CHARLOTTE – The formula for recent Panthers success has primarily involved controlling and protecting the ball and playing stout run defense.
It's a formula the Pittsburgh Steelers used against them on Sunday night at Bank of America Stadium. The Panthers were outgained 264 yards to 42 in rushing, and they committed their first two turnovers of the season and 105-yards worth of penalties in a 37-19 loss.
"We didn't play a very good football game," head coach Ron Rivera said. "We didn't block very well up front and we didn't stop the run very well. You can't do that to a Pittsburgh Steelers football team."
The Steelers executed their plan to near perfection while the Panthers aided their efforts with mistake after mistake.
"That's the story of our game," tight end Greg Olsen said. "It's one play that doesn't win you or lose you – it's the sum of all those things where you just repeatedly shoot yourself in the foot. That makes it hard to win in this league."
After three consecutive Shaun Suisham gave the Steelers a 9-3 lead at halftime, the game unraveled.
On the opening possession of the second half, Pittsburgh linebacker Jarvis Jones sacked quarterback Cam Newton as he reared back to throw, forcing a fumble that was recovered by linebacker Jason Worilds at the Carolina 17-yard line.
"(Jones) clipped my elbow, and it was kind of perfect timing," Newton said. "I've got to do a better job protecting the football. I've got to do a better job of moving up in the pocket."
Carolina then forced a much-needed three-and-out. Or so they thought. When Pittsburgh lined up to attempt a 29-yard field goal on fourth-and-four, defensive end Wes Horton was flagged for encroachment.
"That was a big disappointment. We jumped and we can't do those things," Rivera said.
That blunder gave the Steelers a first down, and on the next play, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger tossed a 7-yard touchdown to wide receiver Antonio Brown in the corner of the end zone to give Pittsburgh a 16-3 lead.
"That's what happens," Rivera said. "You can't give good quarterbacks opportunities, especially down in the red zone."
Following a 40-yard field goal by Graham Gano, the Panthers had the Steelers pinned back at their own 8-yard line for second-and-22.
But running back Le'Veon Bell, who finished with 147 yards, found a big hole up the middle and burst through the secondary for an 81-yard gain. Roethlisberger later found Brown cutting across the end zone for another 7-yard touchdown.
"We didn't stop the run," linebacker Luke Kuechly said. "That's a crucial part of playing football in the NFL. A lot of it is just gap assignment and being in the right spot.
"You have to give credit to them. But when good backs come in, you have to rise to that level and get in your gaps."
Carolina appeared ready to mount a comeback when tight end Greg Olsen broke free down the sideline for a 37-yard touchdown early in the fourth quarter.
That cut the deficit to 10, and the Panthers defense forced another timely three-and-out.
But disaster struck when wide receiver Philly Brown tried to field Brad Wing's punt at his own 12-yard line. The ball initially slipped through Brown's hands, and after re-gathering it, Shamarko Thomas jarred it loose. The ball bounced into the end zone, and Robert Golden recovered for a back-breaking touchdown.
"I was trying to do too much," Brown said. "I could have just done the smart play and fell on it, but instead I picked it up."
Steelers running back LeGarrette Blount, who finished with 118 yards, extended the lead to 37-13 by powering his way into the end zone for an 8-yard score with 5:38 to go.
Quarterback Derek Anderson finished the rest of the game for Newton, who was sacked three times and hit repeatedly.
"I was trying to protect him," Rivera said. "I just didn't want to see him get hit anymore."
A terrific throw by Anderson and an even better catch by wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin produced a 35-yard touchdown in the closing moments as Carolina suffered its first loss of the season.
"We are 2-1 right now. We are not losing hope," offensive tackle Byron Bell said. "We are going to regroup and we are going to fight back. This is a learning experience."