The Steelers defeated Carolina Panthers 24-16 on Sunday. Here, in my 3 & Out column, I look at how a dominant performance on the field on both sides of the football, and an inspired Mitchell Trubisky-to-Diontae Johnson pass connection, were the catalysts for victory.
“Left side… strong side!”
The Steelers opened the game offensively with back-to-back touchdown drives that combined to cover 142 yards on 22 plays and consume 12:58 of playing time. 74 of those yards came on the ground, as the offensive line routinely won its matchups against Carolina’s defensive front.
It was a particularly effective performance by the left. The Steelers rushed nine times for 50 yards on their first two drives behind left guard Kevin Dotson and left tackle Dan Moore Jr., with center Mason Cole assisting. Dotson and Moore have been uncertain enough this year to wonder if they will remain in Pittsburgh’s plans, at least as starters, after the season. Cole has been decent, but not good enough to make Steelers fans forget they could have drafted Creed Humphrey. On Sunday, all three played well enough to inspire optimism.
One area where they were noticeably better involved communication. The whole line has struggled with this at times, but especially the left side. Against Carolina, the trio was in sync.
On the opening drive, Moore wrapped around the down block of tight end Zach Gentry on a pin-and-pull sweep and did a nice job of getting a piece of end Yater Gross-Matos (97) after Gentry dusted on the block. This allowed Cole, who retreated behind him, to seal the edge. Moore then continued to scramble and chipped linebacker Shaq Thompson (7) just enough to prevent him from getting a clean shot at Najee Harris. Harris ran through Thompson’s arm tackle for a 10-yard gain:
Moore’s chip on Gross-Matos doesn’t look like much. But it shows an understanding of the scheme and how he needed to hold off Gross-Matos for just one punch to allow Cole to get the better of him. It’s a small thing. But small things, when strung together, become big things.
Later in the drive, Moore worked with Dotson to again seal the edge for Harris, this time on a wide zone run. On the snap, Carolina Gross-Matos squeezed over Moore’s face into the B gap. Moore doubled him first with Dotson, then passed him and climbed to safety Jeremy Chinn (21), who had sneaked into the box. Dotson was able to seal Gross-Matos, while Moore changed Chinn’s path to the ball so he couldn’t fit the run properly. Harris rumbled for another first try:
A few plays later, Dotson did a good job picking up a blitz from linebacker Frankie Luvu (49), turning him over and widening the B gap. Cole sealed the nose tackle, which sloped away from the barrel, and Harris hit the hole cleanly:
The Steelers ended the drive by running left again, this time out of an unbalanced set. They dropped down the right side of Carolina’s line and Harris did the rest, pulling off a pair of unblocked defenders on the perimeter to find the end zone:
It was a physical drive to open the ballgame and it set the tone for the afternoon.
On Pittsburgh’s second drive, they mixed in Jaylen Warren at halfback, with similar results. The Steelers bullied their way down the field on a 15-play, 75-yard drive. The line moved Carolina both vertically and horizontally, allowing Warren to run through big gaps like this:
Warren ended the drive by plunging in from the 2-yard line, and the Steelers led 14-7 at halftime.
Pittsburgh was more diverse in the 2nd half, running to the right more often and incorporating some of Matt Canada’s signature jet sweeps and reverses. But they ran left when they needed yards, like on this 3rd and 1 during their epic 21-play, 91-yard drive that consumed the first 11:43 of the 3rd quarter. Cole, Dotson and Moore all won the leverage battle, getting lower than their defensive counterparts and creating a nice boost for fullback Derek Watt:
Watt has been quiet on 3rd and short situations this season, converting six of six attempts. The line’s physicality at the point of attack has been a big reason for his success.
Pittsburgh rushed for 156 yards in the contest and has now gained 140+ in five of its last seven games. The line is gelling, and the new position coach Pat Meyer emphasizes on technique is paying off. The unit is clearly better than they were a season ago. Against Carolina, this improvement was evident.
Not to be outdone, the defensive front was sensational. They held a Carolina rushing attack that had been averaging 125 yards per game to just 21 yards on 16 carries. And they sacked quarterback Sam Darnold four times, with the “Big Three” of Alex Highsmith, Cam Heyward and TJ Watt accounting for all four.
It was an inspired comeback performance for a group that had been crushed by the Ravens last week. In the bowels of the game, with Baltimore as third-string quarterback Anthony Brown, the Ravens had little choice but to run the football. Still, Pittsburgh couldn’t stop them. It had to sting, especially for Heyward, who was pushed around one of the few times in his illustrious NFL career. Heyward’s response, and the response of his teammates, was everything Steelers’ fans could have hoped for.
The unit’s best play came midway through the 4th quarter with the Steelers up 21-10. A pass interference penalty on Cam Sutton set up the Panthers with 1st-and-goal at the four-yard line, where a touchdown and potential two-point conversion could have brought them within three. But Pittsburgh held on and made three inspired stops to force a field goal.
First, on a layup against running back D’Onta Foreman, Watt (90) did a nice job of beating the reach of offensive tackle Cam Erving (75) to gain penetration and force Foreman back inside. There he met Larry Ogunjobi (99), who had pushed through the B gap, and linebacker Mark Robinson (93), who was pursuing from behind. The two teamed up to stop Foreman for a brief gain:
On the 2nd attempt, Carolina went with an unbalanced eight-man surface and tried to drive Foreman up in the gut. But Highsmith did his best James Harrison impersonation, stabbing into the block of tight end Stephen Sullivan (84) to drop Foreman for a loss:
That led to 3rd and goal. Carolina sent five receivers out, and Darnold looked left for a slant-flat combination. But the Steelers blocked the flat route at the goal line and took the slant with Minkah Fitzpatrick. None of them were open. Darnold didn’t have time to look to his right because Highsmith had hit the left tackle with a nasty spin move and was quickly going downhill. He escaped to the left, where Heyward was waiting. Then he moved to the right, where Watt was approaching. The two met at quarterback, and Darnold went down in a heap:
The play of both units up front underscored a single point the Steelers would do well to take note of. Despite the attention paid to the league’s high-profile quarterbacks, receivers and defensive backs, NFL games are still won on the line of scrimmage. Pittsburgh has spent its highest draft picks in recent years elsewhere. Since 2013, they have selected 26 skill position players in the first three rounds while selecting only four linemen. It must change. Sunday’s game should prove that they can succeed when they control the trenches. They can hit intermediates with the lines they have. To beat the best teams, they need to upgrade.
The Mitch and DJ Show
There were a lot of big plays in this contest by the Steelers, but none bigger than the two 3rd downs they converted on their final drive that helped kill over 5:00 of the remaining 6:15 on the clock. The drive culminated in a Chris Boswell field goal with 1:04 left that ended the Panthers.
First, on 3rd and 14 from their own 21-yard line, Trubisky found Johnson on a deep run for a 19-yard gain. Johnson, wide in line with the bottom of the screen in the clip below, was given plenty of space by corner Keith Taylor. The Panthers played soft because they put eight defenders on the field and showed an all-out blitz. They brought in seven, and Pittsburgh kept seven in to protect. Pittsburgh won that game, giving Trubisky enough time to wait for Johnson to catch his break, where he beat him with stride:
Taylor’s technique on the play suggests that with a heavy blitz coming, he expected a shorter route, most likely one that broke outside. He never backed down, instead opening his hips to Johnson in anticipation of a quick break. This put him in no position to adjust to the deeper cut and Johnson beat him cleanly.
A few plays later, against 3rd and 6 Johnson, Taylor struck again, this time with a beautiful layup. Trubisky threw off his back foot, but the ball was on the money, giving Taylor little chance to defend it:
From this angle, you can see how quickly Johnson changed direction, and how accurate the timing and placement of Trubisky’s throw was. It wasn’t bad coverage of Taylor. The execution of Pittsburgh was simply better.
Johnson’s day was far from perfect. His unsportsmanlike conduct penalty, for taunting Chinn after a reception inside the red zone, was another example of immaturity that has ruined his career. For as talented as Johnson is, he lacks discipline. From the pre-snap violations he often commits, to the poor body language he displays when he doesn’t get the ball when he wants it, to the ridiculous taunting penalty, he continues to struggle with the details of being a professional. But he was huge for Pittsburgh on Sunday, catching 10 passes for 98 yards and converting a string of 3rd downs. In the clutch, when the Steelers needed big plays to sustain drives, Johnson delivered.
So did Trubisky. He was efficient, completing 17 of 22 passes for 179 yards. His accuracy on timing routes to Johnson, and on a perfectly placed deep ball to George Pickens, was impressive. Most importantly, he didn’t turn the ball over, which was a nice response to his three-interception performance a week ago. Trubisky and Johnson have both been targets of criticism this year. On Sunday, they were two of the most important athletes in a dominant road victory.
While Johnson’s taunting penalty was selfish and undisciplined, the one taken by Marcus Allen was unconscionable. With Carolina trailing 21-7 early in the 4th quarter, and facing a 4th and 27, Allen wandered over to the Panthers sideline to talk smack. inside the Carolina lump. Allen was flagged, Carolina got an automatic 1st down, and the Panthers went on to kick a field goal that momentarily changed the momentum of the game.
He’s lucky it wasn’t worse.
Allen is a valuable special teams player for the Steelers. He’s also a five-year veteran who rarely plays defense. He has to do everything right to stay on the roster. This was the antithesis. It was the kind of game that, against a better opponent, could have snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. Had Mike Tomlin cut Allen after the fact, it would have been justifiable. Allen’s gesture was typical of how losing teams put up with themselves. They lack the discipline to manage success or control their emotions. Cutting Allen wasn’t a must for Tomlin, but it would have sent a strong message about the standard he expects.