The Pittsburgh Steelers moved one step closer to locking up the AFC North crown with Thursday’s dominating victory over the Carolina Panthers.
Ben Roethlisberger had a career-best first half as the offense scored three touchdowns, including his only touchdown pass to Mike Wallace. The defense clamped down on the Panthers offense, rendering Carolina’s rookie quarterback Jimmy Clausen ineffective.
The win puts Pittsburgh one win or one Baltimore loss away from winning the division and gaining the much coveted playoff home game and first-round bye.
Ben Roethlisberger threw for a career-high 259 yards in the first half en route to 320 yards in the victory over Carolina.
A second quarter touchdown pass to Mike Wallace and third quarter touchdown run were more than enough as the Steelers had their way with Carolina.
Roethlisberger was very efficient, completing 69 percent of his passes and did not throw an interception. However, once again he and the Steelers offense had trouble in the red zone.
Pittsburgh only converted on 33 percent of their red zone trips. On one series Roethlisberger overthrew two open receivers on consecutive plays. He was also partially responsible for two fumbles.
Season GPA: 2.54
Rashard Mendenhall started out the game hot with a 35-yard run. His next 17 carries only produced 30 more yards as he was held in check by the Panthers.
With his one-yard touchdown run in the second quarter, Mendenhall brought his season total to 11 scores but was later denied on two runs in a row from the goal line.
Mendenhall had two receptions for 18 yards and Mewelde Moore also had one for 11 yards.
Moore only had five yards on the ground before leaving the game with an injury and Isaac Redman had five carries for 43 yards.
The highlight run of the night was by Redman, who plowed his way through the Panthers defense for a 23-yard gain.
Season GPA: 2.92
Mike Wallace had his sixth 100-yard receiving game of the season and added his ninth touchdown on a 43-yard catch and run from Roethlisberger, showing his elite speed running away from multiple Carolina defenders.
Rookie Emmanuel Sanders had another good game, catching four balls for 54 yards. He nearly had two touchdowns, but one was reversed following a challenge and the second came when his outstretched arms were just short of the goal line.
Hines Ward had 38 yards receiving but dropped one ball and had a would-be touchdown knocked from his hands on an outstanding defensive play. Antonio Brown added 20 yards on two receptions.
Season GPA: 3.10
If only the Steelers had Heath Miller in the lineup last week.
Miller returned in a big way with five receptions for 73 yards and put the Steelers into touchdown range twice. More importantly, Miller's presence meant that Matt Spaeth would not be one of the top targets for Roethlisberger.
Beyond his receptions, Miller had a nice night blocking, at one point driving two defenders backwards on a rushing play.
Spaeth was not quite as successful as he was called for a holding penalty.
Season GPA: 3.03
Aside from Maurkice Pouncey, who had an outstanding game, Pittsburgh’s offensive line was not at its best.
After successfully running the ball against a solid New York rush defense last week, they were unable to generate much push against Carolina’s defensive front as they only ran for 115 yards, averaging only 3.5 yards per carry.
The line allowed three sacks, though some could have been classified as coverage sacks, but they had to do better against a team like Carolina.
Flozell Adams was called for a personal foul and at one point Jonathan Scott was pulled for the game in favor of Trai Essex. After a scolding from offensive line coach Sean Kugler, Scott reentered the game and improved his play.
Season GPA: 2.05
James Stewart had been outstanding over the last four weeks and was moderately successful against Pittsburgh, starting and finishing well, but was dominated in the middle.
Carolina only ran for 74 yards, including 71 yards from Stewart who averaged 3.9 yards per carry. These numbers were above the Steelers' season average for yards allowed on the ground.
The line was also effective at pressuring Jimmy Clausen. Both Brett Keisel and Ziggy Hood recorded sacks.
Season GPA: 3.08
James Farrior picked up his fifth sack in six games and James Harrison added another as the Steelers were pressuring Clausen all night.
Farrior and Harrison accounted in three tackles for losses and Lawrence Timmons was in the backfield often, though missed a sack.
The pressure that Pittsburgh’s linebackers put on Clausen was the type of disruption that they expect on a weekly basis and the type of pressure that they need to succeed.
Harrison also drew a holding call.
Season GPA: 3.05
Playing for a second straight week without Troy Polamalu, the Steelers secondary played quite well.
Polamalu’s replacement, Ryan Mundy, had a much better showing this week accounting for eight tackles and defended one end zone pass, preventing a touchdown.
Ike Taylor blanketed his receiver all night and defended one pass and Bryant McFadden defended two passes and made his second interception of the season.
Clausen was only able to complete 43 percent of his passes against the Pittsburgh secondary, who held him to 72 yards passing.
Season GPA: 2.26
The special teams offered up a mixed bag on Thursday, allowing Carolina to return a punt 19 yards to set up their only score of the game.
Carolina also had a 36-yard kick return as Pittsburgh’s special teams have struggled in covering kicks since Shaun Suisham took over for Jeff Reed.
Suisham made two of three field goal attempts, meaning he missed his first since joining the Steelers and his kickoffs were very short overall.
After struggling last week, punter Jeremy Kapinos averaged 45.3 yards on three punts and had two downed inside of the 20-yard line.
Pittsburgh’s kick coverage unit did account for a fumble which was recovered by Will Allen. Stevenson Sylvester played a strong game with two special teams tackles, including one that prevented a potentially long return.
Season GPA: 2.60
Pittsburgh’s defense started out slow on the first drive but came up big the rest of the game, intercepting one ball and sacking Clausen four times as Dick LeBeau had the defense attacking Carolina’s rookie quarterback all night.
Carolina was held to 119 yards and only seven first downs. Pittsburgh’s defense was also able to get off of the field on third downs as the Panthers only covered 3-of-13 third down attempts.
Offensively the Steelers had their best offensive output since they scored 35 points against Oakland.
Converting on only 2-of-6 red zone attempts, however, was inexcusable.
Just last week Roethlisberger and offensive coordinator Bruce Arians discussed their red zone woes, including that they too often went for the touchdown on one play.
Despite acknowledging their problems the Steelers offense reverted back to that philosophy, on one particular drive throwing two passes into the end zone without success.
Mike Tomlin did go for a fourth-and-short deep in Carolina’ territory but Pittsburgh came up short. He then unsuccessfully challenged the spot of the ball.
Tomlin did win a second challenge later in the game.
One of the other major coaching decisions was how long they left some of the veterans in the game, particularly Roethlisberger.
Roethlisberger played every snap of the blowout loss.
Season GPA: 2.36
For this week Pittsburgh needs to get rested for their regular season finale against Cleveland and work on their red zone offense and special teams’ coverage. The 10 days off should help with this.
Until then they will be watching what Baltimore does in Cleveland this weekend. If Baltimore wins, this puts Pittsburgh in a must-win situation against the Browns next week. If Baltimore loses, the Steelers will clinch the AFC North division and a first-round bye.
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