CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The NFL spent millions of dollars on a new centralized TV replay system at its Park Avenue headquarters, but for several weeks one play never showed up:
The Steelers crossing the goal line.
Oh, there were Shaun Suisham fields goals aplenty — six over a run of eight quarters — but not a single sighting of a referee's upraised arms during a span in which they were outscored 53-18.
But just when the Steelers were settling for yet another Suisham field goal early in the third quarter Sunday night, Carolina Panthers defensive end Wes Horton jumped across the line of scrimmage. It was the 5-yard encroachment penalty that might have turned around the Steelers' season.
Ben Roethlisberger came right back to find Antonio Brown — who else — in the back of the end zone on a 7-yard touchdown pass, and the Steelers went on to rough up the favored Panthers, 37-19, at Bank of America Stadium.
Perhaps it's premature to label it the Steelers' biggest win since their 12-4 season in 2011, but it just might be.
“I ain't trying to crown them tonight,” coach Mike Tomlin said of the bounce-back from the 26-6 loss at Baltimore 10 days before. “I like the effort, they hung together, went into a hostile environment and won against a good group — and there's a lot to be learned from that.”
Le'Veon Bell, who ran for a career-high 147 yards, said there was a lot to be learned from watching that Ravens film.
“We watched that and we didn't like it,” he said.
There was a lot for them to like in this one.
Brown caught two touchdown passes — there seems to be no defense that works against him in the red zone — with Bell setting up the second with an 81-yard run. It was the Steelers' longest run from scrimmage in 44 years, or since a Frenchy Fuqua 85-yard run against the Eagles to end the 1970 season.
“The hole was probably the biggest hole I've had my whole career,” Bell said. “I hit it and kept running until I couldn't run any more.”
LeGarrette Blount came in to add 118 yards, including a 50-yard run in the fourth quarter that led to his own scoring run.
“I don't think we have any doubts about what that tandem is capable of in terms of running the football,” Tomlin said.
And a defense that played without Ike Taylor (broken forearm), Jarvis Jones (wrist) and Ryan Shazier (right knee) for nearly all of the second half held a Panthers team that had won 14 of its past 15 regular-season games without a touchdown until tight end Greg Olsen's 37-yard score early in the fourth quarter.
Tomlin said afterward there were “significant” injuries, but he didn't say if Shazier's or Jones' might be serious.
The Panthers managed only 42 yards rushing against a defense that came in allowing an average of 170 yards.
This was exactly the go-on-the-road and beat-a-good-team win the Steelers rarely produced amid a series of bad losses during their successive 8-8 seasons of 2012 and 2013.
Maybe it was because it didn't seem much like a road game, given the thousands and thousands of twirling Terrible Towels among the crowd of 73,945.
“They dictated to us more than we dictated to them,” Panthers quarterback Cam Newton said.
Now, instead of being two games behind AFC North leader Cincinnati (3-0) after only three games, the Steelers are 2-1 with a seemingly favorable stretch against Tampa Bay (0-3), Cleveland (1-2) and Jacksonville (3-0) coming up. And they're above .500 three games in after losing their first four last season and starting 1-2 in 2012.
The Steelers started slowly — don't they always — until taking advantage of Thomas DeCoud's 42-yard pass interference penalty against Darrius Heyward-Bey for Suisham's first field goal, a 42-yarder that ended the first quarter.
A 30-yard throw to Brown — he made 10 catches for 90 yards — led to a 24-yard field goal. Another pass interference call, by Antoine Cason on Brown, set up a 45-yarder to end the half and make it 9-3.
Then the strangest thing happened. The Steelers found the end zone for the first time since Bell's 38-yard run midway through the second quarter against Cleveland on Sept. 7.
Carolina had the ball to start the second half, but Jones crashed in on Cam Newton to knock the ball loose with Jason Worilds recovering at the Panthers 17, and the turnover, along with the encroachment, created the first Ben-to-Brown TD.
Bell's huge run, behind right guard David DeCastro, led to the second, another 7-yarder.
“It's tight in the red zone,” Brown said of getting open in tight spaces. “You've got to be assignment smart, and be in the area to make plays. And great throws by the quarterback.”
Roethlisberger went 22 of 30 for 196 yards and no interceptions and had a 112.6 QB rating.
The Steelers polished off the Panthers when returner Philly Brown muffed a Brad Wing punt, allowing Robert Golden to recovering a wildly bounding ball in the end zone for a touchdown early in the fourth quarter.
“Shamarko (Thomas) hit the ball and I just happened to recover,” Golden said. “On special teams, we like to contribute.”
Already this season, Golden has completed a pass for a first down on a fake punt and scored a special teams touchdown.
It was a special win, too, for a team that finally put the bad starts of 2012 and 2013 in its rear view mirror, much like Bell did on a longer run than Franco Harris, Jerome Bettis or Willie Parker ever had.
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