Going into Pittsburgh’s Sunday Night Football matchup vs. the Carolina Panthers, Steelers Nation was at no loss to explain all that ailed the 1-1 Steelers.
- Too many penalties
- Too much miscommunication
- Guys out of position
- Not enough pressure on opposing quarterbacks
- Too much pressure on their own
- Failure to create turn overs
- Sloppy tackling
And so on. All of the above observations were both accurate and relevant. If you treat the above as a check list, you can say that the Steelers effectively exorcised 6 of the primary 7 demons that bedeviled them for 6 quarters where they were outscored 50-9.
- You could say that, and you’d be right.
But you’d also be missing the driving force behind the Steelers 37-19 upset of the Panthers.
Steelers Establish Fundamentals in First Half
While football will always lose any attempt to go stat-for-stat with baseball, the saber metricans at places like Pro Football Focus do their damdest to give the rotisserie baseball crowd a run for their money. Saber metrics have their place in the modern game, but too often they’re allowed to obscure a fundamental truth, uttered by Jack Lambert:
“I believe the game is designed to reward the ones who whit the hardest.”
For all of the attention paid to the league’s attempt to legislate “kill hits” out of the game, football remains fundamentally physical. And the Steelers set themselves up for victory in Carolina by establishing that in the first half. Yes, you read correctly, during the seemlingly lack luster first half.
It was in that first half that the Panthers went up 3-0, force a Pittsburgh 3 and out, only to have Steve McLendon open the dropping Jonathan Stewart for a nine yard loss, to begin the Steelers defense’s first 3 and out of the night.
The Steelers tied it with 3 and Cameron Heyward opened Carolina’s next offensive snap with a bull rush that pierced straight through the Panther’s offensive line and sent Cameron Newton on his back. Two plays later, and the Panthers were punting again.
- Carolina’s next series began with a McLendon sack and a punt, nothing coincidental about that.
These plays were important, but the Steelers made their most important physical statement of the first half on the other side of the ball.
- And it came on a penalty.
Ben Roethlisberger had just connected with Justin Brown for four yards, when Luke Kuechly shoved Brown to the ground after the play as he attempted to stand. David DeCastro didn’t like what he saw, and expressed his disdain by channeling his inner Lambert, storming down the field and hitting Kuechly.
- DeCastro’s outburst cost the Steelers 15 yards and likely a shot at a touchdown.
But in the process, he delivered the Steelers message loud and clear: Tonight, the ones hitting the hardest will be wearing Black and Gold.
Steelers Second Half Explosion
“It’s not what your capable of, it’s what you’re willing to do.” – Mike Tomlin, opening training camp.
While the Steelers only carried a 9-3 lead into the second half, their ability to establish themselves as the more physical gave them a decisive advantage that paid dividends throughout the final 30 minutes.
Carolina got the opening kickoff but Jarvis Jones got to Newton on the Panther’s first 3rd down situation, stripping the ball away as Jason Worilds recovered. It was the Steelers 1st turnover of the year, and five plays later Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown turned it into money to score the Steelers first touchdown in 8 quarters.
- Carolina answered with a field goal, but at it was at that point, that the Steelers physicality began to assert itself.
Running the ball successfully takes proper technique, precise timing, requisite force, and above all will. Over the last two off seasons the Steelers have invested heavily in assembling the first three elements of the successful rushing formula, but had yet to prove they could muster the fourth.
- On 1st and 20 at their own ten, the Steelers proved they could muster their will
DeCastro and Marcus Gilbert plowed open a hole, while Le’Veon Bell fooled Kuechly by faking to the inside, and then bolted through a gaping hole in the Panther’s front seven for 81 yards. 5 Plays later and Big Ben and Antonio Brown did their thing again, making it 23 to 6.
- Carolina did not go gently into the night.
Newton hit Greg Olsen, who burned Cortez Allen to bring Carolina within 10. The Panthers held Pittsburgh to a three and out, but Brad Wing boomed off a punt with just enough hang time to spook an extra second hang time. The offenses exchanged three and outs, but as Philly Brown, who muffed the punt, fumbled it away, as Robert Golden landed on it in the end zone, bringing Pittsburgh up 30 to 13.
Victory Calming, but Costly
That was not quite the end however.
Before it was all said and done, LeBackfield delivered on its promise, as the LeGarrette Blount teamed with Bell to Steelers rack 265 yards, the most in the Tomlin era, and the first time two Steelers backs had broken 100 yards in a game since Ernest Jackson and Walter Abercrombie had done so in 1986.
- Arthur Moats and Sean Spence did well as replacements, while Antwon Blake struggled as he found himself immediately targeted.
Opposing offenses will no doubt plan to exploit weaknesses exposed by those injuries; but the Steelers defense would wise to compensate by relying on the lesson learned in Carolina – hit harder.