Three Thoughts: Panthers' issues surface in blowout loss to Steelers
A thrilling Sunday of football came to a close with Pittsburgh pulling off a dominant 37-19 upset win over Carolina. A few thoughts on the Steelers' impressive victory:
1. Pittsburgh won the physical battles all night
Ten days ago, the Steelers were handed their lunch by the Ravens in a 26-6 Thursday night loss. Sunday, rather unexpectedly, they turned the tables on a Carolina team that has made its living -- at least on defense -- by playing hard-hitting football.
RB Le'Veon Bell was one of the biggest beneficiaries of the suddenly smashmouth Steelers. He ripped off 147 yards on the ground, including an 81-yarder that marked the longest run ever allowed by Carolina. Center Maurkice Pouncey and guard David DeCastro each delivered key blocks on that play, carving out a running lane between the tackles for Bell to find.
"Our offensive line did a great job making it easy on me," Bell told NBC's Michele Tafoya. "Ben [Roethlisberger] making all the right checks, receivers blocking on the edge ... I just hit the hole and was just running."
It was on defense, though, that the Steelers really pulled a 180 from the loss in Baltimore.
They were in Cam Newton's face all night, often despite rushing just three linemen and dropping eight in coverage. Newton took hit after hit -- a low, late one from Jason Worilds nearly ended his night -- and was sacked three times. Steve McClendon, Cam Heyward and Brett Keisel set the tone, and Pittsburgh's defense never really slowed down even after three starters (Ike Taylor, Jarvis Jones and Ryan Shazier) exited with injuries.
When talk of a "vintage Steelers performance" surfaces, this game is exactly what people mean.
2. All of the Panthers' potential issues surfaced at once
Think back to the questions asked about the Panthers during the offseason. They ranged from concerns about depth on the offensive line and at the skill positions to Newton's consistency and how the secondary would fare after losing a couple of key contributors.
Aside from rookie WR Kelvin Benjamin putting on another show, every single one of those areas were problematic Sunday night.
As mentioned above, the offensive line looked overwhelmed throughout, even when facing almost the bare minimum number of pass-rushers. In part because he was hurried all evening and in part because he started feeling every hit, Newton's mechanics wavered -- several throws sailed high or off-target.
Of course, outside of Benjamin and the always reliable Greg Olsen, Newton's options were not exactly Hall of Fame-caliber. Neither Jerricho Cotchery nor DeAngelo Williams suited up because of injuries, then Jonathan Stewart and Mike Tolbert walked off wounded as well. Carolina did coax seven receptions from undrafted rookie Philly Brown, but he also cost his team a touchdown by fumbling a punt into his own end zone.
And the secondary had no answers for Antonio Brown (more on him in a second), plus provided little support against the run.
Was this merely one awful game or did the Steelers expose some of Carolina's weaknesses? We'll know more next Sunday when the Panthers travel to Baltimore.
3. That Big Ben-Antonio Brown connection is phenomenal
Ten targets for Antonio Brown. Ten completions.
Granted, more than a couple of those came on easy routes, but Ben Roethlisberger knows that he has one of the game's most dominant receivers at his disposal so he uses him. Brown's two second-half touchdowns turned a close, low-scoring game into a laugher.
The first of those scores was a brilliant play on both ends. In the face of pressure, Roethlisberger pulled off a dazzling pump fake -- one so good that Kawann Short, who had broken through the line, bailed on a sack attempt -- and then dropped a pass over the top of the defense to Brown. He, in turn, tiptoed in the back corner of the end zone for six.
"I was going to throw it to Markus [Wheaton] on the left, I saw that safety jump it and I got a little nervous," Roethlisberger said. "Saw A.B. at the last minute, saw him going to the back corner and figured I'd take a shot. A.B.'s feet and hands are so good, he got in."
Brown chalked up 90 yards receiving, continuing his remarkable streak of games with five-plus catches and 50-plus yards, which now stands at 19.
When Roethlisberger needs a play, he looks Brown's direction. More often than not, Brown rewards that faith.