Midway through the fourth quarter Sunday night, the Terrible Towel-waving Pittsburgh fans outnumbered the remaining Carolina Panthers fans waving their white flags at Bank of America Stadium.
Surrender was in order.
The Steelers continued their dominance of the Panthers, drilling Carolina 37-19 in a dominant performance that knocked the Panthers from the unbeaten ranks.
Running back Le’Veon Bell danced his way through the Panthers’ defense for 147 yards on 21 carries and the Panthers had a pair of game-changing mistakes on special teams that helped seal their fate.
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While Bell had a lot of stop-and-go runs, Steelers back LeGarrette Blount bulled his way to 118 rushing yards on 10 carries.
It’s only the second time the Panthers have allowed two 100-yard rushers a game. St. Louis backs Marshall Faulk and Trung Canidate both topped the century mark in the Rams’ 48-14 victory on Nov. 11, 2001.
The Steelers rushed for 264 yards, while the Panthers managed just 42 against the NFL’s third-worst rush defense.
The Panthers (2-1) saw their eight-game, regular-season home winning streak snapped, and dropped to 13-18 all-time in prime-time games.
Pittsburgh (2-1) won its fifth in a row against Carolina and improved to 5-1 all-time against the Panthers.
Carolina will stay in the AFC North next week with a trip to Baltimore, where former Panthers wideout Steve Smith will be waiting to spill “blood and guts” all over M&T Bank Stadium.
Bell and Blount became the first backs to rush for 100 yards against the Panthers since Buffalo’s C.J. Spiller in Week 2 last season. Pittsburgh had not had two 100-yard backs in a game since 1986.
“I was not pleased at all, by no stretch of the imagination,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said.
The Panthers refused to blame last week’s events surrounding defensive end Greg Hardy on Sunday’s outcome. Hardy, awaiting a November jury trial on charges he assaulted and threatened to kill his ex-girlfriend, took an indefinite leave of absence Wednesday rather than face a possible suspension.
“There wasn’t a lack of focus,” Rivera said. “We got beat by a better football team.”
Panthers quarterback Cam Newton said he didn’t want anyone “to take pity” on the Panthers because of the Hardy situation, saying several other teams were dealing with distractions and “media trauma.”
Newton was subject to plenty of trauma by the Steelers, who somehow managed to generate pressure with a pass rush that at times included only three players.
Newton was sacked three times and absorbed several other hard hits. Newton completed 24 of 35 passes for 250 yards and a touchdown before giving way to Derek Anderson in the fourth quarter.
Rivera said he took Newton out to protect him. It was the best protection he received all night.
“We can’t do anything unless we protect the quarterback,” Rivera said.
But Newton said everyone in the Panthers’ locker room should share the blame.
“People just took turns making mistakes. Any time you have a game like when people aren’t clicking on all cylinders, you will get exposed in this league,” Newton said.
“More times than not they were dictating to us more so than we were dictating to them. We’ve got to get our defense off the field.”
Pittsburgh led 9-3 at halftime on the strength of three Shaun Suisham field goals.
The second half started promisingly for the Panthers, then quickly took a wrong turn.
With his 15-yard run on the first offensive play, Jonathan Stewart surpassed the Panthers’ first-half rushing total of 10 yards. But the drive imploded with two penalties and a turnover, and things spiraled downhill from there.
On third-and-15 from the Panthers’ 25, linebacker Jarvis Jones knifed past left tackle Byron Bell on a three-man rush and hit Newton’s elbow, knocking the ball loose. Linebacker Jason Worilds recovered at the Panthers’ 17.
It was the Panthers’ first turnover of the season and the Steelers’ first takeaway. When the Panthers’ defense held, Suisham came on for another field goal attempt. But defensive end Wes Horton jumped offsides on fourth-and-4, giving the Steelers a first-and-goal at the 7.
Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger took it from there, buying time in the pocket and finding Antonio Brown in the back of the end zone for the first of Brown’s two 7-yard touchdown catches. Brown’s second score gave the Steelers a 23-6 lead.
Horton’s penalty – backup cornerback Josh Norman was offsides on the field goal, too – was just the first of two big special teams gaffes in the second half.
Greg Olsen’s 37-yard touchdown catch from Cam Newton pulled the Panthers to within 23-13 early in the fourth quarter. When the defense forced a three-and-out on the ensuing possession, it appeared Carolina had stolen momentum.
But Panthers rookie Philly Brown fumbled Brad Wing’s punt at the Panthers’ 12-yard line, fumbled the ball again before it wound up in the end zone, where Pittsburgh’s Robert Golden recovered it for a touchdown that put the Steelers up 30-13.
“Basically I was trying to do too much at the time,” Brown said. “I could have just done the smart play and fell on it, but instead I picked it up.”
The Panthers played without two offensive starters. Running back DeAngelo Williams sat for the second consecutive game with a hamstring injury, while a hamstring injury prevented wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery from facing his former team.
The Panthers rushed only five times for 10 yards in the first half, as offensive coordinator Mike Shula quickly abandoned it for the passing attack.
The Panthers’ fifth-ranked defense was gashed for an 81-yard run by Bell, and four rushes for at least 15 yards by Blount, including a 50-yarder.
“Sometimes you need that to humble yourself,” Panthers defensive tackle Kawann Short said. “Last year, we lost the first couple games and it set us back and we knew what we were capable of being. We got that (eight-game) winning streak. But that’s last year. We know what we’re capable of this year. We have to fight and stay together.
“We lose as a team, we stay together as a team.”