Curtains for Carolina - again
What is it about the Steelers?
Sure, Pittsburgh ranks among the most successful franchises in NFL history, but the Steelers seem to have the Panthers’ number unlike any other team. The Panthers are now 1-6 in the series after their 52-21 loss at Pittsburgh on Thursday Night Football. The only truly close one came in the first one – and the one win for Carolina, by an 18-14 count back in 1996. All six of the Steelers’ victories have come by double digits, with an average victory margin of 22.2 points.
Pittsburgh's 52 points matched Carolina's franchise record for points allowed. The Raiders beat Carolina 52-9 in Oakland on Christmas Eve of 2000.
Fast start trumped by faster start
Very early, it looked like Thursday could be a different story. The Panthers struck for their first-opening drive touchdown of the season, but in less than six minutes of clock time, Carolina’s early lead had devolved into a 21-7 deficit.
Carolina methodically made its way downfield behind a hot start from running back Christian McCaffrey, who rushed for 40 yards before easily scoring on a 20-yard catch and run down the left sideline (McCaffrey was a bright spot, scoring all of Carolina's touchdowns). But after the Panthers’ promising start that took 4:31 off the clock, the Steelers scored two touchdowns in 24 seconds.
Miscommunication by the secondary on the Steelers’ first snap cleared the way for the longest play for an opposing team all season, a 75-yard touchdown strike to JuJu Smith-Schuster. Curtis Samuel returned the kickoff out of the end zone for 35 yards, but a holding penalty set Carolina back to the 12. That became a big deal on the first play, when Cam Newton retreated into the end zone to throw but was quickly joined there by T.J. Watt. In an attempt to avoid surrounding a safety Newton threw the ball up for grabs¸ and linebacker Vince Williams snared the wayward pass and returned it 17 yards for a touchdown.
Carolina kept the ball for just 69 seconds before giving it back, and this time Pittsburgh got its running game going behind James Conner. He sandwiched 26 rushing yards around an 8-yard catch, scoring on a 2-yard run.
The Steelers booted a 50-yard field goal on their next drive to extend their edge to 24-7 – the third consecutive road game in which the Panthers found themselves in a 17-point hole. This time, the hole got bigger rather than smaller.
Languishing at the line
The Steelers’ defensive and offensive lines set the tone and rarely relented. Watt’s pressure on Newton in the end zone was just the beginning. Newton had been sacked just 12 times all season before being sacked three times in the first half. He went down twice more in the second half.
When Pittsburgh got the ball back quickly after the defensive touchdown – made possible by a three-and-out against Carolina’s offense that featured pressure on Newton – the Steelers offensive line began establishing control. On the drive that made it 21-7, the line held the Panthers’ front seven at bay and established a running lane for Conner – who ran with Le’Veon Bell-like patience.
A play on Pittsburgh’s next drive – when the Steelers had to settle for a field goal for the first time – typified the way they controlled the line of scrimmage. On a third-and-3, Ben Roethlisberger was able to stand like a statue in the middle of the pocket while he surveyed the field before finally delivering deep over the middle to Antonio Brown for a 34-yard gain.
More of the same in the second half
Everything that could go wrong went wrong after halftime. Roethlisberger hit both of his top tight ends for touchdowns on either side of a three-and-out for the Panthers offense to start the third quarter, with safety Eric Reid being ejected before the second one. Reid made contact with Roethlisberger’s helmet on a run and slide, going low looking to make a tackle, but avoiding what could have been catastrophic contact. Still, his shoulder banged into the helmet, and game officials deemed that enough to bring Reid’s night to an early end.
On the kickoff after Roethlisberger’s fourth touchdown pass, special teams suffered another miscue, when Samuel brought another one out of the end zone and fumbled it to set up Roethlisberger for a fifth touchdown pass - two more TDs than incompletions. He hit on 22 of 25 passes for 328 yards before exiting early in the fourth quarter.