The Pittsburgh Steelers hung half a hundred points on the Carolina Panthers, but the biggest development was not Ben Roethlisberger’s five touchdown throws or his perfect passer rating.
Strange as it sounds in a 52-21 victory – their fifth consecutive – the play of the game Thursday night at Heinz Field came when the Steelers’ defense produced a turnover for a touchdown.
“That pick-six changed the whole game for us,” Steelers inside linebacker Jon Bostic said. “We got that momentum and kept rolling with it. That was big. Anytime you can score on defense, there’s a high chance you can win the game.”
After the Panthers opened with a 75-yard scoring drive, the Steelers made sideline adjustments. Their focus was on putting pressure on Cam Newton in the pocket, forcing the Carolina quarterback to give up the ball on the zone read and taking their shot at getting a tackle for loss.
Thirteen seconds after the Steelers tied the game, Newton tried to sell a play-action fake from his own 12-yard line. T.J. Watt didn’t buy it, wrapped his arms around the 6-foot-5, 245-pounder in the end zone.
Newton tried to slip the sack by throwing a sidearm pass, but Vince Williams was waiting in the middle of the field. The inside linebacker intercepted the throw and returned it 17 yards for his first career touchdown to give the Steelers a seven-point lead.
“It was just a domino effect,” Newton said. “We wanted to start fast, scored on the first drive and then, all of a sudden … They had a plan coming in and it was very clear what their plan was.”
The Steelers held the NFL’s No. 2 rushing offense to 95 yards on 22 carries – 49 yards below the Panthers’ average – and 242 total yards. The pressure got to Carolina, which converted only 36 percent (4 of 11) of its third-down attempts and punted five times.
That was by design, as Watt called Steelers defensive coordinator Keith Butler’s game plan “well thought-out.” They were willing to bend but not break against running back Christian McCaffrey, who rushed 14 times for 77 yards and had five catches for 61 yards and two touchdowns. But they wanted to stop Newton at all costs.
“We had a short week but we had a good game plan,” Watt said. “We knew anytime you have a zone read, they’ve got two options: They’re either going to give or keep it. If you go after (Newton), he’s got to give it every single time or he’s going to get a TFL.
“We just made him give it every time.”
What the Steelers were proudest of was limiting Newton to 10 yards on two carries, sacking him five times for minus-46 yards and forcing both an interception and a fumble.
“We definitely pride ourselves in getting to the quarterback,” Steelers defensive end Stephon Tuitt said. “To play this type of offense – that was putting up a lot of points on people – to force them to have the little bit of yards they had, that was big time.”
But the Steelers had just beaten the Baltimore Ravens and the NFL’s No. 1 defense on the road. The offense wasn’t the Steelers’ concern. They know their defense has to be better in the second half of the season if they are going to be considered Super Bowl contenders.
“The jury’s still out,” said Steelers defensive end Cameron Heyward, who had two sacks for minus-15 yards. “It doesn’t stop here.”
This was only the start, possibly of something big.
Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Kevin at [email protected] .