CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- After a maligned defense helped steady the Pittsburgh Steelers following a shaky start Sunday night, veteran defensive end Brett Keisel delivered a simple message to his teammates.
"Let's go have some fun and close this thing out," Keisel recalled saying during halftime, when the Steelers led by six points.
The Steelers did both in a 37-19 romp over the previously unbeaten Carolina Panthers. In the process, they restored some luster to an image that had taken as much of a beating as they delivered to Panthers quarterback Cam Newton on a toasty night at Bank of America Stadium.
But even Keisel couldn't have envisioned what took place after he exhorted his teammates to have fun, something they had gotten away from doing in the six quarters of ghastly football that preceded their arrival in Charlotte.
Cameron Heyward, one of the stars on a defense that held the Steelers together early Sunday when their offense tripped all over itself, put Panthers right guard Fernando Velasco on his back and forced a hurried throw that fell harmlessly incomplete.
After nearly sacking Newton and forcing a punt, Heyward dropped one of the greatest pass-rushers in Steelers history when he he bumped chests with first-year defensive assistant Joey Porter early in the fourth quarter in an exchange that left Porter lying on his back.
It also left Keisel laughing.
"You have to be careful celebrating with Cam," Keisel said, "because Cam will head butt you and give you a concussion or he'll jump on you and knock you on your butt."
The Steelers did enough of the latter to Newton to minimize his impact on a game they had to win.
And as impressive as the Steelers were running the ball -- Le'Veon Bell and LeGarrette Blount each had more than 100 yards rushing -- it was the players who didn't stuff the stat sheet who carried the night.
The Steelers' four-man rotation along the defensive line officially combined for three tackles and a sack, with nose tackle Steve McLendon notching one of the three Steelers quarterback takedowns in the game.
But the defensive line made more of an impact than any unit in the game, regardless of how many holes the offensive line opened and how many Panthers defenders Bell and Blount ran past, over and around.
The Steelers' front helped shut down Carolina's running game and make its offense one dimensional. And it took the lead in administering a consistent battering to Newton.
Carolina coach Ron Rivera mercifully lifted Newton with more than five minutes left in the game. By the end of a game in which Pittsburgh ran its record to 2-1, the Steelers had shown a national TV audience that, when players do fundamental things like tackle, a Dick LeBeau defense actually still works in the age of Chip Kelly offenses.
The most impressive play turned in by the Steelers' defensive linemen, as it turns out, didn't even count. It came on the first play of the second quarter when a relentless Heyward fought his way to Newton and dragged down the fourth-year quarterback.
A holding call on cornerback Ike Taylor nullified what would have been Heyward's second sack of the season. But that play put Newton on notice not to get too comfortable in the pocket.
It also showed just how much Heyward and his teammates had taken to heart the criticism that came after the Steelers gave up 348 rushing yards and did not force a turnover in their first two games.
"I get tired of hearing how any defense is better than us," Heyward said. "I really think this defense has all the makings of a great defense. We just took the right step this week, [but] we're not satisfied. We've got to get better."
Bell gets better of Kuechly: Le'Veon Bell's career-long 81-yard run in the third quarter helped the Steelers put away the Panthers, and he fooled All-Pro linebacker Luke Kuechly on the play. Bell flashed through a hole that David DeCastro and Marcus Gilbert opened on the right side and Kuechly raced to the outside thinking that's where Bell would cut. The second-year back simply stayed the course and broke into the open field. Kuechly recorded a game-high 14 tackles but the Steelers rushed for 264 yards and averaged 7.8 yards per carry. "He guessed a lot of the game," Bell said of Kuechly, the reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year.
Shazier leaves with brace on knee: It was actually a positive sign that rookie linebacker Ryan Shazier dressed at his locker along with the rest of the Steelers players after the big win over the Panthers. Yes, Shazier left the visiting locker room at Bank of America Stadium wearing a Velcro brace on his right knee. But if the Steelers thought the first-round pick was more seriously hurt they probably would have done more to hide him when the locker room was open to the media. Outside linebacker Jarvis Jones, who hurt his wrist in the third quarter, was nowhere to be found after the Steelers opened their locker room to the media, a sign that his injury may be more serious than the one sustained by Shazier.
Gilbert answers the bell: Coach Mike Tomlin did not play along when asked if Gilbert had come out "fighting like Rocky." Tomlin had remarked last Thursday that he expected the Steelers' starting right tackle to show the same grit as fictional fighter Rocky Balboa after a rough start to the season. Gilbert did not allow a sack in the win over the Panthers, and he was part of a line that helped two Steelers backs rush for more than 100 yards in the same game for the first time since 1986. "You guys were down on Marcus," Tomlin told reporters after the Steelers improved to 2-1. "We like Marcus."
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- A few thoughts on the Pittsburgh Steelers' 37-19 win over the Carolina Panthers Sunday at Bank of America Stadium.
What it means: Frustrated fans can stop writing off the Steelers after they dominated the Panthers on both sides of the ball -- and have a schedule that sets up nicely for them to go on a run. But what should really give fans hope is how the Steelers won. A maligned defense quieted its critics for at least one week when it put consistent pressure on Panthers quarterback Cam Newton and kept the Steelers in the game after its offense tripped over itself early on national TV. Jarvis Jones' sack and forced fumble led to the Steelers' first touchdown of the game. The Steelers turned their second takeaway of the game -- and the season -- into a touchdown that sealed the their fifth consecutive win over the Panthers. The Steelers' next three opponents have a combined record of 1-8, though two of those games are away from Heinz Field.
Stock watch: The Steelers had piled up 224 rushing yards by the time Panthers coach Ron Rivera mercifully lifted Newton for backup Derek Anderson with just under six minutes left in the game. Le'Veon Bell continues to look like an All-Pro back, and his 81-yard run helped the Steelers break open the game. LeGarrette Blount put the exclamation point on the Steelers' ground supremacy when he jolted Panthers safety Thomas DeCoud on the way to an 8-yard touchdown run that gave the Steelers a 37-13 lead. Bell has 315 rushing yards in three games, and the second-year man is averaging a whopping 5.9 yards per carry.
Rare three-of-a-kind: In what has to be some sort of esoteric record -- and one crazy coincidence -- the three players who started at center for the Steelers the past season all started the game Sunday night. Maurkice Pouncey and Cody Wallace started at center and left guard for the Steelers, while Fernando Velasco started at right guard for the Panthers. The Steelers lost Pouncey early in the 2013 season opener to a torn ACL, and they signed Velasco. He started the next 11 games at center before rupturing his Achilles tendon. Wallace started the final four games at center, and thus made his first four NFL starts. Wallace played well enough that the Steelers signed him to a three-year contract, and he started against the Panthers with Ramon Foster out because of an ankle injury.
Game ball: A lot of options here, including defensive end Cameron Heyward, right guard David DeCastro and Bell. All are worthy of a game ball, and a handful of others merit consideration, but I am going to go with Antonio Brown, who caught 10 passes for 90 yards and both Steelers touchdowns. The two-time Pro Bowler made a pretty, over-the-shoulder grab on third-and-6 from the Steelers' 23-yard line early in the second quarter when the offense needed someone to make a play. That led to a Shaun Suisham field goal that broke an early 3-3 score. Brown later made a 7-yard touchdown catch that evoked memories of Santonio Holmes' game-winning touchdown catch in Super Bowl XLIII. That gave the Steelers a 16-3 lead in the third quarter, and they never looked back.
What's next: The Steelers host the 0-3 Tampa Bay Buccaneers at 1 p.m. ET Sunday. The Buccaneers were blasted Thursday night at Atlanta, and they will probably have a new starting quarterback in Mike Glennon. The second-year man is expected to take over for Josh McCown, who was knocked out of the Buccaneers' 56-14 loss to the Falcons with a thumb injury. The Buccaneers have been outscored 95-45 and are one of three winless teams in the NFL.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- A Pittsburgh Steelers defense that was playing its best game of the season found itself running short on linebackers at Bank of America Stadium.
Outside linebacker Jarvis Jones was out with a wrist injury and also failed to return.
If those hits weren't enough for the Steelers' defense to absorb, veteran cornerback Ike Taylor left the game with just under 10 minutes to go in the third quarter with a broken right forearm.
Taylor is a candidate to go on short-term injured reserve where he could return to action after eight weeks.
"It stinks because we all know the type of player he is, the type of competitor he is. We all know how tough he is," Steelers defensive end Brett Keisel said of Taylor. "He just loves the game, and it was hard to see him down there because he's played so many games. We love him. We know he'll continue to lead and he hope he heals up fast."
Cotchery has been hoping to play against his former teammates -- he caught a career-high 10 touchdown passes for the Steelers last season -- but the 11th-year veteran got hurt last week in practice and is unable to play.
Foster, who hurt his ankle last week in practice, was deemed not healthy enough to play against the Panthers. Wallace will make his fifth career start -- all have come since last December.
Rookie running back Dri Archer (ankle) joins Foster as the Steelers players who won't play Sunday because of injuries.
In addition to Foster and Archer, the Steelers deactivated wide receiver Martavis Bryant, nose tackle Daniel McCullers, offensive lineman Wesley Johnson, cornerback B.W. Webb and quarterback Landry Jones.
Wide receiver Lance Moore, who missed the first two games of the season because of a groin injury, will make his Steelers debut.
My guess is Foster will try to convince the coaches to let him play but Mike Tomlin told the sixth-year veteran late last week that he won’t put him in a position fail.
Playing against a stout Panthers defensive line on a gimpy ankle probably isn’t a recipe for success so I think the Steelers plug in Cody Wallace at left guard and give Foster another week to recover.
Rookie running back Dri Archer won’t play in the 8:30 p.m. game against the Panthers because of an ankle injury and he will join Foster on the Steelers' list of inactive players.
Here are the five other players I expect the Steelers to deactivate tonight.
WR Martavis Bryant: The rookie is healthy but there isn’t a place for him on the game-day roster for the second consecutive game. Darrius Heyward-Bey contributes on special teams, Bryant won’t get the nod over Lance Moore or Justin Brown and the Steelers aren’t dressing six wide receivers.
NT Daniel McCullers: If he was an answer to the Steelers’ struggles on defense the 6-foot-7, 352-pounds man-child would be on the field. McCullers, however, is still learning and probably a long way from playing. That could change, though, if the Steelers continue to give up rushing yards in chunks.
OL Wesley Johnson: If Foster doesn’t play, I think Chris Hubbard gets a helmet over Johnson. The rookie fifth-round pick is more versatile but Hubbard has played almost exclusively at left guard. He could play there if Wallace is needed at center or right guard in the event of an injury.
CB B.W. Webb: There is absolutely no reason the Steelers need to dress 11 defensive backs, something they did in a 26-6 loss to the Ravens. Webb, who played just two special-teams snaps in Baltimore, is the odd man out tonight.
QB Landry Jones: He has yet to dress for an NFL game. There is no reason for that to change tonight.
“He’s a lot better athlete than I am. He can throw it further than I can,” Roethlisberger said. “So I don’t know where the comparisons are. I guess they just say [that] because he’s big, and he’s bigger than me, too. So I guess I’ll take that as a compliment, that coaches compare me to him.”
The Steelers gave the hard sell this week when it comes to Newton, the former Heisman Trophy winner and No. 1 overall draft pick.
Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau called Newton the “quintessential modern quarterback” because he can beat teams with his arm and his legs.
Newton already has thrown for more than 11,500 yards, and the 6-foot-5, 245-pound quarterback has rushed for more than 2,000 yards and is averaging 5.6 yards per carry for his career.
When veteran Steelers cornerback Ike Taylor refers to Newton as “Cam Mutant,” it is actually the ultimate sign of respect.
“It’s rare when you find a quarterback that has a basketball build, a LeBron [James] build,” Taylor said. “He can make all the throws, and it’s going to take more than one guy to get him down.”
What has drawn the Newton and Roethlisberger comparisons is that each is hard to get on the ground, even when the pocket collapses around them.
And Newton, as athletic and fast as he is, isn’t just a threat to run when teams blitz him.
The former Auburn star has improved steadily against the blitz, as he showed last Sunday. In the Panthers’ 24-7 victory over the Detroit Lions, Newton completed 9 of 11 passes when Detroit sent at least five pass-rushers after the quarterback, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
“He’s a much better passer than maybe people give him credit for,” LeBeau said. “He can throw the pocket balls, but I would never call him a pocket passer. He can do it all, and he’s a big guy. We’ll have to play well to keep this offense in check. I think we can do it, but we’ll have to play well.”
Jerricho Cotchery is in his first season with the Panthers after playing for the Steelers from 2011-13.
The veteran wide receiver pleaded the fifth earlier this week when asked whether there are comparisons between Newton and Roethlisberger.
“You see the ball coming out of their hands, and they are both big guys,” Cotchery said, “But as far as comparing all of their other skills, I don’t want to get into that. I just want to be respectful when it comes to both of those guys.”
“We’re not putting roots down,” Wallace said with a laugh. “We make it home but we’re not going out and buying a bunch of stuff.”
Or much of anything if the Wallace family furniture is any indication.
But Wallace, who is with his sixth NFL team since breaking into the league in 2008, has found a measure of security since joining the Steelers last September.
And they could ask him again to uphold the team's "next man up" mantra.
Left guard Ramon Foster is listed as questionable for the Sunday night game at Carolina and if the sixth-year veteran is unable to play Wallace will likely get the start against the Panthers.
Wallace proved to the Steelers that he could fill in up front near the end of last season albeit at a different position.
Wallace started the last four games at center after Fernando Velasco went down with a torn Achilles tendon, and the offensive line gave up just six sacks while the Steelers averaged 115.3 rushing yards per game in going 3-1 down the stretch.
The Steelers saw enough from Wallace to sign him to the three-year deal.
And those four games provided validation for Wallace’s decision to chase his dream even as it led him all over the country after getting released by the 49ers in 2010.
“It gave me an opportunity to show what I could do for an extended period of time and give them the confidence that they can trust [me] for a game instead of just, 'Oh get us through the half,'" Wallace said of the four starts he made in 2013, which were the first four of his career. “I think the coaches have a good feeling about me as a backup interior guy if they need to plug me in.”
The nine games Wallace dressed for last season equaled the number of NFL games he had suited up for prior to joining the Steelers.
After the 6-foot-4, 300-pounder established himself as the Steelers’ top backup along the interior of the offensive line during training camp and the preseason, he mentioned to his wife, Chely, how they had survived a final cut for the first time since 2009.
That doesn’t mean that the Wallaces, who have two young children, feel like they have it made.
“We love it here and hopefully we can make it home for the next few years, however long they’ll let me stay,” said Wallace, who initially signed with the Steelers a little more than a year ago after getting cut by the Buccaneers. “For me this game’s just so fun and it’s what I worked for my whole life. I’ll play as long as someone will have me.”
Foster was listed as questionable for the 8:30 p.m. ET game, and he has been limited in practice since twisting his ankle early this week in practice.
Cody Wallace, the Steelers’ backup center, will likely start at left guard if Foster is unable to play against the Panthers. Wallace started the past four games at center last season and played well enough to convince the Steelers to sign him to a three-year, $3.48 million contract in March.
The Steelers will likely be without Dri Archer for a second consecutive game. The rookie running back/wide receiver is listed as doubtful after trying to work his way back from an ankle injury.
The Steelers listed all other players who are dealing with injuries as probable, which means wide receiver Lance Moore will play Sunday night at Bank of America Stadium, barring a setback.
Moore did not play in the Steelers’ first two games because of a groin injury, but he has said that he is back to normal.
The Steelers signed Moore in March to replace Jerricho Cotchery as their No. 3 wide receiver, and there is a chance they may not see Cotchery Sunday night.
The Panthers listed Cotchery and running back DeAngelo Williams as questionable. Both are dealing with thigh injuries.
I have a feeling a certain cornerback who wears No. 24 will be making a regular appearance in this end of the week feature.
The Steelers' takes:
"We're trying to target it low and not too low because you get penalized there. But we're trying to play within the rules and it's a judgment call sometimes. You still have to go hit a guy. You have to tackle him. We were just talking about missed tackles [and] if you start worrying about where you are going to hit the guy you're going to miss him for sure. But we're trying to just lower the target and hit that guy not with our head and not in the head." -- Defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau on how the Steelers have adjusted to the rules that prohibit hitting players who are deemed defenseless and helmet-to-helmet hits
"Get your Twitter game up, get your Facebook game up, let people who might not know you see what you can do on the field, let your peers, teammates, family and friends see." -- Cornerback Ike Taylor on the Steelers playing a prime-time game Sunday at Carolina
"You've got to be Steady Eddie right now, You can't get too high, you can't get too low. We understand that we played terrible last week. All we can focus on is Carolina and just try to get better. We are mad but at the end we've got to get better and get ready for Carolina." -- Defensive end Cameron Heyward on the Steelers not panicking after a 20-point loss to the Ravens on Sept. 11
"Derek must be calling on his Cleveland experience. It's something that we appreciate. It's not something we take for granted. We realize there is responsibility that comes with that and the responsibility is to entertain our fans and we take that very seriously." -- Coach Mike Tomlin on backup Panthers quarterback Derek Anderson taking to Twitter to encourage season ticket holders at Bank of America Stadium not to sell their tickets to Steelers fans Sunday
"This old Model 78's leaking oil a little bit but it's out there having fun." -- Defensive end Brett Keisel, who turned 36 today, on how he is holding up after playing extensively in the Steelers first two games of the season
The Carolina Panthers are 2-0 despite playing their opener without starting quarterback Cam Newton and their second game without Pro Bowl defensive end Greg Hardy, who on Wednesday was placed on the commissioner's exempt list.
The Pittsburgh Steelers are 1-1 after losing 26-6 to the Baltimore Ravens in prime time.
Carolina defeated the Steelers 10-0 in Pittsburgh in the preseason finale for both teams, when few starters were on the field. Now these teams will see how they match up for real. ESPN Panthers reporter David Newton and ESPN Steelers reporter Scott Brown are here to break this one down:
Newton: Scott, the Panthers have forced a league-best six turnovers in the first two games, and the Steelers haven't forced one. Pittsburgh also committed three against Baltimore. Do you see that being a big factor Sunday night?
Brown: Absolutely. The Steelers have to take care of the football against an opportunistic Panthers defense, and they have to start taking the ball away. It has been an issue the past three-plus seasons; the Steelers haven't won a playoff game since 2010 in large part because they have consistently lost the turnover battle.
The Steelers signed former Panthers free safety Mike Mitchell to give them a speedy playmaker on the back end of their defense, but he has not flashed in the first two games. I'm sure Mitchell would love nothing more than to make a couple of what Steelers coach Mike Tomlin calls splash plays Sunday night against his former team.
How is former Steelers receiver Jerricho Cotchery fitting in for the Panthers and how much of a positive influence has the 11th-year veteran been for promising rookie Kelvin Benjamin?
Newton: From a leadership standpoint, I'd have to give Cotchery an A. It's a much different climate on the field and in the locker room with Cotchery instead of Steve Smith, as you probably can imagine. Benjamin has all the physical tools at 6-foot-5 and 240 pounds -- not to mention hands the size of a catcher's mitt. Having Cotchery and Jason Avant there to mentor him on how to block and handle not being a part of the play has been important. The improvement Benjamin made on the little things from Week 1 to 2 was noticeable.
There is not much Cotchery or anybody can teach Benjamin about catching, though. In each of the first two games, he has made the type of phenomenal catch Cotchery and Avant probably only dream about. I have to admit I was starting to get skeptical of what Cotchery would offer on the field after the preseason. But in the first two games he has eight receptions for 78 yards. He is a nice complement to Benjamin and tight end Greg Olsen, who has been outstanding.
The Steelers have struggled to stop the run so far. The Panthers have struggled to run, and that is a big part of their game. What has been the problem on Pittsburgh's side?
Brown: Wait a second, here. Are you trying to tell me that Jonathan Stewart and De'Angelo Williams aren't Franco Harris and Rocky Bleier? Tomlin sure made them sound like a fabled running back tandem this week. And since no coach has ever employed hyperbole in talking up an upcoming opponent, I'm going to assume Carolina's problems running the ball are an aberration.
Seriously, whatever Carolina's struggles have been running the ball might simply be fixed by playing against a defense that always used to stuff the run. The Steelers haven't been good against the run since 2012, which was, not coincidentally, five-time Pro Bowl nose tackle Casey Hampton's final season with the team.
Hampton rarely lost ground while clogging the middle of the defense and often commanded double-teams. The Steelers' current defensive line has not consistently tied up blockers or maintained assigned gaps and, through two games, Pittsburgh has given up 170 rushing yards per game. The line simply has to start winning more battles up front for the run defense -- and the Steelers' defense as a whole -- to show significant improvement.
Cam Newton is a running threat. Does the Carolina quarterback gain most of his rushing yards after escaping a collapsing pocket, or will Carolina run some read-option with him?
Newton: What? No comparing Newton to Y.A. Tittle? Seriously, it's a combination of both, and the healthier Newton gets with his fractured ribs the more he will run. He took off for 13 yards Sunday on a read-option play that was similar to, if not exactly like, one coach Ron Rivera said his quarterback should have handed off on in practice to protect the ribs.
The left ankle that was surgically repaired in March still isn't completely healed, which might explain why Newton looked somewhat awkward at times running against the Lions. But what makes him a weapon is you don't know when he's going to take off, whether it's a scramble when the pocket collapses or the read-option. He also refuses to slide and protect himself, as we saw last week. If the Steelers are as bad as you say at stopping the run, I'm sure Newton will take a few shots at them with his legs.
What about Ben Roethlisberger? Is Big Ben still a quarterback who can carry a team?
Brown: He'd better be able to carry the Steelers because Roethlisberger is the biggest hope they have of returning to the playoffs after consecutive 8-8 seasons. I think he is still playing at a high level and I'm not ready raise serious concerns about Roethlisberger and the offense, although the Steelers have managed just nine points in their past six series. If the offensive line holds up, the Steelers are going to score points with the talent they have at the other skills positions, such as receiver Antonio Brown and running back Le'Veon Bell.
David, where are the Panthers vulnerable, and are you surprised by their 2-0 start?
Newton: I'll answer the second part first. Not really. I actually picked them to start 3-0. The defense really is as good as advertised, and I figured that would be enough at Tampa Bay and at home against Detroit. But I was surprised that Newton didn't play in the opener and that the offense played so well without him. I've been saying since early in organized team activities that Carolina is better at wide receiver than it was a year ago, and so far that group has proved me right.
As far as vulnerability, the lack of a running game has to be concerning. The Panthers want to control the clock and want to keep the pressure off of Newton having to run. Without a running game, that gets tough. It will also be interesting to see whether Hardy's situation ultimately becomes a distraction. So far, it appears to have galvanized the locker room.
Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau said that will change.
LeBeau dismissed the notion that Mitchell, who signed a five-year, $25 million contract in March, is off to a slow start because he is getting used to playing with Polamalu.
"It’s still football," LeBeau said. "He’s in a new environment and a new system, and I think he’s only going to get better and better and more comfortable. But he’s always been a good football player and he’s playing good football right now."
The Steelers' defense has been anything but good following a strong first half in the season opener against the Browns.
The Steelers have given up 50 points in their past six quarters, and they haven’t been able to stop the run.
The Steelers are yielding 170.0 rushing yards per game, but LeBeau said the problems they had had stopping the run can be fixed.
"We’ve got to quit shooting ourselves in the foot. Most of the runs we have given up we haven’t gotten in our detailed assignments enough," LeBeau said. "The guys are working on that and we’ve got to get it done. You’re not going to give up those kinds of runs and be successful."