Monday, September 22, 2014

Steelers' defensive line gets physical in win

By Scott Brown
September 22, 2014

Steve McLendon Steve McLendon #90 of the Pittsburgh Steelers sacks Cam Newton #1 of the Carolina Panthers during their game at Bank of America Stadium on September 21, 2014 in Charlotte, North Carolina.
Steve McLendon #90 of the Pittsburgh Steelers sacks Cam Newton #1 of the Carolina Panthers during their game at Bank of America Stadium on September 21, 2014 in Charlotte, North Carolina.
(Grant Halverson/Getty Images North America)

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."

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