After a few weeks of dominant play which didn’t always show up on the scoreboard, the Pittsburgh Steelers put it all together on Thursday night for a delighted home crowd at Heinz Field, making the Carolina Panthers look like a first-year expansion team instead of a serious NFC contender. Scoring three touchdowns in the first quarter to take a 21-7 lead, the Steelers kept their foot on the gas until the final quarter when the outcome was no longer in doubt. Ben Roethlisberger conducted a clinic on the quarterback position, passing for 328 yards, five TDs, no interceptions and a career-best, 88% completion percentage — while notching a perfect QB rating of 158.3.
James Conner had a solid-but-unspectacular game, rushing for 65 yards on 13 carries for a 5.0-yard average and catching only one pass for eight yards. Conner finished the evening with only 73 yards in total offense. The real firepower on this glorious night came from the receiver tandem of Antonio Brown (6 catches for 96 yards including one 53-yard TD) and JuJu Smith-Schuster (3 catches for 90 yards including one 75-yard TD). Vance McDonald (4 catches, 44 yards, one TD) and Ryan Switzer (2 catches, 31 yards) also got into the act, along with the Outlaw Jesse James, whose singular reception was good for a red-zone TD.
Defensively, it was the Black-and-gold’s strongest performance of the year against Cam Newton and a Panthers’ offense that had scored 78 points in its last two games. The Steelers’ defense sacked Newton five times while harrassing him constantly and forcing errant throws, including a wounded duck thrown from his own end zone in the first quarter and snagged by Vince Williams for a pick-6. With the exception of losing track of Christian McCaffrey on a couple of plays, the Steelers’ pass defense was very solid throughout the game. Even when Newton had enough time to throw, his receivers were often blanketed.
The Big Picture
The gravity of this Steelers’ win cannot be denied. Extending their winning streak to five games while thrashing the Panthers by a 31-point margin surely will reverberate through NFL locker rooms, carrying the inescapable message that, once again, Pittsburgh is a serious Super Bowl contender. Head Coach Mike Tomlin deserves special praise for getting his team ready to face what, at kickoff time, looked like a very challenging opponent. The fact that the Steelers were able to completely dominate Carolina is a testament to their preparation and capability to bounce back strongly after only three days rest. And throughout this game, there was never any doubt as to which team had the momentum.
This victory was truly exceptional because the Steelers were finally able to show exactly the kind of team they can be when their engine is firing on all cylinders. This was an overdue glimpse of what Steelers Nation has been expecting from this uber-talented team ever since training camp. The Steelers’ offense has a multiplicity of weapons for which no NFL defense can entirely account. The defensive unit is gradually starting to come into its own, even though it still might be missing a couple of pieces.
For now at least, Steelers Nation can revel in a spectacle that never grows old — the home team administering an old fashioned butt-kicking to their opponents. Clearly, the home crowd at Heinz Field was feeding off of the Steelers’ dominant performance, and the Steel City faithful were absolutely electrified by what they were watching. Realizing full well that not every week will be as exceptional as this one, Steelers fans need no reminders that you’re never quite as good as you look in big wins like this one, nor as bad as you might seem after a tough loss.
But one thing is undeniable — the 2018 Pittsburgh Steelers are for real. If they continue to follow the rising arc of their five-game winning streak, a span during which they’ve improved week by week, they’ll be a very tough team to beat come playoff time. When an NFL team can trot out onto the field in mid-season — after only a few days preparation — and totally destroy a quality opponent, as the Steelers have done, this indicates they’ve got substantial capacity for further improvement moving into the latter portion of the regular season. In the wake of this outstanding and strongly focused team effort, it’ll be exciting to see how much farther the 2018 Steelers can go.