Not that the usual stuff, the stuff for which these Steelers have become known, ever should be taken for granted, but this time, it was more about other stuff. The discipline of the run defense. The pressure on the passer. The takeaways. The 50-yard field goal by the kicker who’s been having an uncharacteristically rough go of it. And the way they answered an opening touchdown drive with one of their own and then put their foot on the neck of a quality opponent and choked the life right out of them.
Four days before the Steelers were to line up against a 6-2 Carolina Panthers team that was no worse than the second-best opponent on their schedule so far, they went toe-to-toe for 60 minutes against the Ravens in Baltimore. Maybe it wasn’t as vicious as some of the previous installments of this annual home-and-home bar brawl, but the training room still was a busy place the day after their victory there.
That win over the Ravens gave the Steelers three victories over AFC North teams over a four-week segment of their 2018 schedule, and even though it put them in first place in the division at 5-2-1, there was nothing secure about being in the lead if that lead was mere percentage points midway through a 16-game schedule.
The Steelers hadn’t clinched anything with that win in Baltimore, and as Coach Mike Tomlin told his players, all the four-game winning streak really accomplished was negating their 1-2-1 start. There was way too much work in their future, and their immediate future presented them with an opponent they rarely face in the regular season, an opponent with a unique style of offense, an opponent they would have to decipher and then defeat a little more than 72 hours after their charter flight from Baltimore had touched down in Pittsburgh.
The Panthers arrived for Thursday night’s tussle having won five of their previous six games, and included among those were victories over both the Bengals and the Ravens by bigger margins than the Steelers had managed during their three-game streak through the division, plus a win in Philadelphia over the defending Super Bowl champion Eagles.
What was going to make Carolina an extra difficult challenge for the Steelers as they opened the second half of their regular season was an offense unlike any other in the NFL. Unique, not so much because of design but because its triggerman is former NFL MVP Cam Newton, a 6-foot-5, 245-pound physical marvel who this season is a top-10 passer and a punishing runner averaging 4.7 a carry.
The offense coordinated by Norv Turner would offer the Steelers run defense the unenviable task of first figuring out whether Newton or Christian McCaffrey (502 yards, 4.6 average) was going to run the ball and then getting the correct guy on the ground, to say nothing of the times Newton simply would pretend to be orchestrating a running play only to step back and wing it to one of a group of receivers who had 178 catches, a 10.7 average, and 15 touchdowns.
Tomlin decided the best way to deal with the Panthers offense was to take a hammer to it and start pounding away. Instead of trying to read Newton, the Steelers attacked him as the running back the NFL rules said he was on those zone-read plays. Better to allow McCaffrey to pad his stats than to allow Newton to play the role of maestro of the entire offense. The strategy worked wonderfully, with outside linebacker T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree all but ignoring McCaffrey on zone-read plays and instead attacking Newton, who quickly got the idea that his best chance to finish the evening upright was to get the ball out of his hands quickly.
And so on the game’s opening series, McCaffrey gained 40 of his 77 rushing yards and caught a pass for 20 of his 61 receiving yards and the touchdown that staked the Panthers to a 7-0 lead, but those points were a small price to pay for the Steelers being able to dictate to Carolina’s offense instead of the other way around. The Panthers finished with 95 yards rushing, but Newton contributed only 10.
“Before you get an opportunity to put pressure on them you have to minimize the run game,” said Coach Mike Tomlin. “That’s the No. 2 running team in football. [Cam Newton] is dangerous, [Christian] McCaffrey’s dangerous. I thought the big thing was we kind of got that under control after the first drive, and once we got that under control then we had opportunities to rush. But you saw that first drive. You saw how they went down the field. There were not a lot of opportunities to rush there, because they were running the ball effectively, so once we go that settled down it provided the opportunities.”
This attacking philosophy carried over to the Panthers’ passing attack, and while Newton completed 79.3 percent, he averaged only 6.7 yards per attempt, and the Steelers sacked him five times and harassed him into the bad throw that Vince Williams intercepted and returned 17 yards for the touchdown that gave Pittsburgh the lead for good, 14-7, with 10:05 remaining in the first quarter.
While the defense was bending the Panthers offense to its will in the early stages of the game, Ben Roethlisberger was showing himself to be the evening’s true maestro. A pump fake moved a Carolina defender and created the opening that turned into a 75-yard touchdown to JuJu Smith-Schuster on the Steelers’ first offensive play. Much later there was a 53-yard rainbow to Antonio Brown for another touchdown, along with scoring passes to Vance McDonald, Jesse James, and Jaylen Samuels.
The Steelers offense started the game red-hot and maintained that pace until the first couple of minutes of the fourth quarter. Their offensive possessions ended: touchdown, touchdown, field goal, touchdown, end of the first half, and then touchdown, touchdown, touchdown before punter Jordan Berry came onto the field for something other than to hold for Chris Boswell.
Until the time when Roethlisberger was replaced by Joshua Dobbs for mop-up time, the Steelers were perfect 4-for-4 in the red zone and a rather remarkable 8-for-11 on third downs, and if Newton’s completion percentage was impressive, Roethlisberger’s was an incredible 88 percent and he averaged 13.1 yards per attempt.
Speaking of Boswell, he was 7-for-7 on PATs and also nailed a 50-yard field goal early enough in the first half that the game was still in doubt.
“Really big performance against a really good team on a short week, so there is a lot to be proud of,” said Tomlin, “but we are probably not that good.”
Probably not, but the Steelers keep getting better, and that’s good enough for now.