The Steelers offense is peaking heading into Thanksgiving, and Le’Veon Bell’s return might just be gravy.
The Steelers dismantled the visiting Carolina Panthers in a 52-21 victory on Thursday night, submitting their best team victory of the season right as their absentee All-Pro running back must to decide whether he wants to play for the team this season. With the Tuesday deadline for Bell to sign his franchise tender quickly approaching, the Steelers message couldn’t have been clearer: They’re going to make a playoff run with or without him.
Ben Roethlisberger had more touchdowns (five) than incompletions (three), finishing with 328 yards on 22 of 25 passing with no turnovers, one sack, and a perfect 158.3 passer rating while playing just one snap in the fourth quarter.
Pittsburgh’s drives before backup quarterback Joshua Dobbs entered in garbage time went as follows:
Believe it or not, the Panthers actually led at one point, when they scored on their opening possession. They might as well have gone home after that. The Steelers needed just one play to tie the game, and Roethlisberger threw a 75-yard touchdown to JuJu Smith-Schuster that garnered approval from Bell himself.
Juju is so special man...— Le'Veon Bell (@LeVeonBell) November 9, 2018
One play later, the Panthers had the ball on their own 12-yard line, and Cam Newton faced pressure from Steelers defensive end T.J. Watt. As Newton tried to avoid a safety, he chucked the ball toward the middle of the field, where Steelers linebacker Vince Williams did his best Earl Thomas impersonation and swooped in, picked the ball off, and returned it for a touchdown.
And the Steelers strike AGAIN— Def Pen Sports (@DefPenSports) November 9, 2018
This time Vince Williams picks off Cam Newton for a touchdown pic.twitter.com/QeorA2LPYD
(This is neither here nor there but the broadcast plugged Williams’s Twitter, and I just wanted to say that @VinnyVidiVici98 is an elite username.)
@VinnyVidiVici98’s touchdown gave the Steelers 14 points in two plays and an NFL record of three touchdowns between two teams in 23 seconds—and that was just the beginning of Pittsburgh’s scoring barrage. The Steelers defense pressured Newton (this will be a theme) and forced a three-and-out on Carolina’s next drive; Roethlisberger responded with an eight-play, 61-yard drive (with zero third downs) that ended with two James Conner rushes for a combined 14 yards and a touchdown to make the game 21-7 at the end of the first quarter.
On the 12-yard run that set up the touchdown, Conner exemplified some Bellesque patience on the run, and he got a shout-out from the man himself.
James go crazy then!! ✊ ✊ ✊— Le'Veon Bell (@LeVeonBell) November 9, 2018
Conner scored on the next play for his 10th rushing touchdown, passing Bell’s career high for rushing touchdowns in a season (nine) and tying his best tally for combined rushing and receiving touchdowns (11).
After a Chris Boswell field goal for Pittsburgh and a second Christian McCaffrey touchdown for Carolina made the game 24-14 with five minutes left in the first half, Roethlisberger found Antonio Brown for a 53-yard touchdown that pushed the game to 31-14.
Brown finished with six catches on six targets for 96 yards and the touchdown, which was his longest catch of the season. In addition to Pittsburgh’s top two wideouts finding the end zone, both of Pittsburgh’s tight ends got in on the action, with each grabbing a touchdown in the red zone in the third quarter.
In total, the Steelers eviscerated Carolina on offense, finishing with 457 total yards at 7.9 yards per play. The defense was even better, sacking Newton after he entered the contest with just 12 on the entire year.
It’s a tough beat for Carolina, which traveled to Heinz Field on a short week and now have 10 days to contemplate a crushing loss. Safety Eric Reid was ejected for a hit to the head on a sliding Ben Roethlisberger, a sequence that triggered a scuffle between Pittsburgh’s offensive line and Carolina’s defense. The lone bright spot for the Panthers was McCaffrey, who touched the ball 19 times and had all three Carolina touchdowns and 138 yards (Carolina as a team had just 242 total).
But the real story was how every facet of Pittsburgh’s team came together right as Bell is set to return. It’s not clear that the All-Pro running back would (or should) immediately regain the starting job if he returns, but Pittsburgh experimented with their running back rotation as much as it had in any game prior with backups Stevan Ridley and rookie Jaylen Samuels—even before James Conner left to be evaluated for a head injury. Team president Art Rooney II said on Thursday he expects Bell to return; if he does, he would be in line to gobble up the snaps Ridley and Samuels have taken.
After a lot of hoopla, the timing of Bell’s return may be perfect for the team. Conner left the game again in the fourth quarter and is now in the concussion protocol. If Conner isn’t cleared for next Sunday’s game against Jacksonville, Bell could reclaim lead back duties—at least temporarily—as soon as November 18.
But if Conner’s healthy next week, getting Bell back would be a luxury for this Steelers team. Pittsburgh is peaking on offense, defense, and special teams; adding perhaps the most overqualified change-of-pace running back ever is a fun dynamic for fans, but doesn’t move the needle for the offense. Now even Bell’s most ardent supporters must grapple with a plain truth the Steelers are a complete team—with or without Bell.