Groundhog level was the place to be for what is quickly becoming a legendary throwdown whenever these two bitter AFC North rivals, the Steelers and Ravens, get together. After the three games of 2008, and the overtime loss by the Steelers earlier this year, I knew there would be some serious skull cracking, and I wasn't disappointed. Here's a little of what I saw:
* Opportunity knocked early in the form of a dominant LaMarr Woodley pass rush in the first quarter. Woodley blew up Oniel Cousins and banged the throwing arm of Joe Flacco to create a softball "Can of Corn." Potsie Farrior might very well have fair caught the ball. Little did I know we had just experienced the filmmaking technique of "Juxtaposition," or flash of things to come.
* Mike Wallace did his 4.28 40-yard magic and got behind Frank Walker. Ben Roethlisberger reared back with a heave from his own end zone that I thought would never catch the streaking Wallace. It did and he did, and again the thought struck me "How did he last till the third round?"
* As for Santonio Holmes's 24-yard TD catch-and-run, he told me later that, "I wasn't even supposed to look for the ball." Tone did look and after some swerving and curving he planted one in the end zone. Sometimes playing a little backyard football gets the job done.
* James Harrison had a bicep problem after getting whacked by a shoulder pad during a practice before the game. The Silverback had an elbow pad on his monstrous right arm but got after Flacco in the first half. After a nice rip without a dip to get to the blindside of Flacco on "The Blindside" himself, OT Mike Oher, James tried to bring Flacco to the ground with his right arm around Flacco's waist but couldn't close the deal. I wondered how much the injured bicep played a role in not pulling down Flacco.
* Somebody needs to coach up Nick Eason on the art of fair catching the ball. I've got to believe that gold streak dyed into his hair eclipsed his common sense when he started to rumble forward with the ball on a short kickoff return.
* Haloti Ngata, the giant 350-plus pound Samoan nightmare, was a one-man wrecking machine on a punt return. Lined up over snapper Pete Retkofsky, Ngata drove poor old Pete all the way to punter Dan Sepulveda. He might have thrown Pete into the Allegheny if Sepulveda hadn't gotten into his gun sights. As Pete was trying to get the heck out of the way of the rampaging rhino whose name in Samoan translates to "Whole-lott'a-noggin," Ngata took a swipe at the punter. Quick as a cat, Sepulveda ducked a massive arm aimed at his head and then Haloti, not having taken his fill of destruction, turned and roared down the field toward the Steelers bench and mulched Patrick Bailey with a personal foul. I had to think Ngata's whole purpose on that play was to get a personal foul.
* Ray Rice gave a great demonstration of what it means to run "Downhill." Behind a surging line, Rice positioned himself to draw the defenders to him through his linemen, and then he spontaneously combusted upon acceleration. This guy is going to give the Steelers problems for years to come.
* Tyler Grisham anteed up a 14-yard completion when the Steelers needed him most. With his parents sitting in the stands, Tyler came through on a 3rd and three that led to a Jeff Reed FG that put the Steelers out front 23-20. Big play by a little man who I think has a nice upside.
* The man of the match was Woodley. On third-and-seven, LaMarr pulled off the best "Whirly bird" pass rush I've seen in a long time. He'd been overpowering Cousins all day, and when the Steelers needed him to help snuff the final drive, Woodley delivered. Some guys can spin, but the key is to gain ground up the field and slap at the tackle's hip so you can get by. LaMarr got all of that and then some as he beat down Flacco to set up his fourth-down heroics.
* All LaMarr all the way, as Cousins, now having to play LaMarr straight up because he got the inside on the last rush, couuldn't fend off the monster from Michigan on fourth down. Woodley "climbed" Cousins like Sir Edmund Hillary climbed Everest, with an overpowering bull rush and smacked Flacco yet again to cause the fumble that Ziggy Hood snared out of the air like it was a Porterhouse steak. The bull rush is all about planting your forehead in the opponent's chin and rolling your hips through to climb, or gain leverage by uprooting the man, in your way. Nobody did it better on this day than LaMarr Woodley. He finished off the sack with a flying sidekick that Bruce Lee would've enjoyed.