More Sports / Football

Big Ben tolls five touchdowns in Steelers’ rout of Panthers

AP

Ben Roethlisberger’s first pass went for a touchdown. His last did the same. And in between the Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback and his red-hot team put together a systematic 52-21 dismantling of Carolina on Thursday night that left little doubt about their depth and their talent regardless of whether Le’Veon Bell ever shows up for work or not.

Ten different Steelers touched the ball on offense. Six of them scored. None of them were named Bell. While the three-time Pro Bowl running back tweeted his thoughts from home while waiting — and waiting — to sign his one-year franchise tender, Pittsburgh ripped off its fifth straight victory with stunning ease.

“Really big performance against a really good team on a short week so there is a lot to be proud of,” Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin said. “But we are probably not that good.”

Maybe not, but Pittsburgh (6-2-1) looked every bit the part of legitimate contender in the AFC, perhaps for the first time this season.

Roethlisberger completed 22 of 25 passes for 328 yards and five touchdowns while posting a perfect quarterback rating of 158.3. James Conner, who has filled in capably during Bell’s self-imposed sabbatical, ran for 65 yards and a score before being evaluated for a concussion late.

Antonio Brown added eight receptions for 96 yards — including a 53-yard touchdown in the second quarter — to cap an eventful day that began with the star wide receiver being cited for reckless driving after police clocked Brown’s Porsche driving over 161 kph down a busy highway in the northern city suburbs.

“This is what we expected,” Roethlisberger said. “We knew we were going to have to put up a lot of points. We did that. The defense, they were playing like their hair was on fire.”

Bell has until next Tuesday to sign a contract if he wants to play this season. His teammates have long since tired of talking about Bell’s status at this point.

“I’m not going to comment on someone who’s not in the locker room right now,” Roethlisberger said.

And why bother? For three hours on Thursday night Pittsburgh looked every bit as potent without Bell as it did with him. If he returns, they insist they’ll welcome him with open arms. If he doesn’t, they are intent on keeping the train rolling.

The Panthers (6-3) saw their three-game winning streak come to an abrupt halt in a city where they’ve never won. Carolina fell to 0-4 all-time in Pittsburgh and was never really in it after the Steelers scored 21 points in the game’s first 11 minutes.

Cam Newton completed 23 of 29 for 193 yards and a pair of flips to Christian McCaffrey that the second-year running back turned into scores, but Newton’s showdown with Roethlisberger never materialized. The Steelers sacked Newton five times and rarely let him get comfortable. McCaffrey finished with 138 yards total offense (77 yards rushing, 61 yards receiving) and accounted for all three Panthers touchdowns but it wasn’t nearly enough.

“We had a lot of our noses bleeding early on,” Newton said. “We’ve got to stop it and keep things going in our favor. We just got outplayed today.”

Newton didn’t help matters when he threw off his back foot out of the Carolina end zone while trying to avoid getting sacked in the first quarter. Pittsburgh linebacker Vince Williams raced under the floater and returned it 17 yards for a touchdown to give the Steelers a 14-7 lead they never came close to relinquishing.

Roethlisberger’s rainbow to Brown put Pittsburgh up 31-14 at the half and when Roethlisberger found Vance McDonald in the back on the end zone on the Steelers’ first drive of the second half, the competitive portion of the evening was over. Pittsburgh’s 52 points matched the most ever surrendered by the Panthers in franchise history, following a 52-9 loss to Oakland on Dec. 24, 2000.