The Panthers and Steelers are used to playing each other in the fourth preseason game of the season, a game in which the backups get most of the playing time and the stats don’t matter – tonight, the stats mattered, but the backups got some playing time anyway.
The Panthers started fast, but the Steelers started faster – and when the going got rough, it got really rough as the Panthers gave up the most points in franchise history – the same as a 2000 loss to the Raiders – and critical mistakes on both sides of the ball allowed the Pittsburgh Steelers to jump out to an early lead they would never relinquish as the Panthers fell at Heinz Field 52-21 to drop their season record to 6-3, 1.5 games behind the New Orleans Saints in the NFC South; the Steelers, meanwhile moved to 6-2-1 and lead the AFC North.
The Panthers appeared to erase their history of slow starts on the road on their first drive as they crisply drove 75 yards for an easy touchdown, with Christian McCaffrey leading the way as he touched the ball on six of the nine plays and picked up 60 of the 75 yards, including the 20-yard swing pass that he took for a score and became the franchise leader in touchdown receptions by a running back in only the 25th game of his career. McCaffrey was one of few bright spots in the first half as he amassed 118 total yards – 60 on the ground and 58 through the air – and two scores. The running back would finish with 19 touches for 138 yards and three scores – he would become only the seventh player in NFL history with both 1,000 receiving and 1,000 rushing yards in his first 25 games.
But as good as the Panthers looked on their first drive, their 7-0 lead was gone in only 11 seconds as James Bradberry would bite on a Ben Roethlisberger shoulder fake to an underneath route and JuJu Smith-Schuster was wide open down the sidelines for a 75 yard touchdown pass to tie it at seven; it was one of multiple big plays given up by a Panthers secondary that was only allowing 250.6 yards per game through the air – Roethlisberger had 233 in the first half. The longest reception allowed before this was a trick play 57-yard touchdown from Odell Beckham to Saquon Barkley – tonight, they allowed touchdowns of 75 and 53 – a sideline throw in which Antonio Brown separated from a falling Donte Jackson – in the first half.
The Steelers wide receiver duo would finish with 186 yards – Smith-Schuster with 90 (and a carry for 13) and Brown adding 96 in addition to scoring a touchdown in his seventh straight game. Roethlisberger would give way to backup Josh Dobbs in the fourth quarter after throwing 328 yards and five touchdowns to preserve a perfect quarterback rating of 158.3.
After the Steelers tied the game at 7, Cam Newton would commit what was likely his biggest mistake of the season to this point as he was pressured in the end zone by TJ Watt and threw an ill-advised pass across his body to Vince Williams, who promptly returned the pick 17 yards for a score to put the Steelers up seven. After the Panthers went three-and-out, the Steelers would go 60 yards on nine plays – only a Julius Peppers sack and then pass breakup where the 38-year old defensive end was 15 yards downfield (which would be Roethlisberger’s only incompletion of the first half) got the Panthers off the field to hold the Steelers to a field goal to put the Panthers in a familiar position.
They’ve been down 17 in three of their four road games.
Newton would finish 23-of-29 for 193 yards, two scores and the interception before eventually giving way to Taylor Heinicke for the final possession of the game. On the other side of the ball, the Steelers offensive stats were staggering:
- Their first punt would come with 9:34 left in the fourth quarter – after Roethlisberger had given way to his backup QB.
- 4-for-4 in the red zone – Panthers previously had allowed scores on 80% of opponent’s red zone possessions.
- 328 yards passing on only 27 attempts – that’s 12.1 yards per attempt and 11.4 per completion. Overall, they averaged 7.9 yards per play.
- 8-for-11 (73%) third down conversions – including 7-for-8 when Roethlisberger was in the game.
- Eric Reid was ejected in the third quarter for unnecessary roughness – forcible contact to the head and neck area of a sliding quarterback as Ben Roethlisberger slid after a third-down conversion and Reid launched to make a hit; the safety’s shoulderpad appeared to hit Roethlisberger’s helmet and the quarterback’s head bounced off the ground. Reid and Roethlisberger appeared to shake hands after the play and before Reid was ejected.
- Cam Newton was sacked five times, the most of the season – the Panthers offensive line had previously given up 12 sacks over the entire 2018 season thus far.
- Newton also set the franchise record for consecutive games with two touchdown passes with eight.
- The Panthers defensive woes against the tight end position as they gave up two touchdowns – one to Vance McDonald and one to Jesse James – to bring their season-long total to eight touchdowns by opposing tight ends including four in the past five days.
- Curtis Samuel fumbled a kickoff return that was recovered inside the Panthers ten-yard line and converted for a touchdown reception for rookie running back Jaylen Samuels – Samuels would finish with 29 yards and the score and his mate in the backfield James Conner would finish with only 73 total yards and a rushing touchdown.
- Christian McCaffrey has scored seven touchdowns in the past three games, the first time that’s happened since Deangelo Williams achieved the feat in 2008.