The Steelers defeated the Carolina Panthers 24-16 on Sunday. Here, in my 3 & Out column, I look at how a dominant performance at the line of scrimmage on both sides of the football, and an inspired Mitchell Trubisky-to-Diontae Johnson passing connection, were the catalysts to victory.
“Left Side... Strong Side!”
The Steelers opened the game on offense with back-to-back touchdown drives that, together, covered 142 yards on 22 plays and consumed 12:58 of game time. 74 of those yards came on the ground, as the offensive line routinely won their matchups against Carolina’s defensive front.
It was a particularly effective performance by the left side. The Steelers ran nine times for 50 yards on those first two drives behind left guard Kevin Dotson and left tackle Dan Moore Jr, with center Mason Cole assisting. Dotson and Moore have been shaky enough this year to wonder if they will remain in Pittsburgh’s plans, at least as starters, following the season. Cole has been decent, but not good enough to make Steelers fans forget they could have drafted Creed Humphrey. On Sunday, all three played well enough to inspire optimism.
One area where they were noticeably better involved communication. The entire line has struggled with this at times, but the left side in particular. Against Carolina, the trio was in sync.
On the opening drive, Moore wrapped around the down block of tight end Zach Gentry on a pin-and-pull sweep and did a nice job getting a piece of end Yater Gross-Matos (97) after Gentry whiffed on the block. This allowed Cole, who was pulling behind him, to seal the edge. Moore then continued climbing and chipped linebacker Shaq Thompson (7) just enough to keep him from getting a clean shot on Najee Harris. Harris ran through Thompson’s arm tackle for a gain of 10 yards:
The chip by Moore on Gross-Matos doesn’t look like much. But it shows an understanding of the scheme and how he needed to hold up Gross-Matos for just a beat to allow Cole to take him over. It’s a little thing. But little things, when strung together, become big things.
Later in the drive, Moore worked with Dotson to again seal the edge for Harris, this time on a wide zone run. At the snap, Carolina pinched Gross-Matos across Moore’s face into the B-gap. Moore initially doubled him with Dotson, then handed him over and climbed to safety Jeremy Chinn (21), who had crept into the box. Dotson was able to seal Gross-Matos, while Moore altered Chinn’s path to the ball so he couldn’t fit the run properly. Harris rumbled for another 1st down:
A few plays later, Dotson did a nice job picking up a blitz from linebacker Frankie Luvu (49), turning him out and widening the B-gap. Cole sealed the nose tackle, who slanted away from the run, and Harris hit the hole cleanly:
The Steelers finished the drive by running left again, this time out of an unbalanced set. They caved down the right side of Carolina’s line, and Harris did the rest, shrugging off a pair of unblocked defenders on the perimeter to find the end zone:
It was a physical drive to open the ballgame, and it set a tone for the afternoon.
On Pittsburgh’s second drive, they mixed in Jaylen Warren at halfback, with similar results. The Steelers bullied their way down the field on a 15-play, 75-yard drive. The line moved Carolina both vertically and horizontally, allowing Warren to run through huge holes like this one:
Warren finished the drive by plunging in from the 2-yard line, and the Steelers led 14-7 at the break.
Pittsburgh was more diverse in the 2nd half, running right more often and incorporating some of Matt Canada’s signature jet sweeps and reverses. But they ran left when they needed yards, like on this 3rd-and-1 during their epic 21-play, 91-yard drive that consumed the first 11:43 of the 3rd quarter. Cole, Dotson and Moore all won the leverage battle, getting lower than their defensive counterparts and creating a nice surge for fullback Derek Watt:
Watt has been quietly effective on 3rd-and-short situations this season, converting six-of-six attempts. The line’s physicality at the point of attack has been a big reason for his success.
Pittsburgh rushed for 156 yards in the contest and has now gained 140+ in five of their last seven games. The line is gelling, and the emphasis new position coach Pat Meyer is placing on technique is paying off. The unit is clearly better than they were a season ago. Against Carolina, that improvement was evident.
Not to be outdone, the defensive front was sensational. They held a Carolina rushing attack that had been averaging 125 yards per game to just 21 yards on 16 carries. And they sacked quarterback Sam Darnold four times, with the ‘Big Three’ of Alex Highsmith, Cam Heyward and T.J. Watt accounting for all four.
It was an inspired bounce-back performance for a group that had been gashed by the Ravens last week. In the guts of the game, with Baltimore playing third-string quarterback Anthony Brown, the Ravens had little choice but to run the football. Yet Pittsburgh could not stop them. That had to sting, for Heyward in particular, who was pushed around for one of the few times in his brilliant NFL career. Heyward’s response, and the response of his teammates, was everything Steelers’ fans could have hoped for.
The unit’s best stretch of play came midway through the 4th quarter with the Steelers up 21-10. A pass interference penalty on Cam Sutton set the Panthers up with 1st-and-goal at the four-yard line, where a touchdown and potential two-point conversion could have brought them within three. But Pittsburgh held firm, getting three inspired stops to force a field goal.
First, on a pitch play to running back D’Onta Foreman, Watt (90) did a nice job of beating the reach block of offensive tackle Cam Erving (75) to get penetration and force Foreman back inside. There, he ran into Larry Ogunjobi (99), who had squeezed through the B-gap, and linebacker Mark Robinson (93), who was pursuing from the back side. The two combined to stop Foreman for a short gain:
On 2nd down, Carolina went with an unbalanced eight-man surface and attempted to run Foreman up the gut. But Highsmith did his best James Harrison impersonation, knifing inside the block of tight end Stephen Sullivan (84) to drop Foreman for a loss:
That brought up 3rd and goal. Carolina sent five receivers out, and Darnold looked left to a slant-flat combination. But the Steelers jammed the flat route at the goal line and bracketed the slant with safety Minkah Fitzpatrick. Neither was open. Darnold had no time to look right because Highsmith had beaten the left tackle with a nasty spin move and was bearing down quickly. He escaped to his left, where Heyward was waiting. Then he moved right, where Watt was closing in. The two met each other at the quarterback, and Darnold went down in a heap:
The play of both units up front underscored a simple point the Steelers would be wise to notice. Despite the attention paid to the league’s high-profile quarterbacks, receivers and defensive backs, NFL games are still won at the line of scrimmage. Pittsburgh has spent their highest draft picks in recent years elsewhere. Since 2013, they’ve selected 26 skill position players in the first three rounds while choosing just four linemen. That must change. Sunday’s game should prove they can be successful when they control the trenches. They can beat middling teams with the lines they have. To beat the best teams, they will need to upgrade.
The Mitch and DJ Show
There were plenty of big plays in this contest by the Steelers, but none bigger than the two 3rd-downs they converted on their final drive that helped kill over 5:00 of the remaining 6:15 on the clock. The drive culminated in a Chris Boswell field goal with 1:04 to play that finished off the Panthers.
First, on 3rd-and-14 from their own 21-yard line, Trubisky found Johnson on a deep in for a 19-yard gain. Johnson, aligned wide to the bottom of the screen in the clip below, was given plenty of room by corner Keith Taylor. The Panthers played soft because they put eight defenders at the line of scrimmage and showed an all-out blitz. They brought seven, and Pittsburgh kept seven in to protect. Pittsburgh won that battle, giving Trubisky enough time to wait for Johnson to make his break, where he hit him in stride:
Taylor’s technique on the play suggests that, with a heavy blitz coming, he was expecting a shorter route, most likely one that broke outside. He never really backpedaled, instead opening his hips towards Johnson in anticipation of a quick break. This put him in no position to adjust to the deeper in-cut, and Johnson beat him cleanly.
A few plays later, facing 3rd-and-6, Johnson beat Taylor again, this time on a beautiful dropout. Trubisky threw off of his back foot, but the ball was on the money, giving Taylor little chance to defend it:
From this angle, you can see how quickly Johnson changed direction, and how precise the timing and location was of Trubisky's throw. It wasn’t bad coverage by Taylor. The execution by Pittsburgh was simply better.
Johnson ’s day was far from perfect. His unsportsmanlike conduct penalty, for taunting Chinn after a reception inside the red zone, was another example of the immaturity that has marred his career. For as talented as Johnson is, he lacks discipline. From the pre-snap infractions he often commits, to the poor body language he shows when he doesn’t get the ball when he wants it, to the ridiculous taunting penalty, he continues to struggle with the details of being a professional. But he was huge for Pittsburgh on Sunday, catching 10 passes for 98 yards and converting numerous 3rd-downs. In the clutch, when the Steelers needed big plays to sustain drives, Johnson delivered.
So did Trubisky. He was efficient, completing 17 of 22 passes for 179 yards. His accuracy on the timing routes to Johnson, and on a perfectly placed deep ball to George Pickens, was impressive. Most importantly, he didn’t turn the ball over, which was a nice response to his three-interception performance of a week ago. Trubisky and Johnson have both been targets for criticism this year. On Sunday, they were two of the most important performers in a dominant road win.
While Johnson’s taunting penalty was selfish and undisciplined, the one Marcus Allen took was unconscionable. With Carolina trailing 21-7 early in the 4th quarter, and facing a 4th-and-27, Allen wandered over to the Panthers’ sideline to talk smack inside the Carolina huddle. Allen was flagged, Carolina got an automatic 1st down, and the Panthers went on to kick a field goal that momentarily changed the momentum of the game.
He’s lucky it wasn’t worse.
Allen is a valuable special teams player for the Steelers. He is also a five-year veteran who rarely plays on defense. He needs to do everything right to stay on the roster. This was the antithesis. It was the type of play that, against a better opponent, could have snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. Had Mike Tomlin cut Allen in the aftermath, it would have been justifiable. Allen’s gesture was typical of how losing teams comport themselves. They lack the discipline to handle success or control their emotions. Cutting Allen wasn’t a must for Tomlin, but it would have sent a strong message about the standard he expects.