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Steelers emphasize basics in beating the Carolina Panthers

Absent their starting QB and with little chance of securing a playoff berth, the Pittsburgh Steelers played a spirited game strong on fundamentals to beat Carolina.

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at Carolina Panthers Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports

“Some people try to find things in this game that don’t exist but football is only two things - blocking and tackling.” (Vince Lombardi)

Other than a deficit of talent, the most prominent trait of middling, NFL teams who find themselves golfing at playoff time is a failure to practice and master Lombardi’s two basics. Sports pundits might go into excruciating detail when analyzing games but, for a majority of their current season, the Pittsburgh Steelers missed too many blocks and whiffed on too many tackles to be considered as a serious contender. That’s hardly news to millions of loyal Steelers fans nationwide, including the raucous crowd who showed up in Charlotte to cheer the Black-and-gold to victory on Sunday.

But even in the midst of a disappointing season, the Steelers sometimes give their nation reasons to believe that brighter days await. That’s how it felt after the Steelers gave us some glimpses of a team in the making — shutting down the Carolina Panthers 24-16 to improve their record to 6-8.

By the end of the third quarter, Pittsburgh had methodically built a 21-7 advantage, leaning mainly on their running game plus some timely passing by Mitch Trubisky who seemed bent on redemption following his dismal outing at Acrisure Stadium the previous week. Najee Harris and Jaylen Warren continued to resemble a potentially potent tandem while Diontae Johnson decided he wouldn’t be denied any longer, catching all 10 of his targets for 98 yards. With only two catches, George Pickens added 53 yards, once again showcasing his uncanny ability to make contested catches with a clutch, 38-yard grab sprinting down the sideline.

The Steelers drew some costly and unnecessary penalties but, for the most part, they were in control throughout the game. Overall, this game looked like a throwback to the early Bradshaw and Roethlisberger years when Pittsburgh’s QB was expected mainly to be a competent game manager — not the dominant feature of the offense. And focusing on fundamentals isn’t a bad look for a team like the 2022 Steelers.

The defense had some frustrating lapses that enabled Carolina to put points on the board, but they played well enough — particularly against the run — to keep the Panthers from catching up. T.J. Watt appears finally to be shaking off the effects of various injuries as he garnered a sack in his second consecutive game, giving him a modest total of 3.5 sacks for the season.

Many fans who have followed the Black-and-gold through thick and thin for decades realize that major transitions take time, while hasty or stopgap decisions intended to yield quick results often backfire. After living that history, the Steelers Nation Traveling Road Show clearly hasn’t given up yet on a team which, after all, never was widely expected to wind up anywhere close to the winner’s circle in February. In contrast to the team’s perennial critics, a majority of Steelers Nation realizes that Rome wasn’t built in a day, so they haven’t allowed this forgettable season to stunt their enthusiasm.

While fans still haven’t seen the kind of offensive pyrotechnics this season that were Big Ben’s trademark, there was plenty of old-school blocking and tackling by the Steelers on Sunday. Showing strength in Coach Lombardi’s basic skills kept the Steelers’ offense moving and thwarted Carolina’s running attack.

In the wake of last week’s loss to Baltimore, which likely represented an elimination blow, the Steelers appeared relaxed but focused on the business at hand in Carolina. They followed their game plan and executed it properly without much in the way of bells or whistles. For a team still struggling to find its identity, this was an excellent way to boost their season record.

The final three games will determine whether this transitional year can be dubbed as a success. The Steelers’ modest goal last August was mainly to find out whether the team had solved its QB situation — a need which hadn’t been an issue for the past 17 years. Unless Kenny Pickett falls completely apart by the end of the season — a scenario which seems highly unlikely — the 2022 regular season should be considered as a significant step forward for a team with a rookie QB that hadn’t exactly been a strong contender in 2021 with Roethlisberger at the helm. And given the opportunity to bolster their blocking and tackling capabilities via the NFL Draft and free-agent market, the Steelers should continue improving next season.

As for this season, nothing would thrill the home crowd more than seeing the Steelers whip the Raiders on Christmas Eve. With T.J. Watt’s apparent resurgence, this might be a more difficult night for Derek Carr and company than they expect. Succeeding in this next endeavor, the Steelers’ challenge to finish the season above .500 would then be as simple as beating the Lamar Jackson Ravens and Deshaun Watson Browns in back-to-back games likely to be played on similarly frozen fields. These are games that only can wind up in the win column with the benefit of great fundamentals. We’ll soon find out whether the Steelers can sustain their focus on the basics which so often mark the difference between victory and defeat.