Week number three brought the Steelers to Invesco Stadium at Mile High. As I took up along the sidelines, this indeed felt like a regular season game and one that would have consequences. It did -- not in the standings -- but in whether or not certain people get their names into the mix come the season opener.
* The story of this game was the opportunity afforded to Dennis Dixon running with and against the ones, and Keenan Lewis doing the same from the other side of the ball. Neither one of these youngsters used his chance to shine to the fullest. But Keenan's ride with the first unit was decidedly bumpier than Dennis'.
* As Dennis rolled to the sidelines towards me after taking the Steelers down the field in the second quarter, his body language and arm twitches were saying throw the ball through the back of the end zone. But from my perspective and angle on the sidelines, I could see towering Matt Spaeth squatting in the corner of touchdown land. I could hear Chuck Noll and his "No-no-no" sideline commentary of years past ringing in my head when Dennis let the ball go, and I knew he couldn't resist the temptation of trying to "Ben it up" like number 7 so often does and make something big happen when game brains say protect the red zone. Denver CB Perrish Cox read it right and made a play.
* Good decisions come from making bad decisions. That's the only way you learn at this level. And Dennis will also learn that he can't pre-determine where he's going with the ball, and that he can't stare down a receiver like he did when he suffered his second pick of the game trying to throw an out pattern to Emmanuel Sanders. And Sanders has to understand that earning trust from a QB means fighting for the guy when he's a little off in his timing on a throw.
* Sanders had to feel Broncos CB Andre Goodman breathing down his back coming out of the cut and that meant coming back to the ball and making sure that if he (Sanders) doesn't catch it, no one does. Trust in a WR is more than being at the right place; there's grunt work to be done, even if it means just knocking the ball down.
Lewis looked ready to play. He's had an outstanding camp, and through the first two games had shown that he's capable of taking the next step to battle for a starting position.
Two personal fouls and a run-in with a glass picture frame after the game was over said that Keenan needs to harness his tremendous competitive spirit as well as tightening up his play on the field. The quick, rhythmic passing game of Kyle Orton and the Broncos had Keenan turned around at least three times and if his body wasn't spinning, his mind was.
Because Keenan felt that he was overreacting and coming out of his back pedal too early, Lewis started giving bigger cushions from the line of scrimmage. Then the short stuff became a factor because of that cushion. And then he started to melt down. Whenever you start to play from a frame of mind of fear and not confidence, things tend to go south quickly. And they did.
I have been there, done that and I would say most people do not understand the tremendous pressure a player feels when things start feeling as if they are unraveling, then spinning out of control. It gets mind-numbing, even surreal, and then you lose it in a fade-to-black moment. It takes a huge amount of intestinal fortitude to pull back from the abyss. And the only way to do that is to get back up on the horse again and find success. Until you do, it's a boogeyman hiding in your closet. Just ask Will Gay.
* Speaking of "Big play Will Gay," he resurfaced and baited the Denver QB into throwing while laying off, only to close the gap for an interception. A play like that could serve as a saddle for Will that gets him back up on the horse again.
* Just before Will got the call I happened to be standing by him on the sideline and we locked eyes for a brief second. There was a gleam in his eye. He knew it and I knew it. In the world of pro football, one man's misfortune is another man's opportunity, or the start of redemption.
* Back to Lewis. That was, I'd be willing to bet, the longest jog from the far side of the field after his second personal foul of the first half. Mike Tomlin made the run somewhat shorter by meeting Keenan out on the field, and a very candid Tomlin was very terse in his final comment to Lewis. "Sit your ___ on the bench." I don't have to be a lip-reader or body-language expert to know Tomlin was upset. But I will tell you that it's a sickening moment for any player. It happened to me during a nationally televised game three times in one night. That's gotta be a record somewhere.
* Jonathan Dwyer finally got to show what he brings to the table. Good vision and quick feet made for a great cut to the end zone for six. From my vantage point on the sidelines, Jon set it up by threatening the inside before making a beeline to the pylon.
* By keeping his feet moving, Dwyer showed his ability to push, then carry a pile on a 17-yard run in the fourth quarter, which was greatly enhanced by a second surge from tackle Tony Hills. Finally, Dwyer proceeded to display what it looks like when he finds a crack and can put a little giddy-yup to his get-a-long and "Go green" on a 40-yard run the next play.
* Hokie had another good night in the center of the trenches showing that he's still fully capable of starting on a number of NFL teams at NT. Chris is the thinking-man's NT and plays with game brains. If chess was a violent sport, Hokie would be a grandmaster.
* Jason Worilds now knows what James Harrison experiences week in and week out after getting dragged down on a pass rush. It was a "Welcome to my Worilds" experience for Jason as he had'em beat clean only to get tackled from behind. Harrison had to be smiling (or scowling) somewhere. Where's that dad-gum Umpire in the backfield when you need him?
* Charlie Batch has re-inserted his name into the QB conversation around the watercooler. That was a pretty good outing for mop-up duty. Charlie threw the nicest touch pass of the night with a Bronco busting his grill at the release point. Batch feathered it to Justin Vincent but couldn't have enjoyed the view that drew a penalty for his precision and pain.
* Later, when Charlie was looking for Manny Sanders to bail him out in the flats, Batch came back to the sidelines looking like the lead singer from Creed singing "Arms Wide Open" as he gestured to Bruce Arians coincidentally, with his arms wide open. As in, where was he?
* Antonio Brown is a guy who was due for a correction in the market just because he's been on the come so much. Decision-making is a big part of any process on the field, and catching punts on your own 2-yard line will benefit him in the long run. You can't let your mojin-ation outrun your common sense just because you've been aggressive and successful in the past. Returning kicks is a here and now proposition.
* The common thread throughout most of this is simple: It's the pre-season, which means it's about evaluating players, players that are learning, and learning comes at a cost. As a player, you hope the cost doesn't come too high, and that at cutdown time your balance sheet puts you in the Black (and Gold).