CHARLOTTE, N.C. – The narrative throughout the week leading up to the Steelers' game Sunday here against the Carolina Panthers was that the defense was going to have its hands full stopping the run.
After all, the Steelers had allowed 333 rushing yards on 64 carries over their past six quarters against the Falcons and Ravens. And the Panthers had rolled up 408 rushing yards in their two games coming into this one.
But challenge a proud group of professionals and you're likely to get their best effort. In this case, that added up to the Steelers limiting the Panthers to 21 yards on 16 carries in a 24-16 win.
It's not that the Panthers didn't try to run the ball. Four of their first six plays were runs. Those four carries netted one yard and two ended with tackles for a loss by Steelers defensive lineman Larry Ogunjobi.
"It always sets the tone," defensive lineman Cam Heyward said of early run-stopping success. "This is a great teaching tape for us. When we're able to make a team one dimensional, we're going to have a lot more success. If you can get them out of what they want to do, it allows you to play more free and do a lot more things."
In this case, rush the passer. With their running game bottled up, the Panthers were forced to lean on their passing game – something they definitively do not want to do.
As a result, the Steelers had four sacks, six quarterback hits and a whole lot of fun.
"If the run is not working, they have to go somewhere else," said linebacker T.J. Watt, who along with Heyward had 1.5 sacks in this game.
Carolina's long run in the game was five yards. The Panthers were playing behind the sticks all day long.
They converted three third downs on their only touchdown drive of the game, but were 1 for 11 on third downs beyond that one early possession.
Stopping Carolina's run game had a lot to do with showing professional pride.
"I guess a lot of it," nose tackle Tyson Alualu said when asked if this game showed some of that. "We knew this was a big game for both sides (of the ball). We knew we needed to stop the run because they were a team that the past couple of weeks have proven to be a good run team. We just tried to get back to playing our style of football. I was just happy with the way it played out."
• So, how did the Steelers accomplish holding a Panthers team that came into this game averaging 125 yards per game on the ground and 154.6 over its past seven games to so little success?
A lot of it depended on matching what Carolina did and film study.
The Panthers like to use extra offensive linemen to help power their running game. The Steelers matched that with a four-man defensive line at times, stacking Watt as a true off-ball linebacker behind the line of scrimmage.
Alualu, rookie DeMarvin Leal and second-year defensive lineman Isaiahh Loudermilk all saw additional playing time helping to gum up the works.
"I think we did a good job," said linebacker Alex 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."
It also went beyond just putting extra big bodies out there. Guys got off blocks and made plays. They refused to be blocked.
"It was a little bit of schematics, a little bit of guys being able to get off blocks and getting as many hats to the ball as possible," said Watt. "We've got to be able to keep putting it together and getting it done."
• There are big, game-changing drives and then there is what the Steelers did to open the second half of this game.
The Steelers had the better of play in the first half, yet led just 14-7.
Coming out in the second half with the ball, they wanted to take any kind of momentum away from the Panthers.
They did that, sucking the life out of the crowd – what little pro-Panthers crowd there was at this game – with a 21-play, 106-yard scoring drive.
The Steelers went 5-for-5 on third down conversions during the drive. Mitch Trubisky was 6 of 7 for 54 yards passing and the running game produced 52 yards on 14 attempts.
The Panthers didn't get the ball back until there were just over three minutes remaining in the quarter.
"You couldn't ask for a bigger drive, taking so much time off the clock," said Heyward. "That's the type of defense you want, on the sideline."
Game action photos from the Steelers' Week 15 game against the Carolina Panthers at Bank of America Stadium
Second-half slowdowns have been an issue for the Steelers this season, both offensively and defensively. This doesn't solve all of that, but it sure doesn't hurt, either.
Obviously, the offensive line deserves a lot of credit. But it goes beyond that, as well.
The tight ends only had one combined catch in this game – a four-yard reception by Zach Gentry – but they were a big component for a running game that produced 156 yards.
"We had a great gameplan. I thought we did a great job executing it. Our tight ends did a great job," said guard James Daniels. "We had a lot of two or three-tight end packages. Those are hard blocks. I thought our tight ends did a great job at the point of attack. And our receivers did a good job of coming in and cracking DBs and safeties."
And keeping the defense on the sideline.
Everyone wants to play. But there was also something beautiful about watching a drive like that.
"We had to make sure we stayed warm. It was weird, but it was great," said Watt.
• That drive would have completely sucked the life out of the Panthers – if not for a dead-ball unsportsmanlike penalty by backup linebacker Marcus Allen as Carolina waited to punt the ball back to the Steelers on fourth-and-27 to start the fourth quarter.
Now, Diontae Johnson had an unsportsmanlike penalty during the long touchdown drive after catching a pass short of the sticks and making three guys miss before diving for a first down.
As he got up off the ground, he celebrated the play as safety Xavier Woods lay on the ground in front of him.
"I was in the moment celebrating. He was just there," Johnson said. "I didn't even say anything to him. I didn't see him there. It wasn't anything toward him. I was just excited."
Johnson's penalty was different. He walked all the way across the field during the quarter change and got into a Carolina huddle to keep talking to Panthers players.
It gave the Panthers a free first down that they turned into a field goal. It could have been worse. Had Carolina gone down and scored a touchdown there, the outcome of the game might have been different.
Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin said he didn't see what Allen had done to earn the penalty. But he surely won't be happy when he does.
"Obviously, we could have played smarter in some instances. Penalties are not how we choose to live, particularly some of the 15-yard variety," Tomlin said. "Hopefully, there are opportunities to learn from that. It's good to learn with the W."
If the defense hadn't done its job and earned a stop, forcing a field goal, it could have been much worse.
In Johnson's case, he had 9-yard catch after his penalty to negate some of that yardage. In the case of Allen's miscue, the defense stopped the Panthers at the 10 and nearly came away with a fumble – though the play was blown dead before the ball came out.
"We get off the field and then we've got to go back on the field," Heyward said of that penalty. "We almost got out of it with no points. But I just liked the way we competed and kept fighting for every blade of grass."
• How good was the defense overall?
Consider that Carolina gained 90 yards on its one touchdown drive of the game and had 209 total yards overall.
The Panthers averaged 8.2 yards per play on that one touchdown drive. On their other 35 offensive snaps, they averaged 3.4 yards every time the ball was snapped.
• Trubisky played a mistake-free football and was 6 of 8 for 109 yards on third downs.
Five of those third-down completions went to Johnson, who converted all five of his third-down catches into first downs as he had 10 receptions for 98 yards.
"I'm sure it was really important to him," Johnson said of Trubisky, who had thrown three interceptions in a loss to the Ravens last week. "It was really important to us to show that we can bounce back and not continue to make the same mistakes. I feel like he did a good job controlling the ball and making the right reads."
A lot was made earlier in the week when Johnson said he hoped Mason Rudolph got a chance to play in this game. That was not a knock on Trubisky. It was just a feeling Johnson had regarding someone with whom he has played the past four seasons.
There's no bad blood between Johnson and Trubisky. In fact, his 10 targets on Sunday should absolutely show that.
Trubisky was 17 of 22 for 179 yards overall in the game.
"I know what I can do in this league," Trubisky said. "More so it feels good to be able to get this opportunity and come through and have my teammates trust in me. We had a plan, and we executed it."
• As a team, the Steelers converted 12 of 16 third downs in this game. They had been at 50 percent over the past month, but were even better in this game.
It's amazing what running the ball effectively will do for a team.
The Steelers had eight meaningful drives in this game. The Panthers had eight, as well. Converting all of those third downs shortened this game considerably.
• The Steelers went 4-0 this season against the NFC South. Unfortunately, they don't play in the AFC South.
But those four wins within that division are more than any of the AFC South teams currently have. Carolina and Tampa Bay are both 3-1 within their own division.
• At 6-8, the Steelers would be clearly alive for a playoff berth in the NFC. In the AFC, they're still alive – albeit barely.
But as long as they aren't eliminated, there's still a chance. And they'll continue to battle regardless of the circumstances.
Sunday's game showed that. Carolina had an opportunity to move into first place with a win and a loss by Tampa Bay to the Bengals.
Instead, the Steelers likely knocked the Panthers out of playoff contention, though technically, they could still get in if they win out and beat the Buccaneers Jan. 1.
• The Steelers were 3 for 3 scoring touchdowns inside the 20 in this game, pounding the ball in on the ground all three times.
Carolina, on the other hand, was 1 of 3 scoring in the "Red Zone."
"That's where you've got to stand up," said Alualu. "That's the kind of football we enjoy. We knew we needed to get back to that style and our own identity of how we play and stop the run."