Sometime in the middle of the first quarter PaVaSteeler leaned back in his chair and exclaimed to no one in particular, "Who are these guys?"
We weren't expecting to run into each other. I made a game day decision to watch the game in Alexandria for the first time this season. Being exposed to our particular perspectives on a regular basis it was fun sharing notes before, during and after as to what we were expecting, what we saw and what it all might mean. What he meant, which he did not have to explain to the dozen or so fans clustered together in front of a big screen was, here was a team that appeared to be able to run the ball and protect the passer. Who knew?
Last week I wrote about how much fun it was to watch Steelers/Jets. This was even more fun than that. I can't remember when I got so much enjoyment from just watching a game. Yes, we won, and we're all certainly delighted about that and will be for days. Any time you beat the Ravens the season can't be a total loss. But I'm talking about while it was happening, even the scary part near the end when Baltimore had tied the score and you weren't quite certain how it was going to end. It was a great time. Why?
Because, I think this game represented exactly what most of us sign up for as fans. In March or May when you're wondering how you're going to make it to the fall and another season its this type of game that is driving that feeling. It was intense, passionate and deeply meaningful for all involved; players, fans, everyone. You could see it in everyone's faces; a level of focused intensity, and yet a joy as well. PaVa in his piece Sunday on the sobering issue of head injuries spoke of our relationship to football being a "social drug", and yesterday was a particularly good batch (and I'm saying this in the best sense).
You got everything. You want hard hitting play? Troy Polamalu slams a receiver much in the same manner as he did a week earlier. As he staggers back to his feet he's crossing himself, in my mind, thanking God that he was able to get back up. You want imagination? The Steelers running that wildcat formation, not once, but about five times. You want risk taking? Even though the Ravens onside kick didn't work you can't find fault with the tactic. At that point they couldn't prove that they were capable of getting the ball in the end zone. Yes, the two teams records were so pedestrian that the network pulled their number one announcing team, and yes it was just October, but it might as well have been January. These teams were playing for keeps.
We hate the Ravens, but at the end of the day we hate them for the right reasons; (Please don't tell anyone affiliated with Baltimore that I said this) they're good. They are most like the Steelers of any other team in the league as far as their character and integrity. We had them on the ropes trying our best to beat them to death, and they kept staggering off and landing haymakers of their own. They showed their pedigree. Ray Rice had his best game of the season as they continually scratched and clawed their way against the Steelers defense, managing field goals. Flacco took a page out of Ben's book and moved around extending plays and hitting Torrey Smith on a beautiful bomb at just the point that it looked like Pittsburgh was going deliver the dagger. You might have wanted to get mad at Ike, but you saw the replay and had to say 'You know what, that was just a really great play', the kind of play one ought to expect from a defending champion. Finally, they willed the ball into the end zone, but it only meant a tie, and there was too much time left.
Shaun Suisham will forever be acknowledged as the hero of this game, and rightfully so. But it was Emmanuel Sanders who provided the definitive answer to Ravens. His spectacular, but ever so slightly flawed, kick return said to Baltimore and the world 'Not today!' As Suisham's kick sailed between the uprights as time expired, newcomers to this rivalry like Velasco and Whimper leaped up and down around like little kids. The images of Ben and Tomlin showed men who were a bit more contained, not just with the understanding that it was just one step forward in a journey of many miles, but also with the knowledge that they would have to do this all over again on Thanksgiving night. Things were settled...for today. And that's part of the joy of football at its best as well.
Winners and losers? Loser first, a shorter list. It is an indication of the type of day it was that Heath Miller, who scored the Steelers only touchdown was also clearly the biggest loser. The fact that he committed the team's only turnover and dropped a catchable pass stood out in glaring relief precisely because they were so, well, un-Heathlike. I'm sure there were other failures but its hard to recall any, except for one. Derek Moye would have to be the other loser, again I am speaking in a relative sense. Performance wise it was a wash. On two tries one spectacular catch that kept a scoring drive alive and one drop of a catchable ball that would have been a touchdown that might of rendered the drama at the end unnecessary. But he's not the number five receiver for nothing. Make that catch and you make it very hard to consider putting this kid on an inactive list. The team didn't suffer much for his failure, but he missed an opportunity to remove himself from the margins, and Wheaton will be back soon.
Winners? Let's see. Beachum and Whimper against Suggs and Dumervil. Certainly if you presented that prospect two weeks ago, maybe as recently as, oh, Sunday morning, the follow up would likely be 'What hospital is Ben in and when will be the surgery?' I remember being one of the first to notice Whimper in the huddle. "Whimper's on the field" Looks of disbelief and horror. And then they kept going on, running and pass protecting like, well like they were competent. Tell me you weren't amazed.
William Gay. You know for some of us its sort of reflexive. Mention the name William Gay and the bile automatically rises in your throat and then you, surprisingly find yourself saying 'He's playing pretty good'. And then you can see that they feel unclean for having said this, almost like saying Flacco is pretty good quarterback, or maybe Osama bin Laden was a nice guy. It feels like a betrayal to some, but the truth is what it is.
Le'Veon Bell. I think we all got it this week. One of our party was saying after a couple of his runs "Number 26 or 36?" That's high, high praise. Tunch Illkin in his post game analysis compared Bell not to '36' (Bettis), but because of his patience in the hole to '32' (Franco Harris). Tomlin in his post game press conference defiantly asked whether anyone wanted to question the capabilities of Bell. There were no takers. None of those referenced here are given to hyperbole. The only real question now is how good can Bell be?
David DeCastro is performing as advertised, LaMarr Woodley had a sack and a pass deflection that came tantalizing close to being an interception. The defensive front played well enough that I didn't really notice that Keisel was out in the fourth quarter. The defensive secondary was so deep that Curtis Brown couldn't get a hat. Any questions about Ben? Didn't think so. Antonio Brown. Let me frame it this way, would anyone be willing to trade him for Mike Wallace or any other receiver in this league based upon performance as opposed to reputation? David Paulson made a catch, but more amazingly, I actually saw him successfully throw a block. Don't let Bell's performance completely overshadow competent play by Felix Jones and in a more limited capacity, Jonathan Dwyer.
Todd Haley. The first quarter drive was a thing of beauty. You may not want to, but you've got to give him credit for that. Danny Smith. For the first time that I can remember Pittsburgh's special teams clearly outplayed Baltimore's. The Ravens' offense had to earn everything they got. No gifts. The onside kick, Brown's punt return and Sanders' kickoff return were all special teams wins. And of course there is Suisham.
What does it mean? In terms of the dynamics of this season, everyone is saying the right things. Its just one game, we've got a long way to go, and so forth. All true. But there is a larger question that has been lingering out there and being discussed. Basically, its do you believe that the team would be better served by failing spectacularly and getting more favorable draft position in order to accelerate the rebuilding process? My answer is absolutely not. The tale of the season has not been fully told as of yet, and it may still be possible that things may play out that way. But this team demonstrated in no uncertain terms that it is capable with the resources on hand. They did it with a line of Beachum, Foster, Velasco, DeCastro and Whimper. Bell, Jones, Dwyer and Will Johnson is a formidable running group. Brown, Sanders, Cotchery and Moye as your receivers. Yes, McLendon is not quite the run stopper Casey Hampton was, and who else is? The biggest criticism that could be managed about the linebackers and secondary is that Worilds didn't do anything spectacular. And they did this without Pouncey, David Johnson, Spaeth, Spence, Foote, Jarvis Jones, Plax, Marcus Gilbert most of the way, Brett Keisel part of the way, Wheaton.
Could this group use some help, absolutely. Do some players need to get better? They do, and if you're paying attention, many of them are. Do you need to blow this whole thing up? No.