The Pittsburgh Steelers are hitting their stride just in time for the season's stretch run.
Pittsburgh moved to 6-2-1 with its fifth win in a row, a 52-21 victory over the Carolina Panthers on Thursday at Heinz Field. Carolina was also riding high entering play but saw its three-game winning streak snapped as it fell to 6-3 overall.
Ben Roethlisberger prevailed in the showdown of high-profile quarterbacks and finished 22-of-25 for 328 yards, five touchdowns and zero interceptions. Cam Newton countered at 23-of-29 for 193 yards, two touchdowns and one interception.
Steelers Offense Talented Enough to Compete for Super Bowl Without Le'Veon Bell
The Steelers wasted no time sending a message to the rest of the league.
Roethlisberger and JuJu Smith-Schuster connected for a 75-yard score on Pittsburgh's first play from scrimmage, and the offense scored on its first four possessions and was only stopped on the fifth by the halftime whistle. James Conner found the end zone in the first quarter, and Antonio Brown hauled in a 53-yard score when Carolina dared use single coverage against him.
The showing was all the more notable because it came after owner Art Rooney II told SiriusXM NFL Radio the team expects running back Le'Veon Bell to return next week.
While it is unreasonable to say the Steelers are better without Bell, who is a three-time Pro Bowler capable of posting 1,200 rushing yards and 800 receiving yards in a season, there is already enough offensive talent in place for them to compete for a Super Bowl spot even if he doesn't join the fold.
Conner's first-quarter touchdown was his 10th rushing score of the season, which is more than Bell has tallied in a year in his entire career. The University of Pittsburgh product has thrived in Bell's place and helped spearhead an offense that entered Thursday's contest fourth in the league in yards per game.
Geoff Schwartz @geoffschwartz
People keep saying that James Conner won't ever be Le'Veon Bell... He puts up the numbers of Bell... He keeps improving each week as a runner. That doesn't diminish the talent of Le'Veon Bell or the length of success but it's becoming a boring argument to say Bell > Conner.
Brown reminded the Panthers secondary he is arguably the best receiver in the league with his touchdown, and his presence alone creates opportunities for his teammates because defenses consistently shift additional attention his way.
Smith-Schuster is the direct beneficiary because he is often facing the No. 2 cornerback in single coverage, which is one reason he went over the century mark in four of Pittsburgh's first six games this year. Conner can also thank Brown for some of his production because it is difficult to commit additional defenders to the box to slow the run with No. 84 on the outside.
The idea of adding Bell to an already loaded offense should scare the rest of the AFC, but there are already enough pieces in place to challenge for the Lombardi Trophy.
Steelers' Defensive Pressure Key to Turning Unit Around
Pittsburgh's offense is already Super Bowl-caliber, but it was an ugly 21st in the league in Football Outsiders' defensive DVOA rankings prior to Thursday's victory. What's more, the secondary was 21st in the league in passing yards allowed per game.
That's not going to cut it come January, especially against the likes of Tom Brady, Patrick Mahomes or Deshaun Watson in the AFC playoffs. Those quarterbacks will pick Pittsburgh's defense apart unless it is able to replicate the formula it displayed against the Panthers.
Pittsburgh's pressure made life miserable for Newton from the start, as Vince Williams' pick-six in the first quarter came when the quarterback threw the ball away in the middle of the field to avoid a safety. He would have lost a fumble in the first half on a sack as well had Christian McCaffrey not bailed him out with a recovery.
The Steelers defensive front consistently forced Newton out of the pocket, prevented him from setting his feet and taking advantage of clean throwing lanes and finished with five sacks. It would have been more if Newton wasn't so difficult to bring down at 6'5" with the athleticism to escape pressure.
Pittsburgh was tied for fourth in the league with the Kansas City Chiefs with 26 sacks coming into this matchup, and a defensive front featuring Cameron Heyward, Bud Dupree, T.J. Watt, Stephon Tuitt and Javon Hargrave provides hope for a defense that has appeared vulnerable for much of the season.
This wasn't just any team Pittsburgh overwhelmed with its pressure. The Panthers were 6-2 and had the look of a legitimate Super Bowl contender in the NFC South, but they didn't have a chance for much of the contest.
The Steelers covered a statistically poor secondary for extended stretches Thursday by remaining in defensive attack mode, and they will need to continue doing just that during the season's second half.
Panthers Must Rely on McCaffrey's Versatility to Challenge NFC's Best
There was one silver lining for the Panthers on Thursday—the play of McCaffrey.
The Stanford product scored both of Carolina's touchdowns in the first half to keep the game temporarily close and was able to remain a part of the offense because of his versatility even when the team shifted to throwing in comeback mode. His two first-half scores came through the air, with one going for 20 yards and the other going for 25, and he added a rushing touchdown in the fourth quarter for good measure.
He provided a checkdown option for Newton when the pressure was overwhelming, which was no surprise considering he entered play with 502 rushing yards, 378 receiving yards and five total touchdowns.
Carolina is not loaded with game-changers at wide receiver seeing how Devin Funchess (445 receiving yards) was the only one with more than 300 yards through the air prior to this loss. It instead often relies on the running of Newton and McCaffrey, but it must find a way to keep defenses honest and prevent them from stacking the box.
Using McCaffrey as a pass-catcher even more will help the Panthers do just that, and offensive variety will be critical in potential playoff matchups against powerhouses such as the Los Angeles Rams and New Orleans Saints that could turn into shootouts.
Thursday was a disappointing effort, but Carolina is still in the thick of the playoff race at 6-3. Unlocking McCaffrey as a versatile threat makes the team all the more dangerous and takes some of the pressure off Newton's shoulders.
Both teams are on the road in Week 11 with the Panthers facing the Detroit Lions and the Steelers playing the Jacksonville Jaguars.