As I stood in the tunnel preparing to do a pre-game hit, the “Big Ragu,” Ramon Foster, along with Maurkice Pouncey, passed by wearing their Color Rush pants and long-sleeved warmup shirts to engage in some catch. They threw the ball back and forth like two big kids playing backyard ball. I looked at them in the all-black -- save for gold stripes on the sides -- and told them, “I like those uni’s, very slimming, men,” with a chuckle. That, of course, drew a return chuckle from both of them. They know.
* Honest to goodness, I spent 12 years in the league and I can safely say I never once went out early to play catch. I think it would have unnerved me. It’s a different NFL.
* While I sat on the bench during warmups, I watched as Mike Wallace engage in a friendly conversation with Ben Roethlisberger and moments later Mike Tomlin. Friendships forged in the heat of competition aren't soon forgotten. Even though you might wear different jerseys at some point, there's still that which drew you together in the first place. Say what you might, Wallace was, and is, a WR of consequence. Whether it was the 46-yard and 41-yard TD catches wthat bombed Tampa Bay back in 2010 or the 95-yarder he dropped on his former team in Baltimore some weeks ago, I have a lot of respect for both Mike and his talent.
* Speaking of Wallace, Joe Flacco threw him a quick slant on the first play, and Mike Mitchell, reintroducing the big-bang in tackles over the middle, legally, drilled him and drove him backward. Though the catch notched a first down, I think Mitchell sent a message as to what this day might bring for those who dare to transgress.
* On the Steelers' first offensive play, Big Al Villanueva pulled from his LT position to his right and trapped the end man on the line. Back in the day, we used to call it a “92 trap.” Al hit Elvis Dumervil, completely engulfing the much smaller man as Le'Veon Bell ran for a first down. Villanueva is one of the people who's accelerated his development during this winning streak. He's gotten much better, has learned the art of throwing his massive body around and is starting to put a look of concern, if not fear, into the eyes of his opponents. I got a gander at Dumervil just prior to impact. I saw body language similar to that of Wile E Coyote prior to catching a face full of train.
* Speaking of Wile E, and those unfortunate enough to find a locomotive bearing down on them, Ramon Foster, pulling to his right a few plays later with Bell in tow, ran over Ravens ILB and Pro Bowl-bound C.J. Mosley. In the words of the ancient dirt pit wrestlers of India, Ragu “showed him the sky.”
* Vince Williams dished out a heavy dose of decceleration trauma on Ravens KR Chris Moore. Moore was running full steam only to encounter Williams and could merely react with a sudden, dead stop. The sprint-to-stop all occurred within a step and a half of first contact, which is naturally the universally accepted distance in a “de-cleater.”
* Steve Smith Sr. caught a pass in the first quarter and made his way for a fine 44-yard gain. My only thought was that I was glad it was Steve Smith Sr. running with the ball and not Steve Smith Jr. Junior mighta scored.
* The ghost call on Ryan Shazier drew a response from my former teammate and Steelers DB coach Carnell Lake such as I have never seen from him. Carnell was upset (and rightly so) over the “hitting of a defenseless player before completion of the catch” call announced against Shazier while Ryan tackled FB Kyle Juszczyk for no gain. The official call was unnecessary roughness, but sincerely I have no idea what the officials were looking at when they made the call. It may be in the conversation for the single most ridiculous and unexplainable call ever made in an NFL game.
* In the second quarter, Jordan Berry, a.k.a. “Mate,” punted the ball away and it appeared that two Ravens rushers roughed Berry without touching the ball. The officials decided that a man was blocked into Berry. What I noticed was that Berry ended up falling onto a downed Raven and appeared to sit on him for a moment before getting up with disdain. Clearly some Aussie attitude coupled with a fine job of getting the ball away under duress.
* Dan McCullers draws your attention. You just can’t help but check in on him from time to time to see what’s up with the “mountain that moves on two feet.” Dan has slowly begun to assert himself more and more since Cam Heyward went down. RB Kenneth Dixon ran up the middle for three yards while Dan held up Pro Bowl G Marshall Yanda with one arm. I do mean one arm because it was with his right arm, and I know it was the right arm because with his left he stuffed C Jeremy Zuttah. Then Danny brought down Dixon. Impressive work.
* After Big Ben threw the first of two third-quarter interceptions, the first by ILB Zachary Orr, the crowd went silent in the aftermath of a touchdown and two-point conversion by "The Angry Elf,” Steve Smith. Hearing the crowd turn from raucous to quietude gave a sickly sensation in the gullet.
* Eli Rogers made some big plays, and the 39-yard reception on the way to the Steelers kicking a FG, to make it 14-10, was just one. But it was the ending of that catch when he got pushed out of bounds right into the kicking net that I found humorous. Eli got himself a little bit tangled up in that net and it crossed my mind that Odell Beckham might have something to say about that.
* In the third quarter, Ravens RBs Terrance West and Kenneth Dixon started to gouge the Steelers toward the end of the quarter. After Dixon ran for 14 yards, I saw Steelers OLB coach Joey Porter demonstratively “wrapping up” the air and yelling encouragement. I hope they get the message. Joey looked intense enough to come out there and demonstrate in real time.
* I nicknamed G Vlad Ducasse “Vlad the Impaler” after I noticed in film study he had given Flacco a pretty good shot. But on the last play of the third quarter, he became "Vlad the Grabber” after grabbing and getting away with a serious hold on Shazier. I wish the officials were that liberal with those free passes back in the day.
* I was standing behind Will Gay on the sideline. Flacco threw to TE Nick Boyle for 5 yards, but it appeared that Boyle had pushed off and committed pass interference. Gay immediately jumped onto the playing field and signaled such. Having had the blessing of watching Gay throughout most of his career, I’ve appreciated how sharp he is about all things football. He reminds me so much of his predecessor, DeShea Townsend. I’m thinking that when Gay hangs up his cleats, he'll be coaching 'em up somewhere. Though Will was wrong on this occasion, he’s got a great future ahead of him in the game.
* Came to find out James Harrison had initiated the contact by clocking Boyle, according to Tunch and Billy. With each play, each series, the tension building in the stadium is stoking the stands to a fever pitch.
* Lev Bell was tackled for a rare 2-yard loss in the fourth quarter. Three-technique Brandon Williams (340 pounds) and NT Mike Pierce (339 pounds) were both sucking wind and out of breath enough that the draw fell to them. That was unfortunate for Lev and the Steelers, because when you run a draw you want the guys to run up the field like screaming banshees. Both Pierce and Williams were too tired, and got lucky.
* Demarcus Ayers ran a go route and it was young mano-y-young mano, Ravens rookie CB Tavon Young in man coverage against the Steelers rookie. Ayers won, drawing the 35-yard pass interference penalty. Ayers was smart, immediately jumping to his feet after becoming tangled up with Young and “selling” the call. You gotta have passion and play with ferocity, and Ayers had Young was sparking with electricity.
* When Bell cut back for his TD run, I thought he was doomed. What I didn’t see was a WR on the far-side doing a pretty good Hines Ward imitation while blocking his man. Lev scored, and on the replay I caught sight of the blocker. It was Ayers.
* Gadzooks, a rare double firing of “Renegade.” The house is rocking!
* On the last drive of the night, on a night where you didn’t think your heart could palpitate any faster, there was a slow-down in between plays during a timeout. There was Mike Tomlin talking to the officials and making sure they were aware of where he was and what he intended to do. Whether it’s calling timeouts or working the officials, Tomlin does a great job of making sure the officials understand him clearly in whatever decision-making moment he’s in.
* With the pressure on, and almost knee-buckling intensity on the sideline, Antonio Brown extended to make the “Catch That Saved Christmas," so dubbed by a caller into The Locker Room radio show with Tunch and I.
* After which, Roethlisberger came to the sideline and took a knee, such was the crowd, the pressure and the moment, to be grateful to God for the ability to play this game. Pandemonium quickly ensued, and to this moment I can’t tell you whether it was more important for the fans to win the AFC North and seal the playoffs, or just to beat the Ravens. The fact that both were on the table made Christmas about as good as it gets.