The Pittsburgh Steelers were able to get a largely encouraging victory on Sunday afternoon against the Carolina Panthers on a nice showing on offense and defense, winning 24-16 and bringing their record to 6-8. They were able to win many key facets of the game, including a dominant performance in the running game on both sides of the ball, with much improved trench play and gaining 156 yards on offense while allowing only 21. Sustaining long drives on offense to win the time of possession battle was key, thanks to going a stellar 12/16 on third down and able to cash in with points in the red zone, thankfully checking many of the improvement boxes we’ve been looking for. In this article I will provide data from Pro Football Focus and takeaways from watching the film.
Let’s start with the offense:
PFF’s highest graded player on offense is a refreshing name, wide receiver Diontae Johnson (87.2). He was the engine of the receiving game, catching all ten of his targets for 98 yards, with the latter being his best mark on the season. He got separation all game and great to see some aggression in his game, though one instance drew a penalty and unfortunately wasn’t able to notch his first touchdown of the season. Nice game. Quarterback Mitch Trubisky played very well overall (82.5), rebounding from a three interception game with no turnovers, a high 77.3% completion rate which was his best on the season, not having to do too much going 17/22 for 179 yards. He was sacked once and did not have any passing touchdowns, but did provide key plays as a rusher, picking up third and short conversions and a touchdown in that regard. Running back Najee Harris (77.4) also had a solid game, playing forcefully on 86 yards on 24 carries and a touchdown, love to see it. Two other players come in with +70 grades. Tackle Chukwuma Okorafor (75.4) was the highest graded offensive lineman, playing well as a pass blocker (with no pressures allowed) and in the run game, with the latter being true for the group as a whole, and in my opinion felt they all deserved stronger grades, considering none had a run block grade above 60 and center Mason Cole the only lineman that was charged with a pressure in the game (two). Wide receiver Gunner Olszewski (72.4) was graded higher than I expected, with one catch for three yards, getting credit for going down and grabbing the off-target pass that was low.
Two players had below 50 grades this week, starting with guard Kevin Dotson (48.5), who had a particularly good first half in my opinion, and while there were some down plays really thought he’d have a higher grade. Tight end Zach Gentry bottoms the list this week (46.3), playing the most snaps at the position, catching his one target on a dump off pass for four yards and an up and down (mostly the latter) as a run blocker. His increased opportunity was due to fellow tight end Pat Freiermuth (51.1) being on a pitch count nursing an injury, who was not targeted for the first time this season.
Pittsburgh’s offense came on for their first opportunity at 12:54, beginning with Harris on the ground, able to find a bit of space thanks to a good combo block from Dotson out to the linebacker, but Cole allowing defensive lineman Derrick Brown to tackle the gain of three. On second and seven it was back to Harris, taking the handoff and getting behind a good pull and seal from Dotson, but fullback Derek Watt not able to land a block on his, and guard James Daniels and Okorafor getting pushed back a bit, limiting the running lane where linebacker Shaq Thompson made the stop for only one yard. The Steelers burned an early timeout here, and thankfully are able to convert on third and seven on Trubisky’s first pass, finding Johnson who came in motion and caught the slant against tight coverage from Panthers cornerback Jaycee Horn for a nice eight-yard gain.
The drive continued with running back Jaylen Warren’s first opportunity, finding some space to the right on the handoff between good blocks from tackle Trent Scott (who reported as eligible) and Gentry, who was the only tight end on the field thus far, and wide receiver Miles Boykin getting a decent second level block but his man able to work off and limit the three-yard gain. On second and seven, Harris took the carry to the left and enjoyed good and encouraging usage of pulling blocks from Cole and Dotson, getting around the edge and avoiding the first tackle attempt from Thompson, who got by tackle Dan Moore, getting down the sideline on the healthy chain moving gain of ten.
Another first down here, and Trubisky drops back and finds Olszewski, who was able to go down and corral the low pass on the out route on the gain of three. On second and seven, it was back to Harris on the ground who hit a nice hole to the left around good line block along with wide receiver George Pickens doing a good job pushing the defensive back past the play behind the line, freeing the run to the second level and churning past the sticks once again for eight yards. Loving the start from the trenches and running game.
Fourth first down of the drive, and it’s a screen to Johnson against off coverage with wide receiver Steven Sims blocking well out in front, but waiting on Okorafor to get in front was slow to develop, giving Thompson time to track and tackle the short four-yard gain. On second and six, Harris provided another successful run with good collective blocking, finding space between Okorafor and a double team block from Cole and Daniels, churning once again in the second level for five yards. This set up a third and short one, and Trubisky sneaks it for the first down and more, with a good push on the left side behind Dotson and Gentry, and interesting wrinkle moving Moore to the right side aligning outside Okorafor.
Marching down the field and in the red zone now, Pittsburgh sets up the running back screen to Jaylen Warren, taking advantage of his great YAC contributions this season with ample space in front and a great block from Daniels in the open field to spring him, barreling through the defender to pick up another first down on the gain of 11. First and goal now from the seven, and great job once again by the o-line getting excellent movement off the ball including a nice seal from Freiermuth, with Harris getting the handoff with one man to beat at the line off the edge, and making a great cut outside around Jeremy Chinn to take it in for the score! Outstanding start, playing with purpose and physicality early and great to see Pittsburgh convert with a red zone touchdown right out of the gate!
The offense returned at 14:12 in the second quarter with the game tied, beginning with a play action with Trubisky getting it to Gentry quickly in the flat for a churning four-yard gain. On second and six, got the handoff to the right, with nice acceleration past two free rushers from the backside, slipping a low tackle from Cole’s man, and good block from Daniels creating space on another churning run with multiple defenders needed to tackle the gain of five. This set up another third and one with an identical result on a Trubisky sneak, getting plenty on the four-yard gain with Freiermuth motioning and pushing the pile forward behind good blocks, particularly from Dotson and Cole.
First down once again, and the ground game keeps their strong start going with a Harris run for seven yards, with good collective blocking and hitting the hole between Dotson and Moore along with Daniels getting to the second level well. On second and three Warren got his turn on the ground, but the o-line lost this rep sans Dotson, swarming the ball and was able cut back around Cole’s man, but ran into Moore and dropped for a one-yard loss. Third and four now, and unfortunately a big situational penalty on a slight flinch from Dotson for the false start. Carolina was apparently in the Christmas spirit on third and nine, giving the gift of a neutral zone penalty. Back to third and four now, and Trubisky goes deep on the go ball to Pickens, who stacked the corner well and made a great hands catch over the cornerbacks’ head for an explosive 21-yard gain.
Encouragingly in the red zone on a second consecutive drive, Warren gets the carry with reverse action to Pickens behind it, and awesome job by the o-line again providing a huge hole between Cole and Dotson along with a good push from Moore, springing the gain of nine. On second and one, Pittsburgh runs the same play, with the Panthers firming up here but able to find just enough space between Moore and Dotson for the conversion on the gain of two.
This set up first and goal from the seven-yard line, with a stretch handoff to Warren here, with a nice cut behind sealing blocks from Moore, Dotson, and Cole for five yards, but Daniels was beat and ended up on the ground with his man getting in on the tackle. On second and goal from the two-yard line, and Daniels aggressively threw his man to the ground along with a strong base block from Okorafor, allowing Warren to get the edge and churn in for his first touchdown of the season! Very happy for him and enjoying the continued success and frequency on the ground, along with the explosive play sprinkled in, and of course two long drives punching in touchdowns from the red zone.
The offense returned at 6:20 in the second quarter still enjoying a seven-point lead, and Harris kicked the drive off on the ground from the 30-yard line but only able to get a yard with the unblocked safety able to come in clean for the tackle. On second and nine, Trubisky looks left with two out routes to choose from, getting it to Johnson who familiarly runs backward in attempts for YAC, but limited with wide receiver Steven Sims not playing to the whistle with a blocking opportunity out in front of the four-yard pickup. Third and five now, and Trubisky drops back behind good pass pro and targets Pickens on the intermediate curl, but the dangerous pass in traffic sails and luckily is not picked off with two Panthers having an opportunity, whew. Stalling with a three and out third drive, Steelers punt.
At 3:36 in the second quarter, Harris got the delayed handoff on first down and while there wasn’t much room up the middle, probably would have been best to churn forward, instead tries to bounce it out and gets swarmed and Cole’s losing his block on the gain of only one. On second and nine, Moore lost his pass block to the inside but thankfully Cole walled him off impressively as he blocked his man past the pocket, giving Trubisky time to get the pass to Pickens who got good separation on a stop route past the sticks for a nice chunk of 15 yards.
Interesting design on this first down setting up what appeared to be a toss to Harris, with Sims going in motion and getting the toss on the jet sweep the opposite way but the unblocked edge rusher Brian Burns is right there to drop him for a loss of three.
Now at the two-minute warning Trubisky got it to Sims on a pass this time, on a short stop route with separation against Carolina’s zone coverage and adding a bit of YAC on the ten-yard gain. Third and a much more manageable three now, and Trubisky surveys with time from a clean pocket, targeting Sims again who was well covered, and the pass is tipped in the air and nearly intercepted by Thompson, whew. Second short and stalled drive in a row, still up by seven.
With 42 seconds left in the half, Pittsburgh was content with a seven-point lead, handing to Warren on an eight-yard gain, and have to appreciate him always running hard with two stiff arms behind the line of scrimmage, getting outside and hurdling another, letting the clock run to head to the locker room.
The offense came on first to start the second half backed up at their own nine-yard line, and Trubisky gets the pass to Johnson quickly on the comeback with good separation with a bit of dancing YAC for a seven-yard gain. On second and three Moore, Dotson, and Cole were all beat on the Harris run, doing a great job to break a tackle behind the line as he was swarmed to make it a positive gain of a yard. Third and two now, and Trubisky takes the shotgun snap and hands to Harris, who did great job getting skinny through a small crease between Moore and Boykin on a pulling block, able to slither through and churn the pile just past the marker for the conversion.
It was back to Harris on the following first down, encouragingly staying north and south but no hole with Cole beat and Okorafor letting his man to get in to tackle him at the line. On second and ten, Pittsburgh looked to set up a running back screen with Warren, but couldn’t get through the trash in the trenches, with Trubisky backpedaling and waiting as long as he could for it to develop but ultimately has to throw it away, ugly. Third and ten now, and Trubisky is able to get the pass out despite Okorafor getting beat around the edge, finding Johnson who got wide open on the out route from the slot, but passively runs straight out of bounds instead of getting up field with room adding frustration to his face palming YAC numbers on the season but does get the conversion.
Warren got another opportunity as the drive continued, taking the handoff for an outside run but cut off by Chinn and Horn who were unblocked and dropping him for no gain. On second and ten Harris came back on, getting the handoff with good collective blocking, with a nice cutback to hit the hole around a good Cole block and Okorafor seal, getting to the second level with multiple defenders necessary to take him down on the nine-yard gain. Third and a short one now, and Sims goes in motion and gets the jet sweep, able to break an immediate tackle attempt from Thompson and another from Horn, allowing him to turn the corner where Pickens freed him with touch blocks on two players (the second a debatable hold), thankfully not drawing a flag and freeing the run for an explosive 22-yard gain and conversion.
Back to Harris on the ground on another first down, and Scott was in at tackle eligible again, combo blocking as was Moore, with neither peeling off and allowing the linebacker to fill the hole, but good job by Harris to spin and break the tackle and get past the line of scrimmage for a yard, and also noted a good recovery from Dotson slamming his man to the ground. On second and nine, Trubisky play actions and finds Johnson on a great intermediate out route, turning the cornerback around with nice separation, cuts back inside, then stops on a dime and throws him off for yards after contact on an impressive 18-yard gain, which also allowed Pittsburgh to decline an illegal contact penalty on Carolina. Sweet play and rightfully pumped about it.
In the red zone now as the long drive continued, and Harris gets the handoff and a linebacker fills the hole, and good cut by Harris to get what he can behind Dotson for another hard gain of two. On second and eight, Johnson got his turn on another jet sweep with Burns free on the edge once again, chasing him down the line and ultimately making the tackle on the cut back for two yards. Third and six now, and Johnson gets open on another out route, with a stellar effort to break not one, not two, but three tackles to pick up the huge third down conversion. Love the swagger he’s playing with, but unfortunately takes it a step far with a costly unsportsmanlike penalty standing over the defender.
This took the Steelers out of the red zone, and Trubisky drops back on first down, taking his time as Moore is pushed back, fending the rusher off just enough on the drag target to Boykin, who was able to catch the affected off-target pass that was behind him for no gain. On second and ten, Johnson came back on after cooling off on the sidelines for a play, and right back to the hot hand on another out route completion for nine yards. Third and one and back in the red zone now, Trubisky gives to Watt on the fullback dive and muscles the pile forward for the two-yard gain and conversion.
On first and ten from the 11-yard line, Harris got the carry behind a Watt pull and darts through a big hole between Cole and Daniels, but the last line of defense in Chinn was able to tackle the strong nine-yard gain just short of the sticks/goal line. On second and one from the two, Cole and Dotson got good seal blocks on another Harris run, along with Gentry connecting on his pulling block to create an alley on the churning chain mover, inching closer to the one-yard line. Trubisky takes the sneak on first down, seemingly getting in for the score behind the push from the left side but called short, hmm. Instead of challenging, Pittsburgh goes for it again on second and goal, and there’s no denying Trubisky this time, jumping and quickly extending the ball past the plane and thankfully keeps a strong hold on the ball for three red zone touchdowns on the day! Nearly 12 minutes, 91 yards on a whopping 21 play drive to extend the lead to 14. Wow.
The offense returned at 11:52 in the fourth quarter and it’s a play actions, with Moore beat around the edge but despite recovering late prompts the scramble to the right, where Scott allowed his man to pursue and Trubisky overthrows (basically a throwaway) to Pickens on the sideline. On second and ten it was back to the ground game, with Harris taking the handoff to the right behind good blocks from Okorafor and Cole, but Daniels unable to land his second level block on Chinn, who chased the four-yard gain to the sideline. Third and six now, and Warren initially picked up linebacker Frankie Luvu’s blitz well in pass protection, but lost on his second effort to get to Trubisky who had nowhere to run with Okorafor beat around the edge and Moore getting pushed back on the sack. Unfortunate fourth quarter three and out, lead is still 11.
With 6:15 left and the lead cut to eight, the offense began with a Harris run finding a bit of space inside a good block from Cole, but Daniels and Gentry allowing their men to converge quickly and tackle the gain of one. On second and nine Trubisky took the shotgun snap and slides right, staring down Pickens and throws to him on the out route and is lucky Chinn doesn’t pick him off as he undercut the route for the pass breakup and room to run, whew. Big third and nine here, and the all too familiar shooting themselves in the foot arises again with a false start on Pickens, nerve wracking. This set up third and a long 14, and Trubisky was able to get a great pass off despite Dotson being beat up the middle, finding Johnson on the slant over the middle for the catch short of the sticks, and slams the breaks to spin past the defender for another nice YAC play and ginormous conversion. Big time.
The drive continued with Harris on the ground, able to get a healthy six yards up the middle, stutter stepping around Gentry who was pushed back and getting to the hole between Cole and Moore with space behind a Dotson block on the second level. On second and four, it was Harris again but this time he’s stuffed behind the line for a loss of two with Thompson darting in free along with a defensive back coming in free off the edge to converge on him. Third and six now, and Trubisky throws a dime to Johnson on the stop route, once again getting separation on the catch and converting on third down, knock on wood closing the game out on money downs.
After Pittsburgh’s second timeout it was Warren’s turn on the ground to get the clock moving, providing a successful four-yard gain bouncing outside a Gentry block, but allowed his man to work off it to make the tackle and Carolina takes their first timeout. On second and six, Warren provided a slippery run where he got inside Watt’s pulling block and eluded a defensive lineman in the backfield due to Dotson getting beat, getting around a good seal from Okorafor and breaking a tackle as he churned for five yards. Timeout #2 taken by Carolina. On third and one, Pittsburgh goes back to Trubisky on the sneak, able to churn behind a good push from Dotson to convert yet another third down, encouragingly the third on this drive for a stellar 12-15 on the game!
Warren’s following run was a short one-yard gain where Scott allowed the linebacker to get to him for the run stop. This brought the clock to the two-minute warning, and on second and nine it’s a Harris run for three yards, getting inside a Daniels seal and behind a second level block from Cole, churning forward with the latter allowing Thompson to make the tackle. After the Panthers final timeout, it’s third and six, and this Harris run is stopped well short with Brown splitting the double team from Moore and Dotson to nearly blow it up for a loss, and doing a great job force not one, but two missed tackles, impressively getting a yard out of it to set up the field goal and extend the lead back to 11 with just over a minute left.
The offense was able to come out and kneel for the final play, able to hold on to the eight-point victory!
Now for the defense:
PFF’s highest graded defender was edge rusher Alex Highsmith (90.8), with a great game in both the run and pass game, providing several run stops along with three pressures, highlighted by his inside spin move that cashed in for a sack. Defensive lineman Cameron Heyward also got the credit he deserved with a +90 grade (90.5), with a monster game as a pass rusher that included a team leading six pressures and 1.5 sacks, though he missed an opportunity on another. Six other players were given 70+ grades in the units’ strong performance, starting with linebacker Devin Bush (82.8). He had a particularly good game as a run defender, diagnosing and staying clean for three run stops. Fellow linebacker Robert Spillane was also given a strong 81.6 grade, getting credit for his run defense as well, but let up a big double explosive play in coverage along with a missed tackle pointing to his grade perhaps being a bit high. Overall good game for the unit sans Myles Jack. Cornerback Arthur Maulet (80) had a couple strong plays, highlighted by him blowing up a screen pass that led to a throwaway and nearly had an interception but couldn’t cash in.
Safety Terrell Edmunds (77.6) has been playing well from the box, providing a pressure, filling holes in run defense with four stops, and only allowing a three-yard catch on his two targets. Encouragingly, two other defensive lineman round out the top grades list. Thankfully, Isaiahh Loudermilk (77.3) and Larry Ogunjobi (73.5) provided dire run game improvements the team needed this week, though the latter did miss a tackle. Three players had below 50 grades this game, starting with cornerback Cameron Sutton (43.3). He was targeted the most in the Steelers secondary that struggled this week, allowing two chunk catches along with a pass interference. I was expecting a lower grade from cornerback James Pierre (52.2), who did not run with a go route allowing an easy double explosive catch. Linebacker Mark Robinson (40.3) got his first defensive action this season with seven snaps, diagnosing and reacting quickly in the running game but allowed a chunk play with YAC in the pass game. Defensive lineman Montravius Adams bottoms the grades this week (36.5), virtually a non-factor on his 11 snaps. Also thought edge rusher T.J. Watt deserved a bit higher grade (63.9), providing three pressures and 1.5 sacks, along with two run stops.
Pittsburgh’s defense came on first to start the game, and the run defense encouragingly stepped up right away on a toss to Carolina running back D’Onta Foreman, with good penetration from Watt to turn it inside and Ogunjobi doing the same from the backside along with a strong initial punch to knock the guard off his feet and get the tackle for a one-yard loss. On second and 11, Carolina rotated backs early and gave the straight-ahead handoff to Chubba Hubbard, and great job by Edmunds to fill the hole from the box and make the tackle for only three yards. Third and a long eight now, and Pittsburgh bring four on the pass rush including Spillane and dropping Highsmith, who did a great job coming downhill on the screen pass and making the solid tackle short of the sticks, along with Pierre staying clean off of wide receiver D.J. Moore’s block attempt to combine for the third down stop. Encouraging start to force the three and out and punt.
Returning at 5:42 in the first quarter with an encouraging seven-point early lead, Pittsburgh defends a first down play action pass with great loops around the edge from both Watt and Highsmith, forcing the step up and gets it to the short over route to wide receiver Terrace Marshall for the catch and YAC for 13 yards, getting space due to cornerback Levi Wallace’s cushion off the line and late reaction around the vertical route, but tracked the play to get him out of bounds.
The following first down was back to the ground game, and great job by Ogunjobi again to get in the backfield for another tackle for a one-yard loss along with Heyward holding the point of attack well, and Robinson shooting downhill quickly to help close the hole in his first defensive action on the season. On second and 11, another encouraging run stop for the Steelers defense, with Ogungobi winning off the line and easily getting to the backfield yet again, along with Bush taking on the guards’ punch doing a good job to stay on his feet and make the tackle at the line of scrimmage. Loving the run defense answering the bell off their rough outing last week. Third and a long 11 now, and quarterback Sam Darnold has time in the pocket with a lack of pass rush, finding Moore who settled in the open spot against the zone for the easy completion and conversion for 14 yards, where Sutton made the tackle.
Unfortunately, a similar result on the following first down, defending a play action pass that froze Spillane and leaving Moore open, this time on a post route and staying on his feet following a failed hit from safety Minkah Fitzpatrick, and Spillane working back to wrap him up but another chunk pass play of 15 yards.
Loudermilk and fellow defensive lineman Tyson Alualu did a good job clogging the interior on this first down run, and nice job by Bush to stay clean and make another tackle on the run stop of only two yards. On second and eight, Spillane and Bush diagnosed well, not biting and dropping into coverage on this play action rollout, where Darnold surveyed downfield and ultimately taking the checkdown, and Carolina penalized on the play with an ineligible downfield pass. This set up second and 13, and terrific job by Heyward to beat the block off the snap around the edge, pressuring Darnold and forcing him to scramble, ultimately leading to a throwaway. Nice play to force Carolina into third and a long 13, but Pierre confusingly and frustratingly is late to run with the vertical route from Marshall, not only picking up the first down but going for a double explosive 40-yard gain, big mistake, ouch.
This set up first and goal at the seven-yard line, and nice job against the run again with Watt setting the edge and Loudermilk pushing the blocker to the ball and credited for the tackle for a loss of one, and Robinson there on another play as well to close the first quarter.
The drive continued to start the second quarter, and on second and goal tried the give to Hubbard this time, with Spillane getting good penetration up the middle on the blitz but is able to cut around it for the positive gain of three where Edmunds made another tackle. Big third and goal now from the five-yard line, and great push from Heyward to blow the blocker back on his pass rush, chasing Darnold on the scramble drill, and despite good tight coverage by Wallace, finds Moore at the front pylon for the touchdown grab. Rough pass defense and allowing third and long conversions lead to the game tying score.
The defense returned at 8:20 in the second quarter with a seven-point lead now, and Heyward impressively won inside on his pass rush and gets to Darnold, but unable to make the play eluding the would-be sack and scrambles, sliding down for a three-yard gain where Spillane touched him down. Unfortunate missed opportunity for a splash play. On second and seven, Foreman got the carry and found a bit of room around Edmunds who was blocked well, with Bush staying clean and Ogunjobi working off his block to combine and tackle the four-yard gain. Third and three now, and big false start penalty on Carolina here, setting up a third and long eight instead. Pittsburgh was able to capitalize, with a strong pass rush from Highsmith around the edge and push from Spillane, with the former nearly getting home as Darnold threw, with the deep pass behind and over his target falling incomplete. Nice three and out from the defense here.
With 4:42 left in the second quarter, the defense returned with the lead at seven still, and Carolina comes out swinging with a play action deep shot, where a lineman looked to get to the backside to help on Highsmith who got the edge, running into Darnold on his release and affecting the underthrow to Moore on the double move down the sideline falling incomplete with Fitzpatrick in coverage, too bad he doesn’t get his head around sooner or it may have been picked. On second and ten, Maulet diagnosed the wide receiver screen quickly, getting around a Moore block attempt and blowing up the play with Darnold just throwing it away. Third and ten here, and Watt uses an aggressive hand swipe to win the edge and come up with a big-time sack! Three and out, no yards allowed, great job and lead’s still seven.
The defense returned at 1:27 before halftime with the scoreboard the same, defending a Hubbard run with Highsmith working from the backside and wrapping him up at the line of scrimmage, and Ogunjobi working off his block to finish on the combined tackle and gain of two. On second and eight following a Steelers timeout it was Hubbard again, this one a short pass over the middle with Pittsburgh playing off given the situation, and Spillane coming in to tackle the six-yard gain. Third and two now, and Highsmith darts off the line but is pushed past the pocket, and Darnold targets the in route and great recognition and timing by Fitzpatrick to get there at the catch point for a big pass break-up and third down stop, bravo.
The defense got plenty of rest on the sidelines thanks to an almost 12-minute drive by the offense along with a 14-point lead now, and started by defending a play action with a good rush from Watt, pressuring the dump off pass to the motion man in the flat and Spillane getting there to touch him down for a loss of two, slipping to the ground. On second and 12, Adams provided a strong pass rush up the middle, but couldn’t quite get there as Darnold progressed and found Hubbard on the dump off, running a stop route then peeling off toward the sideline and winning the footrace against Spillane in coverage, who missed his diving tackle attempt and with no defender seemingly on the same planet runs free for a painful double explosive play, before Sutton and safety Damontae Kazee could finally bring down the 45 yard gain, ouch.
Continuing on first down, Foreman got the carry and good job by Edmunds to take on the linemans block and turn the run inside, where Alualu worked off the block well along with Maulet staying clean through traffic and combine for the run stop of only one yard. On second and nine, Highsmith beat his man on a great inside spin move, capitalizing on Darnold holding onto the ball (a recent tendency I pointed out in my game outlook) with a great sack. Third and a long 17, and the defense really had their targets set with Heyward following suit, throwing the blocker to the ground and cashing in on the opportunity for back-to-back sacks!
An unfathomably bad penalty ensued though, with special teamer Marcus Allen running to the Panthers sideline in this chippy affair, and of course flagged on the play for unsportsmanlike conduct which crazily set Carolina up with a fresh set of downs, as opposed to fourth and 27. Why?! Foreman got the first down carry with an initial hole between Heyward and Ogungobi, and good job by Edmunds to fill it quickly but misses the tackle as he cut, with Bush and Spillane combining to tackle the five-yard gain. On second and five, Heyward bullied his man back nearly getting to Darnold again, who was able to slide and get the pass to the wide-open tight end over the middle past the zone linebackers, and Spillane running him down but a chunk play of 17 yards.
This set Carolina up in the red zone, going back to the ground on first down with Hubbard, who was met in the hole by Edmunds on the outside run for an easy run stop on the gain of two. On second and eight, Watt won around the edge on his pass rush, prompting the scramble but doesn’t get very far thanks to an excellent rush from Edmunds, who impressively knocked the lineman on his back and wraps up Darnold, but just able to get a pass attempt off to avoid the near sack. Third and a long eight now and the play call is curiously a quarterback draw, and nice job by Heyward to cut off the outside opportunity, then working across his blockers face to combine on the tackle for loss with Fitzpatrick. Fantastic job to hold Carolina to a field goal after the mind-numbing penalty, lead is cut to 11.
The defense returned quickly at 10:21 in the fourth quarter, and an unfortunate start with another penalty, this one an offsides on Watt setting up first and five. Carolina goes with a run pass option with Darnold throwing the quick slot screen, and Sutton makes a great play to fight through the block and break up the pass, popping up in the air and Maulet having a chance to make the diving interception but unable to make the play, man. On second and five, Darnold gets it out quick to Moore on the stop route, with separation against Wallace who ran the catch out of bounds after a bit of on the 13-yard gain.
Chunk passes rearing their head again here, this one a deep vertical route for an easy wide-open catch and throw against the zone for and explosive 24 yards, with Fitzpatrick making the hit but taking the worst of the contact to the ground, and regathers to wrap him up along with Maulet. The following first down Sutton was beat down the sideline on a go ball that was underthrown by Darnold, allowing him to break up the pass but got there early and didn’t get his head around on a big pass interference near the goal line.
This set up first and goal from the four-yard line, and Foreman got the toss to the right with Watt doing a good job setting the edge and turning him back inside, where Ogunjobi did a good job tracking down the line to tackle the two-yard gain. On second and goal following a Pittsburgh timeout it’s another carry, this one up the middle with Highsmith doing an outstanding job darting inside the tight end, like a heat seeking missile to get to Foreman behind the line with a hard hit that forced a fumble, and Fitzpatrick having the first crack to recover but unable to make the play as the Panthers recover. Another near splash play for the defense, hopefully the takeaway drought ends soon with none last game either. Third and goal now, and Pittsburgh’s defense gets another kind of splash where Highsmith got pressure by splitting two lineman on another successful spin move, prompting Darnold to slide left, but nowhere to go with Heyward winning and coming free along with Watt beating his man round the edge to combine for a huge sack, along with Ogunjobi in on the play as well! Very timely and big stand after allowing a chunk play drive and two missed turnover opportunities to hold Carolina to a field goal. Lead is eight now.
54 seconds left in the game and an 11-point lead, Pittsburgh came out playing off as expected and Darnold targets the tight end short of the sticks, going off his hands incomplete with Edmunds there at the catch point. On second and ten he targets him again, this time in the flat and Edmunds comes up quickly to force it out of bounds for only three yards. Third and seven now, and Darnold extends the play finding D.J. Moore over the middle wide open for the explosive 26-yard gain, with Spillane making the tackle for limited YAC and the clock is rolling. Darnold spiked the ball with 24 seconds left, and the Panthers go for the points here, making the 52-yard field goal cutting the lead back to eight and set up for the onside attempt, with Pittsburgh keeping our adrenaline pumping but ultimately recovering to seal the victory.
Let’s look at special teams:
PFF’s highest graded special teamer for the game was Edmunds (72.1), the only +70 grade for the game. This, along with seven players with below 50 grades highlight the unfortunately underwhelming performances from the unit that we’ve become accustomed to this season. From a player perspective, this included Derek Watt (49.3 including a missed tackle), Tre Norwood (47.8), Allen (47.5 including a missed tackle and big penalty), Benny Snell (45.9 including a holding penalty), Connor Heyward (41.7), Miles Killebrew (30 including an unnecessary roughness penalty), and Christian Kuntz bottoming the grades at 28.3. In my opinion, two other players should have made this list, Johnson who was confusingly given a 60 grade on his one snap with the near costly decision on the onside kick (more on this in a bit) and Sims (60.1) with questionable decisions and subpar performance as a returner.
Sims got his first punt return early at 13:03, fielding it at the 28-yard line and only able to get five yards on the return, with a wall of Panthers in front and Pierre unable to land the block on the backside, allowing the gunner to make the tackle. Kicker Chris Boswell’s kickoff following the offenses opening drive touchdown at 5:48 went to the two-yard line, returned for 23 yards with Norwood doing a good job working off the block and making the tackle, and Carolina dinged for a holding penalty bringing them back to the 15-yard line. Pressley Harvin’s first punt came at 4:50 in the second quarter, a poor 38-yarder that was fair caught at the 27-yard line with Spillane pressuring the catch, missing an opportunity to pin Carolina back. Sims went back for a punt return at 3:44 in the second quarter, and with Kazee unable to land a block on the outside prompted a late fair catch, momentarily nerve wracking with a last second adjustment to secure the catch as he fell to the ground. Harvin’s punt at 1:34 in the second quarter was much better, with the 44-yarder bouncing at the five-yard line and nearly a great play by Pierre swatting it out of the end zone but his foot was just on the goal line. So close. With 53 seconds left in the half, Sims went back for a punt return but frustratingly let it go, letting it bounce from the 20-yard line, you have to know to fair catch that, instead Carolina is able to down it at the nine. Maybe being conservative and not wanting to risk a muff, weird.
Pittsburgh kicked off to open the second half, with Sims fielding it to the one-yard line but the special teams unit comes out of the locker room sloppily with two penalties, one on Benny Snell for a hold as he fell to the ground on his block, and the accepted penalty on Miles Killebrew for unnecessary roughness, taking the play back to the nine-yard line. An unfathomably bad penalty ensued, a rough stretch in this regard with Allen running to the Panthers sideline, and of course flagged on the play for unsportsmanlike conduct which crazily set Carolina up with a fresh set of downs, as opposed to fourth and 27. Why?! Harvin punted at 10:32 in the fourth quarter, his longest of the day of 54 yards, going out of bounds at the 27-yard line. Boswell was put in position to put the game away on a 50-yard field goal attempt, coming through in typical fashion to extend the lead to 11. His following kickoff was returned from the one-yard line, and Allen missed the angle/tackle at the 20-yard line, along with a miss by Derek Watt, and the returner aggressively churning multiple Steelers to the 35-yard line where Maulet and Connor Heyward were credited with the combined tackle. The Panthers made a 52-yard field goal with 23 seconds left to cut their deficit to eight and set up for the onside kick, and nearly a disaster with the ball not traveling ten yards but Johnson going for the recovery unsuccessfully, and thank goodness Pickens was there to secure it. Heart pumping close call at the end in typical fashion, but come away with the eight-point win!
STEELERS VS. PANTHERS WEEK 15 SNAPS & REGULAR SEASON TOTAL SNAPS:
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