One of the most disorienting aspects of the Steelers' first two games this season has been the absence of any identifiable and decisive turning points on the field. Facing the Cleveland Browns at Heinz Field in the opener, you'd have to cite halftime as the main turning point because that's when the Steelers appeared to largely stop playing. Then, last Thursday night, perhaps boarding the flight to Baltimore marked the turning point because the Black and Gold never got untracked in any fashion at M&T Bank Stadium, scoring only six points in 60 minutes of football on a pair of Shaun Suisham field goals.
Heading into their Sunday night clash with the vastly-improved Carolina Panthers, the Steelers have reached a point where they need to present some solid evidence of their intent to compete seriously for a playoff berth in 2014. But if we witness the same sort of paralysis haunting this team for the past six quarters of football, and if Pittsburgh fails to leave Bank of America Stadium without cashing some checks, it's quite likely rumors of the team's impending demise will be circulating far and wide.
Is it reasonable or even realistic, then, to expect the Steelers to take the field with a renewed sense of mission on Sunday night and dominate the Panthers in front of their home crowd in Charlotte? Perhaps such a vision qualifies as wishful thinking but, even if the Black and Gold should fall short and drop to 1-2 after Week 3, fans have a right to at least expect some strong indications that the Steelers aim to fight to the finish for the remainder of this season. Because Cam Newton gradually has developed into one of the league's more dangerous and multifaceted quarterbacks, this contest might give Steelers Nation a sound assessment of what to expect farther down the road this season when the competition gets even tougher.
Likewise, because a strong Carolina defense has the capacity to hound and punish our favorite Master of Escape, this will present a stern test for Ben Roethlisberger's spur-of-the-moment decisions, as well as offering a showcase for the OL's pass-blocking bones. Both on offense and defense, the Steelers surely expect a harsh challenge from the upstart cats. How this team-in-transition responds to the young Turks from Carolina likely will speak volumes about where Tomlin's Troop may be heading in a season dedicated to the memory of Charles Henry Noll.
While it's probably mistaken to expect too much, too soon from the 2014 Steelers, the collective psyche of Steelers Nation definitely would benefit from a little boost, particularly in the wake of the team's previous 90 minutes of football (if that's what you'd choose to call it). So let the coronets blare to proclaim that preseason now is officially over and there's no longer any excuse to pretend it's not. While we're still early in the season, it's not too soon for the Steelers to assert a clear identity and give their bewildered fans something more substantial on which to hang their hats. Can we truly endure yet another 30 or 60 excruciating minutes of nothing much happening on the field for the Pittsburgh Steelers? Is another outcome like the one in Baltimore even remotely compatible with how we roll in Steelers Nation?
With their current record of 1-1, the Steelers stand at the threshold to a staircase presenting a clear choice between going up or down this season. While it's difficult to make the case that a defeat in Charlotte would, by itself, ruin the team's prospects for a mid- or late-season comeback, Carolina still must be viewed as a defining game for a team that, already too often during this young season, has found itself on the receiving end of blows delivered by its opponents. If we're inclined to view the past six quarters as a fluke, then surely we must consider the next four quarters as rug-cutting time. The Black and Gold must come out of their corner and begin landing the kind of blows suggesting that Pittsburgh will indeed be a serious NFL contender in 2014.
The main wild-card in play on Sunday night appears to be the condition of No. 7. It was obvious that Ben's passing motion was adversely impacted by the fierce Courtney Upshaw hit in Baltimore. Whether Ben is able to go full tilt and regain his trademark accuracy might be the principal factor dictating the outcome of this contest. But regardless of what happens in Charlotte, it seems crucial for the Steelers to make a statement at this early stage of the season that they will not go gently into this Sunday night.