There are few times in the course of a football season when you might be less than thrilled, or amped up, to play a regular-season game than this one. If you’ve won your division and are resting key members on the season finale, but you’re a long-time starter who didn’t get a hall pass for the game, there just might be good reason.
There certainly was something missing from this game at the onset. The crowd might've left its game hanging the night before by welcoming in the New Year and was still in a funk. Or, as Kevin Colbert mustered, the crowd just needed something to cheer about. But the first quarter was as flat as a pancake all the way around.
* As if the Steelers hadn’t lost enough veteran manpower in the front end of their defense, Ricardo Matthews, who’s been dealing with a problematic ankle over the last few weeks, got nicked up even more. Can’t say for sure, but from my vantage point it looked like Ricardo got rolled up from the backside on a quick WR screen pass to Terrelle Pryor. The backside of quick throws like that tends to leave backside defenders, who are in chase mode, in vulnerable positions.
* Isaiah Crowell is a tough guy. Though he would go on to rush for 152 yards on this day, he only collected two yards on this first-quarter carry. And that was because L.T. Walton, locking out on OT Austin Pasztor, showed great John Mitchell fundamentals in bringing Crowell down: low pad level, locked-out arms, hamhocks powering the lockout to a timely disengagement to tackle. Walton has been one of the surprises in the absence of Cam Heyward, and then Stephon Tuitt, and has emerged as starter capable. Mitchell, the vererable DL coach, just keeps mentoring up whomever the Steelers put in front of him.
* No matter if you think Robert Griffin III still has it or not as a QB, he definitely has athletic ability. In the second quarter, RG3 rolled to his left and then while outracing the pursuit from the inside slowed just enough to lay off a pass to Crowell by throwing across his body. From groundhog level you could appreciate the difficulty of running full speed with the hounds chasing you and then being able to control your body and deliver that soft touch to an RB. Impressive.
* DeAngelo Williams showed extreme veteran presence when he took a handoff in his own end zone, faced off immediately with ILB Demario Davis, who had crashed the “A” gap, and managed to evade Davis enough to lay out with arms extended and get the ball out of the end zone while keeping his knees off the Heinz Field turf. That was as close to being a safety without being a safety as you’re going to see.
* Though rookie WR Demarcus Ayers made a valiant attempt to get his second foot down on a sideline route on third down, which officials had at first called complete, the Browns challenged the call. After a period of time I looked over to the bench area and surmised it was going to be overturned. No, I don’t have ESPN, or whatever. During the TV timeout, LS Greg Warren walked across the white sideline stripe accompanied by his fellow punt-team members, always a dead giveaway.
* Landry Jones' 11-yard TD toss and run by Williams revealed two things: One, DeAngelo is healthy, as his instant acceleration up the field and into the end zone actually startled me out of my first-half stupor; and, two, given that his knee is sound, Williams is still an NFL-caliber back -- quick on the route, quick to tuck after the catch, quick to assess and cut, quick to accelerate and score.
* Speaking of Williams, and after all those accolades I just threw his way, in the third quarter he slid into the right flat while the offensive line set up a screen pass. The screen was so well set up, so wide open, I think it caught DeAngelo by surprise because he momentarily had trouble corralling the ball and tucking it away. It looked to me as if Williams saw the wide-open spaces and was too anxious to get it in gear. Given all that, he managed to get the pesky pigskin under control and still gain 17 yards.
* Bud Dupree has been coming on like gangbusters, and in the second half, playing against OT Cam Erving, Bud busted upfield, got by Erving and leaped like a big cat taking down prey in the Serengeti Plains. It was an impressive display of strength, power and speed combining into a thunderous takedown as the ball came out, too. I wasn’t sure at first who Bud beat on the play, but watching the effort made by Erving in going after the ball I had a sneaky suspicion it was him. Nobody fights harder to recover the ball on a QB strip-sack than the guy who allowed it to happen.
* Another young man who's really come on is WR Cobi Hamilton. Running a second half in-route over the middle, Cobi leaped, extended and snatched the ball while getting to the protective tuck phase quickly. Whenever you run a route over the middle for a pass that’s thrown high, and though it is 2017, it’s still got to make you nervous that there’s ill-intent waiting for you on the other side of the catch.
* There are few plays that leave you speechless. And there are fewer still that take 18 seconds off the clock. Both of the aforementioned attributes were in play when Darrius Heyward-Bey made the play of the game that kick-started the beginning of the end of Cleveland’s day. Just about everybody knows the transformation that took DHB from diva to rock-star-effort guy. But as if to confirm it before the entire Heinz Field crowd, “Hey-Bey” put on a show of determination and effort in chasing down and stripping the ball from CB Briean Boddy-Calhoun. When Darrius first started to chase him following the interception, DHB was about as far away from the interceptor as you could while still being on the same field of play. And yet at the end of the play, it was pure speed and determination that played out in Heyward-Bey’s superb forced fumble at the 1 and into the end zone.
* Landry Jones recovering the fumble was the perfect ending as the credits began to roll to the strains of Elvis Presley singing “Return to Sender.” Sorry folks, that’s just how my brain works.
* Ayers ran a route over the middle for a 15-yard completion that included him having the presence of mind to duck Joe Haden. That’s a rookie WR we haven’t heard much about until maybe three weeks ago, running a route against a Pro Bowl-caliber CB, suddenly stopping and ducking the attempted tackle to secure a first down in the fourth quarter. I’m liking this young man.
* Rock and a hard place, meet Rock and a harder place. When Crowell took a handoff and cut up the field, it was a 4-yard gain and the harder place rock that is Lawrence Timmons. Crowell may have gotten his four yards but Timmons got the “W” in who got the worst of that hit.
* Prime for a Jack Links “Messing with Sasquatch” commercial was Dan McCullers when he ran over Browns C Anthony Fabiano. Big Dan got the hamhocks churning and bull-rushed the overmatched Fabiano before reaching over the top to grab RG3 for his first official sack. McCullers is another young man who has been responding to the challenge of stepping up and in for the absence of Heyward and Tuitt.
* As if the game-saving tackle/strip of Boddy-Calhoun wasn’t enough heroics for the comeback day of DHB, that was him streaking down the sideline in the fourth quarter on a go-route for 46 yards and a first down at the Cleveland 11-yard line. To say that his teammates appreciate his effort and his leadership is an understatement. The man is LOVED by teammates. It’s all about the effort and the results.
* During a TV timeout, Hamilton, lined up as a gunner on the punt team with two Browns over him. While they were waiting for play to resume, they stood and chatted somewhat amicably. It’s funny, but in my 12 years as a player I can hardly remember exchanging more than a word or two with an opponent between plays unless some nastiness was involved. Even with my old high-school teammate, Jim Burt, who was a NT on two Giants Super bowl teams, we barely acknowledged the existence of the other until the game was over. Yes, it is a different NFL. And yes (sigh), I do come from medieval times.
* When Mike Mitchell and WR Corey Coleman got into a battle of facemasks, and then Mitchell was called for the only penalty, the sideline exploded into anger. Mike Tomlin was irate over the neglect of the Coleman face mask, which was equally, if not more so, egregious than Mitchell’s. I have to say it should have at the very least been offsetting penalties.
* “Modified Sudden Death Overtime” just doesn’t scare me like the overtimes we used to play.
* When Hamilton leaped, and then fell back to earth cradling the winning touchdown pass, the entire crowd leaped as well, swelling the crowd noise to a level unheard throughout the game. The Steelers sideline joined in as well and it was chaos as everybody grabbed everybody. What was important, and what was apparent throughout the second half, was the Steelers were hungry for their seventh victory in a row.
* I walked from the playing field and fell in step with McCullers, or I should say Big Dan McCullers. Rare is the time when I feel small in anyone’s company. I felt small as I trudged along with Big Dan. I said “Dan, I saw you do things today that I’ve never seen you do before.” He slowed for a moment, turning just enough that I could see a smile start to cross his face and a low chuckle roll out. Yeah, I think Big Dan might just be someone to watch in the coming game(s). He sure impressed me today.