Following the plan

The conversation, in the wake of the most dominating effort of the season, included thoughts on what the Steelers might yet do better.

"A score like that, you definitely think we played pretty well," defensive end Cam Heyward observed after Thursday night's 52-21 triumph over Carolina. "I think we have to get better at a couple of things."

Heyward referenced the two passes to Christian McCaffrey that went for Carolina touchdowns (of 20 and 25 yards) for emphasis.

"We still gave it up to the running back in the flat a couple times," Heyward said. "There are things we can improve."

Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger fashioned a perfect passer rating of 158.3 but assessed the performance of the offense as "almost perfect.

"We did punt twice," he said. "We never want to punt.

"We're playing some pretty good football right now, but there are more plays we can make."

The ones the Steelers made offensively, defensively and on special teams against the Panthers were a product of understanding how Carolina needed to be attacked and an ability to execute the plan.

GETTING AFTER CAM: Defensive coordinator Keith Butler had acknowledged defending Carolina was "a pain in the neck" before the game.

"They have a big dadgum quarterback," he lamented.

Butler never said the Steelers didn't intend to hit 6-foot-5, 245-pound quarterback Cam Newton, anyway.

The defense wound up with seven quarterback hits, five sacks and a pick six, and held Newton, an accomplished runner, to 10 yards on two carries.

"The plan was to hit him," nickel cornerback Mike Hilton explained. "He's a big guy so you have to try to get as many hits on him as possible.

"We could tell throughout the game those hits were taking a toll on him. It really just slowed the offense down."

The Steelers always endeavor to stop the run and then get after the quarterback.

The twist this time was the commitment to stopping the run in general and Newton from running in particular was such that the Steelers went with their base defense, "a lot more than we usually do" Hilton said, "especially when they went three wides (with a three-wide receivers formation).

"They want to run the ball, run the ball, then try to hit you with play-action. We have safeties that can cover inside. We have linebackers that can run with running backs so we were comfortable with that base package. They rely on the run so it was a big week for those two (inside linebackers), (Jon) Bostic and Vince (Williams). They played well and it showed."

DISTRIBUTING THE BALL: Roethlisberger completed 88 percent of his passes (22-for-25), a career-high figure for a regular-season game, for 328 yards, with five touchdowns and no interceptions.

The plan on offense was to throw it to whoever was open, which helps explain why he was able to complete 11 passes to four wide receivers, six passes to two tight ends and six passes to three running backs.

The touchdown passes were likewise spread around (two to wide receivers, two to tight ends and one to a running back).

"Taking what was there," Roethlisberger said of his approach. "Obviously, the first play (a 75-yard catch-and-run touchdown to wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster) was a big one. After that, coming back, just taking some short stuff and then from there it was trying to read what they threw at us. They threw a lot of different looks and blitzes at us.

"I thought (offensive coordinator) Randy (Fichtner) called a great game and I thought players made plays."

AS ADVERTISED: Carolina head coach Ron Rivera had recognized in the Steelers "the evolution of the whole team as a group, them coming together" in a conference call on Tuesday.

"And don't pass up what Danny Smith is doing with special teams, it's a good group," Rivera added. "This is by far, I think, one of the more complete teams in the league."

The special teams set up one of the Steelers' seven touchdowns when fullback Roosevelt Nix forced a fumble on a kickoff return and outside linebacker Anthony Chickillo recovered at the Carolina 9-yard line late in the third quarter.