And it's not like the Browns lost in typical Browns fashion -- a inexplicable interception, a red zone fumble, or a blown coverage that snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. No, this was an unadulterated whupping; something you might see in a Jackie Chan movie, or from anybody playing Notre Dame.
It was evident from the outset that Cleveland was in for a long day. Whenever your punter drops a snap that hits him in the hands, and that proves not to be the worst thing to happen on the play … well, in retrospect, no rational person would've blamed the Browns for forfeiting on the spot and calling it a day. Instead the punter, Paul Ernster, recovered the muff, avoided an oncoming Lawrence Timmons, and launched a 10-yard punt. But it gets better: Cleveland was flagged for four -- FOUR -- penalties on the play, and amazingly, none were for 11 guys impersonating an NFL team. I've watched thousands of hours of football, at just about every level, and I have never, ever seen a team called for four penalties on a single, misguided play. Referee Scott Green actually had to take time out of his busy schedule of throwing flags to explain who had done what:
"We have four fouls on the offense: illegal formation, offense, No. 56. That penalty is declined. Holding, No. 90, that penalty is declined. Holding, No. 35, that penalty will be enforced, 10 yards from the end of the kick. We had an ineligible downfield on the kick, that penalty is declined."Thank God Ernster got off the 10-yarder, because otherwise, the Browns would've lost yards on the play. Instead, the Steelers got the ball at Cleveland's 22, which gave Ernster a net punting average of bupkes after his first punt. That, people, is what we call an omen.
The Steelers would score four plays later, on a sweet fade route from Big Ben to Hines Ward in the back of the end zone, and save a few second-quarter hiccups, things were pretty much on cruise control for the rest of the afternoon.
And a cakewalk is exactly what I needed. You see, I spent the last week -- the last month, really -- moving. And I'm not talking about loading up a few boxes, throwing them in the trunk, and driving across town. I mean sorting through a decade worth of junk, hiring movers, and driving 400 miles north to the new address. The whole ordeal was stressful as hell, and it was compounded by the fact that my wife, a teacher, moved to the new digs three weeks before I did to get ready for the school year. Oh, and she took our five-month-old son with her.
So basically, for almost a month, I was on my own, in an apartment filled to the ceiling with boxes, trying not to go insane. By the end of it, my wife feared the worst -- think Captain Benjamin L. Willard but more dramatic -- and the fact that I didn't O.D. on Chinese food and Papa John's is a miracle. But enough about my unexplained absence, the bottom line is that I made it unscathed, and more importantly, the 42-inch plasma made it too.
But I'm still in a fragile state, kind of like Buster Bluth when he finds out his uncle might be his father. And If this had turned into the Steelers-Browns game played in Cleveland a year ago, I'm quite certain a coronary was in my immediate future.
Luckily, the Good Lord was looking out for me. Sure, there were some "What the… " moments -- Willie Parker, I'm looking at you -- but for the most part, I'm freaking' thrilled with Pittsburgh's overall effort. A few random observations:
* Did anybody catch Bill Cowher on the CBS pregame show? Not bad, right? Sure, he likes the Ravens and the Bengals ahead of the Steelers, but nobody ever accused him of knowing anything about football (I kid, I kid). I thought he did a swell job, but I was particularly fond of his shiny, new whopper choppers. I mentioned to my wife that it looked like Cowher got the ol' teefy's capped, and she agreed. (Although I think she's figured out that if she just goes along with whatever inane rant I'm on, she can get back to whatever it was she was doing before I interrupted her.) It was strangely mesmerizing, actually. Which is why his new SCI nickname is "Chiclets."
* Roethlisberger had a spell in the second quarter when various would-be pass catchers dropped four consecutive catchable passes. That was the lowlight of Big Ben's day, and he wasn't responsible for any of the miscues. Add his decision making throughout the game -- no silly, off-balanced throws in the middle of the field that are inevitably tipped then intercepted, coupled with his new-found discovery that's it's okay to throw the ball away, and the former almost-vegetable looked to be in postseason 2005 form. Finally.
* I can't say I was shocked to learn that Willie Reid was inactive for the game. The more things change, the more they stay the same, I guess. But as I was discussing the move with my buddy Andy, he put it in perspective: "I want Willie Reid to be the best punt returner in the NFL, but it's just not going to happen this week." After watching Allen Rossum field every attempt effortlessly, it ain't going to happen next week, either.
I railed on Cowher last season for causing Ricardo Colclough to spend the rest of his life in therapy trying to forget that Bengals game, but I also worry that this coaching staff's no-confidence vote in Reid might leave him scarred in the long run. Of course, it's funny how your outlook changes after you have a kid. I now think through the consequences of every outcome, no matter how improbable the chance it might actually happen, so excuse my overprotective streak. Reid's a big boy, and I'm sure he'll be fine. Plus, Rossum's a good problem to have.
* Raise your hand if you had some form of this conversation following the Matt Spaeth touchdown: "Hmm, I can't wait to see how those anti-tight-end-in-the-third-round media types will explain this in tomorrow's paper." And just for good measure, on the very next series, Roethlisberger threw a touchdown to Heath Miller. It was as if offensive coordinator Bruce Arians was saying, "I'm smarter than you and I know what I'm doing." Duly noted. As long as I'm gloating, I know ROBO-PUNTER didn't have any bombs, but he more than made up for it with the coffin-corner extravaganza. Way to make special teams special again, big guy.
* I always try to temper my excitement following an early-season win, especially such a big one against a hapless opponent. But SCI intern Adam Gretz makes an important point:
I'm not buying my Super Bowl tickets after today, and I'm not going to take away from what they did because it was, "only Cleveland," either.That's worth remembering, because Amos Zereoue was fond of saying during that forgettable 2003 season, "The other guys get paid too."
They lined up across from the team the NFL told them to line up across from and they beat them the way they were supposed to beat them.
I am extremely, extremely pleased.
* Some of the national media guys only have a passing interest in Steelers minutiae but don't hesitate to make grand proclamations about the team. In past years the defensive backs -- specifically the cornerbacks -- have caught their fair share of flak. Here's the thing, though: Deshea Townsend might be old, slow and undersized, but he's a chess master on the football field. Just ask Charlie Frye. Ryan Clark, who's quietly becoming one of my favorite Pittsburghers (the list is now at 10 or 11, I think), is never out of position. How the Redskins could let that guy walk for what amounted to peanuts explains a lot about that franchise. Hey, one man's trash…
* By my unofficial count, Big Ben was only sacked once Sunday. Once. I thought the offensive line was serviceable in pass protection, but part of the credit should go to Roethlisberger. Unlike Frye, who held onto the ball for five and six seconds per pass attempt, Big Ben got the ball out quickly. Pain can be a wonderful deterrent. Which leads me to my final thought: Chaz Frye was sacked five times in the first 26 minutes before being replaced by Derek Anderson. Do you think Frye asked to be taken out? And would you blame him if he did? Me neither.
Okay, 24-hour rule is in effect: enjoy the win, but come Tuesday, we're back to work, getting ready for the Bills.