But the young Steelers who ventured into Gillette Stadium to take on Bill Belichick, Tom Brady and the New England Patriots were not awed.
Yes, they recognized who it was they were playing against. Yes, they understand what went wrong and why in what became a 55-31 lesson in how it’s done in the NFL at the highest level.
And yes, they promise to be better for the experience the next time.
“It was a great opportunity to go there and play,” the rookie running back from Michigan State explained. “I’ve been watching Tom Brady and other guys in New England growing up.
“I was OK with it. The ‘wow’ factor kind of went away for me now. Guys don’t really ‘wow’ me anymore. They did the first couple of weeks. I kind of got used to it, I guess.”
Bell looked at home rushing for 74 yards on 16 carries (4.6 yards per) and catching four passes for an additional 65 yards for a season-high 139 yards from scrimmage But he was supposed to have at least one more carry, a first-and-10 snap from the Steelers 36-yard line late in the third quarter with New England leading, 27-24.
“I went the wrong way,” Bell said. “I heard it the wrong way, heard the wrong thing. It was kind of loud.”
Bell subsequently failed to come down with a pass in the flat in the vicinity of the New England goal line.
“Took my eye off the ball, trying to make a play on the safety too early,” he said. “Little detail things like that, that’s what’s going to separate me. I can’t let that happen again. I have to let my team know they can count on me in any situation.”
The rookie outside linebacker from Georgia knew almost immediately he was no longer in the SEC.
“It was cold out there,” Jones confirmed. “It was a great opportunity. I don’t know if I’d say it was an honor. They’re great players. I definitely look up to them and respect them, all of them, everybody I play against. But just another ballgame, you go out there and give everything you got and play hard.”
Jones also found out there are no tight ends the caliber of Rob Gronkowski at Alabama or LSU.
Gronkowski caught a 19-yard touchdown pass despite the defensive efforts of Jones – who was left chasing with his arm upraised on the play – and strong safety
“I felt like if I would have turned around, I don’t know if I would have lost the ball or lost him,” Jones said. “I just tried to run and keep up with him. Tom Brady did a great job putting the ball right at the back of my helmet. He got out on me, had a couple steps in front of me. I was just trying to catch up to him. It would have been hard for me to turn around and see (the ball). It was a hard play.
“I didn’t get my hands on him good enough getting off the line of scrimmage. He got out a little bit, and he got to running. On that play right there you gotta stop him before he starts, slow him down at the line of scrimmage. And Tom Brady, their pass concept is a lot about timing, as well. I let him get off the line and he got into his route, and Tom Brady put the ball where it’s supposed to be.”
The rookie safety from Syracuse likewise had his hands full trying to defend Gronkowski in the Steelers’ sub-package defense. In doing so, Thomas found himself a long way from what used to be known as The Big East Conference.
“You’re playing against one of the best, Tom Brady, first of all,” Thomas said. “And then matching up against Gronkowski, I always saw him on TV. To be on the same field as them was a blessing, definitely it was exciting.”
It was also a learning experience.
Thomas (5-foot-9, 217 pounds) repeatedly found himself trying to stop Gronkowski (6-6, 265) from getting the ball, but Gronkowski wound up with nine catches (on 10 targets) for 143 yards and one touchdown.
“I criticize myself, should have put more hands on him, get more in his face,” Thomas said. “A big tight end like him, you have to get hands on him, disrupt his routes. I didn’t do that. That’s just being young and trying to learn situations. Outside leverage or inside leverage, he and Tom Brady just adjusted. If I was inside, they went outside. They just made good plays; they were on the same page.
“Definitely a learning experience, get better, man. He just taught me how to play harder, come harder and use my hands more.”