CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Leading Carolina just 14-7 at halftime Sunday here at Bank of America Stadium, the Steelers got the ball to open the second half looking to put some distance between themselves and the Panthers.
Little did they know they would put together an epic drive.
Starting at their own 9 because of a penalty on the kickoff, the Steelers strung together a 21-play, 91-yard touchdown drive to put the Panthers away, 24-16, here before a very pro-Pittsburgh crowd.
Mitch Trubisky, starting in place of injured starter Kenny Pickett, completed 6 of 7 passes for 54 yards during the drive, while the Steelers also rushed for 52 yards on 14 carries. Trubisky finished the drive, which gained 106 total yards thanks to a penalty, with a 1-yard touchdown run as the Steelers took nearly 12 minutes off the clock to go ahead 21-7.
"That's an impressive series right there," said tight end Zach Gentry. "It was really one of those things where you look up and you don't realize it was as long as it was. Taking that much time off the clock coming out in the second half was big time."
The 106 yards on one drive was the most by the Steelers on one possession since they had a 110-yard touchdown drive in a 2007 game against the Seattle Seahawks.
"Our 19th, 20th, 21st plays of that drive, I was tired," said Steelers right guard James Daniels. "That was like a long drive in camp. It was great being able to hold the ball like that. I think they only had one possession in the third quarter. When you're able to do that, you can control the game."
Trubisky finished the game 17 of 22 for 179 yards, while Najee Harris keyed a ground game that produced 156 yards with 86 yards on 24 carries as the Steelers improved to 6-8 while dropping the Panthers to 5-9 and perhaps ending their playoff hopes.
The Panthers had come into the game on a roll, having won three of their past four games and using their rushing attack to do so. But the Steelers limited Carolina to 22 yards on 16 carries, dominating the time of possession, holding the ball for 36 minutes.
"I can't say enough about our big dudes up front and how they controlled it," Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin said.
"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."
Carolina tried to make a game of it in the fourth quarter and was aided in that goal by a dead ball penalty by Steelers linebacker Marcus Allen when the Panthers faced fourth-and-27 following back-to-back sacks by Alex Highsmith and Cam Heyward on the opening play of the fourth quarter.
Instead of punting down 21-7, the Panthers got an automatic first down and turned that into a 29-yard field goal by Eddy Pineiro to trim the Steelers' lead to 21-10.
After a three-and-out by the Steelers, the Panthers quickly moved downfield again – aided by a 27-yard pass interference penalty on cornerback Cameron Sutton that placed the ball at the Pittsburgh 4 – but T.J. Watt and Heyward sacked Sam Darnold on third-and-goal to force a 32-yard field goal by Pineiro that cut the lead to 21-13 with 6:15 remaining in the game.
Game action photos from the Steelers' Week 15 game against the Carolina Panthers at Bank of America Stadium
But the Steelers ran down the clock from there, including Trubisky completing a huge third-and-14 pass to Diontae Johnson for 19 yards, and another on third-and-6 for 9 yards that allowed them to maintain possession of the ball and essentially run out the clock before Chris Boswell kicked a 50-yard field goal with 1:04 remaining in the game to make it 24-13.
Johnson had a season-high 10 receptions on 10 targets for 98 yards, with five of his catches coming on third down conversions.
"It was just them getting me in the right spots and believing that I'm going to get open and make the play," Johnson said. "It was just getting into that rhythm. You saw what I can do when I get in a rhythm."
The Panthers hit a pass to set up a 52-yard field goal from Pineiro that trimmed the lead to 24-16, but George Pickens recovered an onside kick to seal the win.
The Steelers scored on their first two possessions of the game.
Najee Harris churned out 34 yards on six carries on their opening possession after the Panthers went three-and-out, with Harris scoring on a 7-yard run to put the Steelers ahead 7-0.
The Panthers answered with a touchdown drive of their own, with Darnold tossing a 5-yard touchdown pass to D.J. Moore despite pressure that chased him from the pocket to his right.
But the Steelers answered that touchdown with another of their own, this time going 75 yards, with 38 of that coming on a pass from Trubisky to rookie George Pickens on third-and-4 from midfield. Rookie running back Jaylen Warren finished the drive off with a 2-yard touchdown run for his first career score to give the Steelers a 14-7 lead.
At that point, the Steelers had rushed for 74 yards and two touchdowns on 16 carries, while Trubisky had completed all six of his passes for 68 yards.
The Steelers produced six tackles for a loss in the game, with Larry Ogunjobi recording two of those to go along with five tackles and a quarterback hit. Heyward and Watt both had 1.5 sacks, while Highsmith's sack was his team-leading 11th of the season. Carolina had just 209 total yards of offense in the game.