Taking a cue from their law-breaking wide receiver, the Pittsburgh Steelers decided to do some excessive speeding of their own Thursday night against the Carolina Panthers.
Hours after Antonio Brown was cited for driving more than 100 mph on McKnight Road, the Steelers sped past the Panthers, 52-21 a few miles away at Heinz Field.
The Steelers (6-2-1) scored 31 points in the first half, including two in a 13-second span, and got touchdowns on their first three possessions of the second half to cruise to their fifth consecutive win and second in five days.
Are the Steelers peaking?
“I hope not yet,” quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said after passing for 328 yards and five touchdowns. “You want to keep trying to move up until the end, keep trending up. We’re playing some pretty good football, but there’s still some stuff out there, some plays that we can make.”
Carolina (6-3) entered on a three-game winning and lost for just the second time in the past seven games despite getting three touchdowns from running back Christian McCaffrey.
“It was a good win, honestly,” guard Ramon Foster said. “You hear critiquing about us, (how) we hadn’t played against anybody, but we played the No. 1 defense (in Baltimore) and one of the best teams in the NFC and got a convincing win on a short week.”
How convincing? It was the seventh time the Steelers topped 50 points in franchise history. They hadn’t scored 52 points in a game since 1984 against San Diego.
Seven players scored touchdowns, including linebacker Vince Williams, who returned an interception 17 yards for a score in the first quarter to put the Steelers ahead for good, 14-7.
“I like the contributions from a lot of people,” coach Mike Tomlin said. “We came into tonight with the mentality that we had to play everyone in a helmet, that’s just part of a short week, and I thought everyone came with that spirit. … The distribution of the football on offense is reflective of that.”
Roethlisberger completed 22 of 25 attempts for 328 yards and a perfect 158.3 passer rating before turning a 52-14 lead over to backup Josh Dobbs with 11:01 remaining. He completed passes to nine players, with Brown getting six receptions for 96 yards.
It was the fourth perfect passer rating – but first in 11 years – for Roethlisberger in his 15-year career.
JuJu Smith-Schuster motored for a 75-yard touchdown reception on the Steelers’ first play from scrimmage, and Brown chipped in with a 53-yard touchdown catch.
Roethlisberger threw touchdown passes to tight ends Vance McDonald and Jesse James and rookie running back Jaylen Samuels in the second half.
“We have a lot of weapons on this team,” guard David DeCastro said, “and Ben involved all of them.”
With Le’Veon Bell potentially returning next week, James Conner rushed for 65 yards on 13 carries and scored a touchdown before leaving in the fourth quarter to be examined for a possible concussion. It was the first time in five games that Conner was held under 100 yards.
In addition to Williams’ interception return, the defense contributed with five sacks, including two from Cameron Heyward. Bud Dupree, T.J. Watt and Williams had the others.
After giving up a 75-yard touchdown drive to open the game, the Steelers allowed only 167 the rest of the way. The Panthers had 95 yards rushing, but only 55 came after the opening series.
“The defense was playing like their hair was on fire,” Roethlisberger said. “It was fun for all parties involved.”
That included the special teams, which forced a turnover on a kickoff late in the third quarter. Roosevelt Nix made the hit, and Anthony Chickillo recovered the ball at the Carolina 9. On the first play of the fourth quarter, Roethlisberger threw a 6-yard touchdown pass to Samuels for a 52-14 advantage.
Roethlisberger completed 12 of 13 attempts for 234 yards and two touchdowns in the 31-point first half.
Roethlisberger completed six more passes on the opening drive of the second half, capping it with a 12-yard touchdown strike to McDonald in the back of the end zone for a 38-14 lead.
Panthers safety Eric Reid was ejected for unnecessary roughness with 1:15 left in the third quarter when he collided with Roethlisberger after a 17-yard scramble. The hit sparked a scrum with offensive linemen David DeCastro and Maurkice Pouncey coming to Roethlisberger’s defense.
Two plays later, Roethlisberger threw his fourth touchdown pass – an 8-yarder to James for a 45-14 lead with 18 seconds left in the third.
“He was on the money on every pass,” James said. “That’s what we need from him, especially on a short week.”
Joe Rutter is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Joe at [email protected] or via Twitter @tribjoerutter.