PITTSBURGH — The liveliest party of the year just took place in Heinz Field, where they danced so hard in the end zone that they ran out of touchdown celebrations, and that’s when they weren’t throwing Cam Newton to the turf.
The Pittsburgh Steelers weren’t lying when they said they were just getting started.
The 52-21 pounding of the Panthers on Thursday tied for the most points allowed in Carolina history and showed that the Steelers look ready to make their own history. Carolina last gave up 52 points on Christmas Eve in 2000 against the Oakland Raiders.
If Ben Roethlisberger can continue to deliver masterpieces like this against a good defense, the Steelers — winners of five straight — might have their best chance at a Super Bowl since the early Mike Tomlin years.
Roethlisberger finished 22-of-25 passing for 328 yards, five touchdowns and a perfect passer rating of 158.3, the third such game of his career. He hit every throw, as if tossing into a big net. The Steelers worked the no-huddle offense, Roethlisberger’s specialty, on a short week, and the usually stout Panthers looked uneasy throughout.
Turns out this offense hadn’t unlocked everything it had this season. The Steelers had connected on three deep balls all season but hit two Thursday, a 75-yard touchdown to JuJu Smith-Schuster and a 53-yard score for Antonio Brown, who made rookie corner Donte Jackson look silly in press coverage.
After the Panthers marched 75 yards for the opening score, the Steelers flipped the game in 13 seconds with the Smith-Schuster touchdown on their first play from scrimmage and Vince Williams‘ interception for a touchdown off an ill-advised Newton throw out of the end zone. The Smith-Schuster score was the franchise’s longest-ever first play from scrimmage.
When Roethlisberger left the game with 14 minutes, 55 seconds in the fourth quarter, the Steelers had scored points on all seven of their drives that didn’t end in a clock run-out at halftime.
On defense, the Steelers (6-2-1) sacked Newton five times and knocked down him many others. A Christian McCaffrey running game that confused the Steelers on the first drive was quickly put in park.
This was such a thorough whooping that Eric Reid‘s helmet shot on Roethlisberger with 1:15 left in the third quarter — which prompted Reid’s ejection — was an attempt to revive a fight that was dead two hours earlier.
At times, the Steelers can turn unstoppable with a fast offense thriving with James Conner as the lead back — which will only complicate matters upon Le’Veon Bell’s potential return by the Tuesday deadline to play this season.
Either way, Pittsburgh is good. Rookie running back Jaylen Samuels scored. Tight ends Vance McDonald and Jesse James both scored. Even offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner was feeling himself, opening the playbook for fullback screens in the second quarter.
Brown and Conner, who each scored Thursday, are the first pair of teammates with 10-plus touchdowns each in their team’s first nine games since Abner Haynes and Chris Burford with the 1962 Chiefs.
Roethlisberger, Brown & Co. have shown the ability to hit the throttle in previous seasons. Performances like this aren’t necessarily unique for this group, especially in prime-time games.
But the efficiency at every level is hard to ignore right now.
And they get Jacksonville, a past playoff hindrance, next Sunday.
Based on this warm-up act, they look ready for anything.