QB Kordell Stewart reprised his own classic material by playing mistake-free football and delivering the long-ball when most needed. There were still a few Stewart critics in the crowd for the game against the Bengals, but they were a small faction. The loudest howls concerned the defense, with perhaps the offensive play calling a distant second.
I am going to have a hard time watching the game on TV at home this coming Sunday after my pilgrimage to the Burgh. Watching the game live, I feel like a fool for all the commentary I've previously offered as I result of what I saw on television. As much as I enjoyed visiting friends and family, the complete Steelers game experience made my year.
My girlfriend's father landed us three tickets on the 50-yard line. True, the seats reminded me of the elevation of my Colorado home, but the vantage point was keen, as good as, if not better, than what the players and coaches see in the film room. But the main thing is to just get there. In fact, I'd even simply take part in the tailgating every Sunday even if I didn't have a seat.
I know Steelers fans have their nasty side. But I'd contend that on the whole, they are the friendliest bunch of people I've ever come across. My hard sell of the SteelCitySports seemed out of place as the tailgaters accepted my fliers warmly and with a thank you. I shared beer and food bounty in a number of locations and the football talk is as keen as you can possibly imagine hearing.
I started at a well-established tailgate near the river between PNC Park and Heinz Field. Many of the drinkers there have been at this over 30 years. Most of them have played football and were just as eager to talk about the high school championship games as their beloved Steelers. A big Mountaineers-Panthers match up also loomed on the horizon.
But as for the Steelers, the fans were optimistic about the game with the Bungles. There was some uneasiness about Stewart starting and clearly Maddox has won over the fans, for now. New kicker Jeff Reed also garnered some interest. The fans were eager to see someone in a Steeler uniform split the uprights. I looked up at the rare sight of a blue November sky in Pittsburgh and wondered if the football gods weren't already smiling on the untested Reed.
Vegetarians need not apply, as the supply of meat was both generous and diverse. I love kielbasa and I made sure to overdose while in Pittsburgh. The brewer from Penn Brewery was present and I must tip my tossle cap to his Octoberfest. But I wasn't adverse to an Iron City or two, thanks to John and his buddy Bob (at a different tailgate). The beer was beginning to loosen folks up and the discussions of the Steelers play turned more critical.
There is still some Super Bowl optimism in Pittsburgh, but it is waning. The morning bull session mostly concerned the poor special teams play and the problems with Bill Cowher. There are no excuses for lousy special teams, at least with this crew. Some were baffled that Cowher could let things get this bad, but a few did offer that the Steelers lack that certain player, such as Fred McAfee. No special teams demon has emerged over the last two seasons and the coverage has suffered accordingly.
I wandered around the parking lots looking for more discussion and handing out the website fliers. But the fans were in that tailgate zone, reaching for that perfect game buzz. There were wood fired grills, steaks, and women who were looking to dance. The lots surrounding he stadium looked like a carnival. Game time was nearing and the alcohol rush was on.
I waltzed in the south entrance of Heinz Field. The stadium, at least from this approach, does not have an entrance. Pittsburgh, as a city, has the best entrance in the world, via the Fort Pitt Tunnel. The designers failed to appreciate this when building Heinz Field. The stadium does not handle the crowd well, inside and outside. The open south end takes away the drama of the entrance and the backed up crowd only serves to highlight this oversight.
Once "inside", again the set up does not allow the crowd to move easily. Getting up to the nosebleed seats took forever and the crowd was not settled in until late in the first quarter. Thus, there are often a number of open seats at the start of the game, at the beginning of the second half and towards the end of the fourth quarter. This stadium was designed for the luxury boxes, not the 12th man. After such a wonderful morning of tailgating, this seemed a betrayal.
Nonetheless, I was ecstatic with my perch. I was right on the 50-yard line and the sun warmed my seat most of the day. The weather was perfect, even if the field was not, and I could see whatever would transpire on the field that day.
I spent a lot of time watching Stewart and the coverages he faced. I wanted to have something interesting to talk to tbickle about. The Bengals mostly crowded the line with the proverbial 8 or 9 in the box, playing the receivers in man. They did play zone some, but often complimented that with a run blitz. Bengals LBs Brian Simmons and Takeo Spikes were rarely fooled by anything, seemingly knowing the offensive plays better than some of the Steelers on the field.
The early going was so easy for Stewart that the crowd was in a state of disbelief. Everyone lauded Hines Ward and the second quarter field goal only enhanced the feel good vibe. And then the collapse followed by a sputtering Steelers offense. The sense was that Cowher was trying to sit on the 17-point lead. The dread was that the game was still in the second quarter.
Overall, my first half impressions consisted of noting how different the Steelers base offense seemed with Stewart in there. His mobility definitely adds a dimension. I noticed Mike Jones in for Fiala and was happy with how Jones was playing. Do the Steelers have the best defense in the NFL on 1st and 2nd down? They certainly have the worst on 3rd. The number of times that the Bengals were in third and long was remarkable. Kendrell Bell is playing hurt and is not himself. There were times when he could barely get off the field. And finally, Kordell Stewart did not slow the offense down, the play calling did.
I spent the entire second half dreading the Bengals winning the game and noticing that the Browns were beating the Saints. My notes get sparse even at home as I get caught up in the emotion of the game. The fans, at least those way up high, seemed less interested in the game and more interested in either maintaining their buzz or getting home early. The closed north side of the field, near field level, was plenty rowdy. A number of fans in the section I was in were more interested in the TV camera that happened on by.
I just didn't envision Steelers fans this way and I was somewhat disappointed. I wished the crowd was more into the game, but I mostly place the blame for this on the stadium design. A view of the city and the river is great for a baseball game, but it makes no sense for a football game.
When the Steelers made their last ditch goal line stand, half of the fans in the second level were already gone. I could see from where I was sitting the lines to get on the boats to go home. Plus, with the Bengals driving towards the open end of the stadium, the fans really could not get in Kitna's head anyway. Ultimately, the defense saved the day. You might say that Chad Scott did, though I'd say Brent Alexander had the best game of all the defensive players.
The post-game tailgate was a bit more subdued, but the crowd was chatty. The fans were relieved, certainly not expecting such a close game. Stewart was not the subject of conversation. Everyone wanted to talk about the defense. Super Bowl hopes were even dimmer and many stated that this was not a Pittsburgh team. This was not a Pittsburgh defense.
While Jeff Reed's performance gave some people a silver lining, the defense and the poor kick coverage has many fans already thinking about next year. There's nothing special about this team and there is certainly nothing special about this stadium, at least not yet. Has the Three Rivers tradition been severed? There were glimpses of it this past Sunday, but they seemed no more than a few threads of nostalgia.
I'm still looking for a really good Classic Steelers cover band. They may be playing at Perry High School.