Winning on the line: It was a physical battle, and on Sunday the Steelers won that battle, defeating the Carolina Panthers, 24-16.
The Steelers dominated on both sides of the line, the Steelers pounding out 156 yards on the ground, while the defense held the bread and butter of the Panthers offense to just 21 yards on the ground.
"Hard-fought game," said Coach Mike Tomlin. "I think we played an attrition game today. We wanted to win the line of scrimmage on both sides. I thought we were effective in doing so. I thought we ran it on offense and played behind our running game. I thought we did a good job of minimizing their run on defense. Obviously, that was big because we've been leaking here the last six quarters or so defensively in that area.
"Appreciative of the efforts."
One of the strong efforts was on third down, where the Steelers converted a very healthy 12 of 16, a 75% conversion rate.
"We we're in manageable third downs," said Tomlin. "So many of them were short yardage and just globally those are higher percentage plays. I mean, how many sneaks did we have. So, oftentimes third down success is not about how you operate, but it's about the distance and we were in third-and-short and those are consistently more makeable than the longer ones.
"I will add though we did have some significant longer ones that we needed and that one there at the latter part of the game we hit Diontae (Johnson) was a big one."
Quarterback Mitch Trubisky managed the game efficiently, completing 17 or 22 passes for 179 yards.
"I just thought he managed it well," said Tomlin. "I thought he kept the ball off the ground and played clean and had a high completion percentage. But it's easier to do those things when you're playing behind an effective run game. Can't say enough about our big dudes up front and how they controlled it."
And control it they did. The Steelers got the ball to start the third quarter and went on a drive for the ages. Trubisky led them on a 21-play, 91-yard drive that ate up 11:43 on the clock, after they started at the nine-yard line due to a penalty.
"Twenty-one plays, great by them," said Tomlin. "But obviously not what we want in terms of a drive start and that's kind of reflective of the penalty component I was talking about in the in the opening statement."
And that opening statement hit straight on with some of the penalties that were called, including a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct call against both Marcus Allen and Johnson.
"Obviously, we could have played smarter in some instances, penalties are not how we choose to live, particularly some of the 15-yard variety," said Tomlin. "Hopefully there are opportunities to learn from that. It's good to learn with the W."
Winning matchups: Mitch Trubisky didn't necessarily save his best for last against the Panthers, but the last two passes he threw turned out to be two of his most impactful.
On third-and-14 from the Steelers' 21-yard line with 5:29 left in the fourth quarter, Trubisky hit wide receiver Diontae Johnson for 19 yards and a first down.
And on third-and-6 from the Steelers' 44 with 3:12 left in regulation Trubisky found Johnson again, this time for 9 yards and another first down,
Those two connections extended a possession that began with 6:15 left and the Steelers ahead, 21-13.
They weren't able to run out the clock but they did the next best thing by driving for a field goal that produced a two-score lead in what ultimately became a 24-16 victory today at Bank of America Stadium.
"We studied a lot on third down this week," Trubisky said. "We got our matchups. I was going to Diontae, he was winning.
"One he won on a five-step little short post (route) and then he won on a hitch (route) versus man (-to-man coverage). I was just going to him in those situations. He did a great job trusting me on those timing throws and getting open so that was huge for us, and the O-line did a good job protecting."
Trubisky targeted Johnson 10 times against Carolina.
Johnson finished with 10 receptions for 98 yards.
Five of his catches moved the chains on third downs, part of the Steelers' 12-for-16 effort (75 percent) in that department.
"It was awesome," Trubisky said. "He just was locked in all week, we had a great gameplan and he was getting open for me all day. I just trust him to get open, I trust in his ability and we had great timing, and he was winning all his routes. If you just continue to trust in the offense, in this plan, I'm going to go to him. He did a great job on third down getting open all day for me.
"Anybody can have a day like that. It just depends what the defense is taking away, who they're putting on him. He did a great job believing in the plan and making plays when he was open."
Trubisky wound up with 17 completions on 22 attempts for 179 yards.
He wasn't necessarily passing up potential high-risk throws to avoid interceptions but he ended up not throwing any of those.
"I was just really thinking about taking what they were giving us," he said. "We had a couple chances to be aggressive downfield. They gave is a different look so I either checked it down or we had a different route pattern that ended up hitting.
"Most important was being efficient on third down, I think that's huge for us today, staying on the field and leaning on that run game. The emphasis was protect the football and that's what I did today."
No place like home: Linebacker Alex Highsmith, who was born in Wilmington, North Carolina, attended UNC Charlotte and grew up watching the Panthers, had an impressive outing against the team he was once a fan of.
"It's pretty cool," said Highsmith. "I'm just so grateful. It's just cool coming back here. I love the city.
"A lot of people know that I was a Panthers fan growing up, a diehard Panthers fan. It's just cool coming back and being able to play here. It's a feeling I can't describe, so I'm just grateful."
Highsmith had a large group of friends and family on Sunday in Charlotte, something that brought a huge smile to his face.
"It's a lot," said Highsmith of the support he had in the stands. "It's a lot, but I got a lot of family and friends in town so I'm excited to see them."
While family and friends were excited to see Highsmith, Panthers quarterback Sam Darnold and their offense sure wasn't. Highsmith had a sack, four tackles and a forced fumble in the game.
He was part of a defense that completely shut down a powerful Panthers running game, a component of their offense they rely heavily on. The Panthers managed only 21 yards on the ground, something that was a point of emphasis for the defense this week.
"We knew that was an emphasis because we knew the type of running game they had," said Highsmith. "They have really good couple of backs. We knew to win the game we had to do that. The past couple of weeks that wasn't ourselves. I think it started, we had a great week of practice. Honestly, one of our best weeks of practice in a while. I think that's where it started and we really set the game from the first drive, stopping the run and so that's why we were successful, we were able to stop the run."
In addition to stopping, the defense also brought the pressure on Darnold, sacking him four times.
"Just continue to mix up our rush game, not throwing the same things at them," said Highsmith. "I feel like we're able to get them off the spot. When we were able to get them off the spot it caused a lot of helter skelter, so we were to get back there and so that's why we were able to just get to him today."
The defense answered the Panthers' using their big bodies on the offensive line, by putting their own big bodies out there, including rookie DeMarvin Leal.
"I think we did a good job," said Highsmith. "DeMarvin Leal coming in, stepping up, bringing another big body in the field to help us be stout in the run game when they brought their extra bodies in. We just had a good mindset coming into the game. That's just what it was. So, we just got to continue because we know we got a good running team coming up again this week. We just got to continue to have that same mindset every week, because we know the type of defense we can be."