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Steelers earn key playoff-positioning win

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Ross Jones

Ross Jones is an NFL Editor for FOXSports.com. He is a member of Pro Football Writers of America. Follow him on Twitter.

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A week after losing a heartbreaker to the New York Jets, the Pittsburgh Steelers rebounded in style Thursday night and inched one game closer to clinching the AFC North with a dominant 27-3 win at home against the Carolina Panthers. The Steelers, who clinched a playoff berth despite the loss last week, improved to 11-4 and now sit a half-game in front of the Baltimore Ravens for first place in the AFC North. The Steelers would clinch the AFC North with a Ravens loss at Cleveland this week or a Pittsburgh win next week against the Browns

Taking the field on a chilly night against an opponent with nothing to play for, the home team’s defense dropped the Steel Curtain on Carolina, sacking the opposing quarterback four times and creating two turnovers. Preparation was key in the short week, and it paid off.

But most impressive on the night was quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who showed off the long ball with the offense’s young crop of weapons. The Steelers’ offense resembled the potent assault of the Philadelphia Eagles with its speedy receivers, do-it-all running back and veteran leadership at quarterback.

Roethlisberger again great under pressure

The Steelers quarterback was efficient all night, completing 22 passes for 320 yards and a touchdown. Playing with a broken foot and a nose that was bloodied in the first quarter, Roethlisberger played like his usual self. Several times, he fought off defenders while under pressure and completed intermediate-range passes. In the second quarter, Roethlisberger connected with Mike Wallace on a short slant route that ignited the crowd of 61,000-plus at Heinz Field when Wallace sprang free for a 43-yard touchdown.

Wallace becoming a superstar

Speaking of Wallace, in early April, the Steelers front office made a decision to trade their 2009 Super Bowl MVP, wide receiver Santonio Holmes, to the Jets for a fifth-round pick. The move was a sign of confidence in Wallace. The second-year receiver from ‘Ole Miss had four catches for 104 yards, showing off his speed on several occasions. Wallace has breached the 100-receiving yard mark six times this season and has even matched a long-standing record set by a Steeler legend, tying John Stallworth’s record of 24 receptions of 20 or more yards in a season.

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Mendenhall: Steeler ground game personified

Wallace's performance complemented a consistent presence by running back Rashard Mendenhall. Although Mendenhall didn’t have his best game of the season numbers-wise, he posed as a threat, baiting the Carolina defense into selling out to try to stop the run. Mendenhall was utilized at the goal line as a short-yardage back whose job was to punish opposing defenders.

On the Steelers’ first offensive play of the game, the third-year pro from Illinois gashed the Panthers’ defense on a counter for 35 yards. Carolina did well to stop Mendenhall after that, bottling him up for only 30 more yards on the night. But he played the role of a typical Steelers running back very well — attacking defenders at full speed.

The persistent attack allowed Pittsburgh to control the clock and rest its league-best defense.

Steelers defense punishes young Carolina offense

The Pittsburgh defense played particularly well in the absence of its leader, Troy Polamalu. The All-Pro safety was inactive after suffering an Achilles injury in Week 14. Polamalu was missed, but other leaders stepped up.

The defense flexed its league-best against-the-rush muscle, negating the Panthers' only offensive strong point. Carolina running back Jonathan Stewart, the league’s leading rusher since Week 12, was limited to only 71 yards on 18 carries. Against the pass, Pittsburgh defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau dialed up blitzes, repeatedly harassing Panthers quarterback Jimmy Clausen. Clausen, a rookie from Notre Dame, was sacked four times and, on one rare occasion when he found enough time to actually get a long throw off, was intercepted by cornerback Bryant McFadden.

Panthers need long-term solution at QB

Dropping another game to fall to 2-13, the Panthers have all but secured the No. 1 overall pick in the 2011 draft. Assuming Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck forgoes his final year of collegiate eligibility and declares for the draft, Carolina must at least consider selecting him if it winds up with the top pick. Although Clausen is only a rookie and hasn’t had enough time to develop, his throws are inconsistent and his deep ball is very inaccurate.

Tagged: Jets, Panthers, Steelers, Ben Roethlisberger, Rashard Mendenhall, Mike Wallace, Jimmy Clausen

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