Things are going very well for the Pittsburgh Steelers.
So well that quarterback Ben Roethlisberger earned himself an early exit from Thursday night’s lopsided triumph at home over the Carolina Panthers with five touchdown passes, only three incompletions and a perfect passer rating of 158.3.
So well that they scored their most points ever at Heinz Field and the most points by an NFL team this season by overwhelming the Panthers, 52-21. So well that they extended their winning streak to five games and didn’t even need a fifth straight 100-yard rushing performance by second-year tailback James Conner to do it. So well that the NFL’s catch rule actually worked in their favor this time.
So well that they don’t seem to need Le’Veon Bell these days.
But they should want him back.
The Steelers, after a superb week in which they followed Sunday’s triumph at Baltimore with a dominating performance Thursday against an NFC playoff contender, now have a mini-bye before playing again. The focus shifts temporarily to the resolution of the Bell drama. He has been absent from the team all season, refusing to sign his franchise-player deal that would have paid him $14.5 million this season. He must report to the team and sign his contract by Tuesday to be eligible to play this season, under NFL rules.
It’s easy to watch this offense and watch Conner, Bell’s productive replacement, and say the Steelers are better off without Bell. His absence rankled teammates. It led Coach Mike Tomlin to say that the team needs volunteers, not hostages. Working Bell back into the mix would not be seamless. He should not supplant Conner as the centerpiece runner.
“Conner has earned the right to start,” Hall of Fame quarterback Troy Aikman said during the Fox broadcast Thursday night. “He’s earned the right to play.”
But Bell is a gifted player, both as a pass-catcher and as a runner. For the Steelers, this ultimately is about matching up with the New England Patriots and the Kansas City Chiefs, the AFC’s top two teams. It’s about reaching the Super Bowl. Having Bell back and working him into the offense with Conner would create interesting possibilities. If Bell shows up rather than sitting out the season, the Steelers should be happy about it and should go to work finding a role for him.
“I think they both complement each other very well. … It’s going to be interesting to see how all of that unfolds,” Aikman said.
Conner had his 10th rushing touchdown of the season Thursday night, one more than Bell has had in an NFL season. Conner’s string of 100-yard rushing games ended with his 13-carry, 65-yard outing. He returned to the game after being taken to the medical tent on the sideline but later was taken to the locker room, and the Steelers said he was being evaluated for a possible concussion.
Roethlisberger and the passing game took center stage Thursday. Roethlisberger threw a 75-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster on the Steelers’ first offensive play. That put Roethlisberger on his way to a 22-for-25, 328-yard passing night.
“We have a lot of weapons, and the O-line protects well,” Roethlisberger told Fox after the game. “I can’t say enough about how well those guys played because it’s a really good defense and they protected the heck of out of me tonight.”
Roethlisberger did face some third-quarter peril when he strayed from the pocket and was hit by Panthers safety Eric Reid on his slide at the end of a run. The officials ejected Reid for the hit to Roethlisberger’s head, and other Steelers players were angered by Reid’s play. But Roethlisberger absorbed only a glancing blow. He stood up immediately and remained in the game, and he appeared to accept Reid’s on-field apology.
It was a night in which just about everything went the Steelers’ way. That included tight end Vance McDonald being awarded a third-quarter touchdown catch on a play in which replays showed the football shifting slightly in his hands as he slid out of bounds in the back of the end zone.
“Wait,” former Patriots linebacker Tedy Bruschi, now an NFL analyst for ESPN, wrote on Twitter. “That was a catch? What are we doing?”
Hall of Fame quarterback and NFL Network analyst Kurt Warner wrote on Twitter: “So last year nothing was a catch [and] now everything is a catch???”
Well, yeah, pretty much.
The NFL finally remade its controversial catch rule in the offseason following a 2017 season in which the non-catch by Steelers tight end Jesse James during a key game against the Patriots became the latest confounding ruling to fuel the “What’s a catch?” debate.
When the new rule was formulated, NFL officials said that slight movement of the football in the receiver’s hands during a catch would not result in a no-catch ruling via replay, as long as the receiver maintains control of the football. That’s precisely what happened on McDonald’s catch Thursday night, and the on-field call of a touchdown was not overturned on the replay review that automatically follows a scoring play.
One might say the Steelers were owed that touchdown.
It was just one of many things that went in their favor Thursday.