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View from the Steelers Sideline

Steelers Radio Network sideline reporter Craig Wolfley with his must-read notebook from the playoff opener.

The pre-game atmosphere at Heinz Field was charged with electricity that seemingly coursed through the bodies of the athletes.

How would I know?

Well, because they were out there -- in weather cold enough to make a polar bear shiver -- in shorts and sleeveless shirts. And let’s not forget about Ryan Shazier, who once again didn't wear a shirt at all.

I mean I get the no-sleeves. Yep, you don’t want anyone grabbing sleeves and holding you on twist stunts. But no shirts? That’s another level of crazy altogether.

* One of the first clues it was going to be rough arrived when I watched an unknown Dolphin testing his cleats on the turf before the pre-game. Remember, there are two different pre-game periods. One is the pre, pre-game where the players take the field to get a gander at the stadium, get some blood flowing and test out the cleats. The other is the official pre-game when the players are padded and run through their respective warmups. Understand, there are heating coils under the Heinz Field surface so that the ground doesn’t freeze into a solid block of granite. But the coils have to be brought up in temperature slowly so the moisture from frozen ground doesn’t result in wet turf. Well, at this point I’m guessing the field was still a little hard because this Dolphins' cleats weren’t digging into the surface.

* As the pre-game progressed, it became obvious the heating coils were getting the job done. The field looked to be in great shape, far from the days when we played on the Three Rivers stadium artificial turf that froze solid. That was like playing on an asphalt parking lot, only with a Brillo soap pad laid on top. Ouch.

* I knew I was going to enjoy this at first glance when both teams broke the huddle and went to the line of scrimmage. When you play in a game of this magnitude, with weather that borders on lunacy, there's an understanding that with the first snap a testing would be underway. Though it wouldn’t be anything overt to those outside of the trenches, there is a momentary sizing up period and everyone knows we’re all thinking the same thing: Whose will is going to be broken? Who will break first?

* In the Steelers' first offensive series, the Dolphins tried to double "A" gap the Steelers by lining linebackers in the gaps to either side of Maurkice Pouncey. But they had to drop and get to the outside to “hug-up,” or cover, Le'Veon Bell and Jesse James. That’s a long way to go when you're lined up inside and have to chase because your prey has two steps on you from alignment.

* Eli Rogers took a Ben Roethlisberger pass and galloped 19 yards, and I’m feeling good despite battling a cold and the weather. I know I’m not the one who will break. But I am afraid of setting myself on fire by getting too close to the jet turbine heaters.

* How would the Steelers fare against a Dolphins run game that played so well in Miami a few months ago? Well, James Harrison answered on the first possession during the first outside stretch run attempt of the day. No gain and a little barking from Deebo. He’s 38 years old and still too strong for anyone to take him off the line of scrimmage.

* I knew from conversations last week that the Steelers defense had re-lived the Miami game-film nightmare and had suffered through daily reminders about the Dolphins and their running attack from the coaches. There’s nothing worse than having played a bad game the first time against a club, and in the next go-around having to re-live a miserable week of watching your failures over again. It makes you real grumpy. A reckoning was about to be unleashed on Miami.

* “He who hesitates is lost,” is a proverb I’ve heard many times from coaches over the years. And generally it would be considered sage advice -- for everybody but Bell. On the Steelers' second possession, Lev took the ball, did the “Macarena,” and played a little hop-scotch, on the way to a seven-yard gain. His stop then start, hesitate-to-palpitate, with a crunching drop of the shoulder to run someone over, makes him the most uniquely gifted running back I’ve ever watched.

* Later on, while rushing for a touchdown in the second half, Bell took the handoff and actually stopped dead in the hole at about the 3-yard line. He waited for the hole to open like he was waiting for a bus, and then burst inside that bus to get the best seat. Every coach I’ve ever played for would be screaming at Bell to tear into the hole and get what you can. They would all be wrong. You can’t teach this. And the Dolphins can’t stop this.

* All week prior to the game, even while Tunch Ilkin and I were watching game film of the Dolphins, Tunch kept saying that the Dolphins had no coverage safeties, just “box,” or run-stopping, safeties. The Dolphins proved him right when Antonio Brown went 62 yards on a slant route that burned a corner and then froze the lone safety over the top who took a bad angle. When a safety takes a wrong step with a fast guy loose in the house, it’s a quick trip to six. Antonio blew by the corner who tried to play under the catch and the safety froze like he just got doused with water.

* I’m thinking RB Jay Ajayi should have a serious conversation with QB Matt Moore. After gaining no yards while trying to run the outside zone-blocking scheme on Harrison, coming back to the same play just a series later seemed none too smart and resulted in a 3-yard loss. The normally none-too-verbal Harrison got more verbal shots in at Ajayi. James was amped, and everybody in the stadium could see that the Steelers were taking Miami’s bread and butter away from them. That dog was not going to hunt this day.

* Chris Hubbard has come a long ways. His work in the absence of Marcus Gilbert a couple months ago was very good. His continued work as the blocking TE in the jumbo formation, which the Steelers have been using to get their running game going when the opposition's in hunker-down-dawg mode, has been outstanding. And when in the first half Chris locked onto Dolphs linebacker Donald Butler and took him for a ride, only to deposit him on the seat of his pants, was another example of the fine growth of this young man. Oh, yeah, Lev got the first down.

* Late in the first quarter, another key cog in the jumbo package, Rosie Nix, led Bell on a blast up the middle. Rosie got a serious running start at Kiko Alonso, which brought to mind the "Legend of Kiko.” There used to be a tongue-in-cheek website when Alonso played for the Buffalo Bills, and it was similar to some of the Chuck Norris jokes going around at the time. One of my favorites was that Kiko Alonso went over Niagara Falls on an inner tube. "He called it the Lazy River.” But Kiko might not be the legend anymore after Nix drilled him. He might be more of a rumor.

* When Bell scored in the second quarter, I took a quick look over at the Miami sidelines and it looked like the cold front had dropped a minus-10-degree blast of arctic chill on the bench area. They looked cold. As a matter of fact, at various points throughout the game when the Fins huddled, they looked like they were huddling together to promote warmth, not just a huddle to call a play.

* It was good to see Maurkice Pouncey track down and tackle Mike Thomas after he intercepted Roethlisberger after he had torched one through Antonio’s hands. It means the hogs are covering and getting downfield on throws. Tunch and I had a standing bet for years over who got the most tackles on interceptions. Besides it being a matter of pride, it would cost you a pricey dinner somewhere at the end of a long hard season.

* How about that? First time in my 15-years as a sideline non-combatant that my microphone died. I mean dead as a doornail. On this incredibly cold afternoon, my mic just died. Not dead batteries. Nr did it freeze up. Nope. The mic is done. Hmm.

* What should I do? Geez, I guess I’ll just have to go to the broadcast booth with Tunch and Bill Hillgrove. In a nice climate controlled 72-degrees.

* What’s this? Hotdogs at halftime? And pizza after the game? How long has this been going on?

* What a shame that I can’t go back to the sidelines. I’ll just have to suck it up and get the job done here. And no, there is no truth to the rumor that there are pictures of me stomping, drop-kicking or dunking the mic in Gatorade. Honest.

* See you in Kansas City ...


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