By Christina Rivers

The Pittsburgh Steelers headed into Charlotte to face an unbeaten Carolina Panthers team whose defense was touted as one of the toughest in the National Football League in 2014 with a black mark on their own defense due to their inability to create any defensive turnovers in eight regular season quarters.  On a night where many were focused on what the Pittsburgh defense would do to answer critics, the Steelers found a rhythm on offense that kept the Panthers unsettled.  In response, a more traditional defense emerged from the Steelers following a strip-sack by Jarvis Jones that resulted in a scoring opportunity.  Pittsburgh deserves a much better team grade for their performance in week three.

Coaching

The plan for the 2014 season was that the Steelers would get back to the running game in order to create an efficient and effective passing game.  For the first time in Mike Tomlin’s tenure as head coach, the Pittsburgh Steelers were able to put that plan into effect, recording 264 yards on the ground in 34 carries.  When the run stalled, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was able to orchestrate quicker releases and downfield passing plays that put points on the board and helped the Steelers earn nine first-downs through the air. Whether offensive coordinator Todd Haley had the offense dialed up that way or whether Roethlisberger made calls on the field, the Steelers produced 454 net yards in a battle against Carolina.  Defensive assistant Joey Porter (linebackers) was proud enough of his squad that when he was chest-bumped to the ground by Cameron Heyward, he didn’t seem to mind one bit. Great time management by the coaches on both sides of the ball in keeping this game firmly in control.

Grade: B+

Offense

The one-two punch of Le’Veon Bell and LeGarrette Blount was effective against the Carolina defense, to the surprise of many.  It took some time to get the offense warmed up, with the offensive line looking disappointing early in the game by giving up pressures and drawing penalty flag after penalty flag.  Looking confused, Roethlisberger was forced to burn a timeout after five plays from scrimmage in the first quarter.  Once the offensive line settled down, Bell and Blount were able to get things cranked up.  Bell’s longest rush went for 81 yards while Blount ripped off a 50-yarder of his own.

Antonio Brown had a fantastic night with ten receptions for 90 yards and two touchdowns to lead all Steelers receivers.  Brown’s double-toe tap-drag in the right corner of the end zone was a highlight reel play.  Clearing his defender, Brown was able to stretch his frame to pull in a ball that was side-armed to him from Roethlisberger and score. Tight end Heath Miller and receiver Markus Wheaton contributed four catches apiece for an additional 86 yards.

The overall play by the offense, minus the penalties, was much improved and looked like a healthy competitor.  Without a full effort, the Steelers would have floundered.  They have to get the offense running earlier moving forward.  Expect Mike Munchak to keep pushing the o-line to perform mistake free.

Grade: B+

Defense

Give the win to the Steelers defense.  Following a strip-sack by Jarvis Jones that led to the first Steelers touchdown of the game in one that was being decided by the kickers to that point, the defense put consistent pressure on Cam Newton.  Hobbling Newton, literally at points, the Steelers turned their second takeaway of the game – and season – into a touchdown that put the final touch on the fifth consecutive win over the Panthers.  The tempo was much better and after a disappointing loss, a strong defensive punch against the Panthers helped pull the team together into one cohesive group for the first time in 2014.

A lot of detractors were concerned that a lack of depth and veteran leadership at the linebacker and defensive back positions spelled disaster for the Steelers, but the alternate voice yelling for more quarterback pressures to relieve that back-end pressure was finally heard.  The defense used several different looks to keep a very one-dimensional Carolina team firmly relying on Cam Newton’s arm.  The front seven were tougher against the run as well this week.  Improvement was called for, and it looks like the Steelers may have finally found the right language to communicate in.

Grade: A-

Special Teams

At the beginning of the game, it looked like kicker Shaun Suisham would be named the Steelers MVP of the game.  While Suisham remained perfect yet again, a special-teams defensive turnover pushed the Steelers over the top.  Punter Brad Wing wasn’t called on as often, which is a relief due to inconsistencies.  There was little of a return game due to deep kicks from the Panthers. Shamarko Thomas’ forced-fumble on a punt that was recovered in the end zone by Robert Golden boosts the special teams back into the ‘special’ category.

Grade: A

Summary

The Steelers still have a way to go to look like they will be playoff bound, but they are starting to look like a team.  The Steelers defense was bit by the injury bug.  Cornerback Ike Taylor had his arm hit by teammate Lawrence Timmons’ helmet, resulting in what appeared to be a severe and game-ending injury.  Ryan Shazier (knee) and Jarvis Jones (wrist), two first-round selections by the Steelers in back-to-back drafts, also left the game and were evaluated in the locker room.

For more Steelers news and updates, visit Steelers Central.

Christina Rivers has covered the Pittsburgh Steelers and National Football League professionally as a reporter and photographer for over a decade. Rivers studied exercise physiology and sports psychology at Brigham Young University as a student-athlete. Christina is a freelance writer covering all things NFL. Her work can be found on
Examiner.com.