PITTSBURGH – Something had to give.
Carolina had allowed only 12 sacks this season, fourth fewest in the league. Pittsburgh had totaled 26 sacks, fourth most.
The Panthers gave. Too much pressure and too little time for quarterback Cam Newton.
"We had a really good first drive, and after that, we were kind of on our heels," left guard Greg Van Roten admitted. "They kept bringing the pressure and we had a hard time keeping Cam clean tonight."
The Steelers sacked Newton five times – or as many as he went down in his past four games. Pittsburgh's relentless attack also hit him at least seven other times.
"It felt like they were bringing at least five or six (rushers)," Van Roten said. "I don't recall many times when they rushed just four or three. They were bringing guys and they were bringing them a lot."
The Panthers didn't make it easy on themselves by struggling on first down. From when they took a 7-0 lead to when they cut their deficit to 24-14, they ran eight plays on first down. Those netted 15 yards.
"Obviously we do well and we do better when we're staying ahead of the chains and that didn't happen tonight," center Ryan Kalil said. "It was frustrating. It sort of took away a lot of the things we planned on doing because we got down so much and had to go into a lot of passing situations.
"We just got beat. We didn't make the reads we wanted to, we didn't make the adjustments we needed to and that's what happened."
Now with a bit of the shine worn off, the Panthers' offensive line has to wait 10 days to prove that Thursday night was just a setback for what had been one of the most surprising stories of the season.
"If you play this game long enough, it'll happen to you," left tackle Chris Clark said. "I've been a part of this for a long time, and I've seen this happen tons of times. It's not about what happened today. It's about how we respond to what happened today.
"I think it's important for us to get away from football for a minute, take a little break and come back and get ready to roll. This is just one little bump in the road."