideline toward the bench, I could see the angst in his eyes. But the fact he’s made it back after only two weeks of practice, after doing nothing resembling football for 11 months, is a testament to his professionalism. I could be wrong, but I think Ladarius is going to do some big things in the not too distant future.
* After Dallas kicked a FG to make it 6-3 in the first quarter, and then kicked off, Fitz Toussaint took a knee for a touchback. However, nobody told Roosevelt Nix the return was a no-go. Nix pounded Kavon Frazier into the Heinz Field turf as if he were planting a tree. When you feel the hit in your bones from 15 yards away, you know that’s a good hit. And when the opponent you just mulched doesn’t even smack-talk back, because he was pounded so badly, that’s a good hit. Rosey, that was a good hit.
* I’m watching Artie Burns both on the examination table and then off it. Artie was whacked with a little friendly fire and seemed to be working a knee thing out. He had a pained expression while Doc Bradley was giving him the ligament test. Burns got up and began to do some bodyweight squats to check it out. I didn’t think Artie was going back in anytime soon, but sure enough he did. I respect that. Coach Noll used to say you had to know the difference between pain and injury.
* In the second quarter, Cam Heyward walked off the field shaking and punching his fist in the air as if he were shadow-boxing. Cam had what appeared to be a pectoral injury of some sort the prior series, and had the docs checking him on the sideline. Can’t know for sure, but if the Steelers lose the service of Cam, I’m not thinking the run defense is going to be what it could or should be.
* Ben Roethlisberger got drilled by Justin Durant while throwing the ball, and I mean to tell you it was a healthy whack, one that those that surely left a mark. It also drew a flag for roughing. The O-linemen gathered over top of Big Ben as he lie prone, with Marcus Gilbert reaching down to check him out. You could feel an audible sense of relief from the sideline as Ben made his way over to take a one-play hiatus. The dude is seriously tough.
* The Cowboys' best defensive player is Pittsburgh-born and Upper Saint Clair-bred Sean Lee. In the second quarter, Sean, from his weak-side linebacker position, shot a gap and tackled Bell for a 1-yard loss. Tunch Ilkin talked about how he had coached Sean as a 12-year-old. What Tunch didn’t mention is that he had made Sean a nose tackle. That’s like harnessing Secretariat to a plow. Tunch’s response is always that he made Sean tougher. Watching Sean here today, maybe Tunch is right.
* On second-and-2, James Harrison came off the ball and did what I’ve not seen any other player do and that’s stuff the Cowboys' outstanding 6-5, 320-pound LT Tyron Smith and drive him backward. Harrison shed the block and tackled Ezekiel Elliott for no gain. C’mon, man, it shouldn't be possible that a 38-year-old can snog-ulate the best LT in the league and then tackle the rushing leader at the line of scrimmage. I had to rub my eyes.
* Sammie Coates ran a go route just before the half ended. The official to that side didn’t pull his flag despite an obvious pass interference. The defender at one point had both hands on Sammie’s shoulder pads from behind. As the boos cascaded, the Jumbotron replayed the contact. The official stoically stood with his back to the screen and kept his eyes down, refusing to acknowledge anything other than the next play. I think he had an idea that something was amiss with his play interpretation.
* I’m not saying, I’m just saying that, yeah, in the second half, Cobi Hamilton took off on another go route. CB Anthony Brown was in trail. Same official, same defender, same route. This time, a flag. Honestly, and I could be wrong because I just saw it live and it was across the field, but I thought it was a make-good call. And, full disclosure, I’m OK with that.
* Same drive, Antonio Brown runs a slant. The defender grabs Antonio’s arm and causes AB to twist while running. Mike Tomlin wants another pass interference call because he’s yelling “He hooked him! He hooked him!”
* A medical observer called down to the referee and stopped play. I had a feeling something was up when I saw Dave DeCastro slowly rise to his feet after laying out on the previous play. The ref blew his whistle while the Steelers lined up and took Dave out of the game for a play. Like any true lineman, DeCastro argued with the ref and the trainers who came onto the field. He wasn't going to win that one. Somebody give him a Snickers candy bar, I thought, because he’s not himself.
* Better yet, somebody give me a Snickers candy bar.
* In the fourth quarter, on a third-and-1, Sean Davis made a big-league slobberknocker of a hit on Elliott for no gain. I loved it because right after that play, Davis went over to Carnell Lake and got the teacher’s perspective of what had happened. Play, feedback, play, feedback. It’s the natural teaching circle.
* I must still have some quicks. In the fourth quarter, AB took a pass, and ran out of bounds for a first down. While AB was undergoing rapid deceleration, I was trying to get out of his way. Just before impact, I pivoted out and saved myself some serious dental work.
* Hey, when I think back about how I didn’t wear a mouth guard for 11 of my 12 years in pro football, I'm amazed I even have teeth. My own teeth, at that.
* Not enough of this: second-and-2, Elliott runs the outside zone to his left and Ryan Shazier shoots the gap and tackles him for a 6-yard loss. One thing that separates really good linebackers from regular linebackers is they read the play in front of them like a running back reads it. Matter of fact, if you’re a true Captain Obvious fan, if you talk to defensive coaches, especially in college football, many of the collegiate linebackers played running back in high school and possess speed, athleticism and an RB’s vision for finding the hole. Makes sense.
* Except for Sean Lee. Tunch made him a nose tackle.
* After Elliott scored on a 14-yard run, the Cowboys went for two. Burns made a big mano-y-mano stand and defended the pass. As Artie walked past me on the sideline, Will Gay walked over to hug up Artie and say “THAT was a big play!”
* Sometimes fans seem to take losses harder than players. This wasn’t one of those times. As I stood on the field after the game, I could see in the eyes, tone of voice and body language that this one really hurt. To lose like that, after doing so many things right, and putting yourself in position to win the game, only to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory as they say, is a special sorta pain that won’t be soon forgotten.