It has been a long time since yours-truly has been as pleasantly surprised by a Steelers victory as I was Sunday evening when Pittsburgh dismantled the Panthers, 37-19 at Bank of America Stadium before a national television audience.
Even though the Steelers had struggled for six of their first eight quarters, and even though they were three-point underdogs going in, a victory, by itself, wouldn't have been totally shocking (after all, we're talking about the NFL). But who could have foreseen such a thorough win?
I joked the other day that fans consider "Pittsburgh Steelers football" the smash-mouth variety where the team thoroughly dominates its opponents on the ground for the entire evening. If that's the case, then the faithful subscribing to that theory had to be on Cloud 9 after the combined 31-carry, 264-yard performance by Le'Veon Bell and LeGarrette Blount. Sure, 131 of those yards came on two carries but, on the other 29, the duo still averaged a whopping 4.6 yards, which is the level of efficiency people have been anticipating for quite some time. It also was the wildest of the fantasies fans envisioned when Blount was signed in free-agency during the off-season to back-up Bell and when Mike Munchak was hired to coach the offensive line.
But maybe more importantly than the way the Steelers' offensive line opened holes for the ground game was the way it protected quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who was sacked only once in 30 attempts. Ben didn't face much significant pressure for most of the night against a Carolina defense that recorded 59 sacks in 2013. Yes, he got rid of the football quickly the majority of the time, but he also had time to take shots deep and maneuver around in the pocket, as he did on the two touchdown passes to Antonio Brown in the second half.
I truly believe, however, the most significant thing to come out of Sunday night's thrashing of Carolina was the play of Pittsburgh's defense, specifically the performances of Jarvis Jones, Cam Heyward and Steve McLendon. As a whole, Dick LeBeau's charges got after Cam Newton and, although he passed for 250 yards and a score, he was sacked three times and pressured often.
Not only did the defense limit Newton's effectiveness and shut down the run (Carolina's injury-depleted backfield only managed 42 yards), it forced a turnover that led to a touchdown.
In fact, of all the awesome stats to come out of Sunday night's victory--Brown's 90 yards on 10 passes, the 264 rushing yards, the three sacks of Newton--maybe the most impressive and telling one was this: Points off turnovers: Steelers 14, Panthers 0.
Turnovers have, and always will be, a vital and crucial statistic in the NFL. Not only did the Steelers win the turnover battle (2-0), their two takeaways led to 14 points and turned a close game into a runaway.
But there was also some somber news coming out of Sunday night's game in terms of injuries. Ike Taylor suffered a broken arm and will be out for an indefinite period; and we still don't know about the seriousness of the injuries to Ryan Shazier and Jones, the team's most recent first-round picks. Jones may have come of age on Sunday, with a sack and a forced fumble, before leaving the game in the second half with a wrist injury.
But injuries are going to happen, and good teams respond, rebound and excel.
Obviously, as much as it's an overreaction to write a team off when it looks horrible, like the Steelers did against the Ravens in Week 2, it's also overstating reality to crown a team when it looks as good as the Steelers did against Carolina.
But this might have been a sign that the parts are coming together for this team, and the future might not be as bleak as it once seemed.
In any case, the Steelers went on the road in Week 3 and stole a game from a 2013 playoff team, and they did it by excelling in all of the areas that playoff teams normally do.