CHARLOTTE, N.C. — By rule, NFL halftimes are just 13 minutes long, but in Sunday’s win over the Carolina Panthers, the Pittsburgh Steelers defense found a significant loophole.
The Steelers defenders trotted back out of the locker room and onto the playing surface at Bank of America Stadium in time for the second-half kickoff from Panthers kicker Eddy Piniero.
But after that, they got another 13-minute break, as the Steelers offense went one of the longest drives in recent NFL history. The Steelers offense took that opening kickoff and, after a penalty, started deep in their territory. A record 21 plays and 106 yards of offense later, the Steelers scored on a 1-yard Mitch Trubisky sneak.
When the defense finally got onto the field, the scoreboard clock said just 3:17 to play in the third quarter. The Panthers ran five plays before the break. They probably wished they would have spent some extra time in the locker room.
“We had to make sure we stayed warm,” T.J. Watt said. “It was great.”
“That drive was amazing,” Alex Highsmith said. “21 plays? That’s the longest drive I’ve ever seen, like witnessed with my own two eyes. I don’t think I’ve ever seen one that long. We were just on the sideline like ‘tick, tick, tick, tick,’ just let the clock keep ticking. Shout out to the offense for that drive and setting the second half out that way. That gave us a lot of momentum.”
It wasn’t that long ago that the dominant storyline surrounding the Pittsburgh Steelers defense was that the offense wasn’t doing enough to keep them off the field. In the season opener against the Cincinnati Bengals, the Steelers defense was on the field for 100 plays against and it felt like throughout the first half of the season, the Pittsburgh D was getting worn down as the game went on.
“That was crazy,” defensive tackle Tyson Alualu said. “To look up and see a little over three minutes left, it just says a lot about the fight they have on that side and how they’re playing. That’s crazy. That definitely helps us.”
“You couldn’t ask for a bigger drive,” captain Cam Heyward said. “Taking so much time off the clock … That’s the kind of defense you want — on the sideline.”
After their early struggles, the Steelers offense has really turned things around in the time of possession game. They were averaging 30:37 per game entering Sunday’s contest and moved that up by recording 32:55 with the ball in Charlotte. They had been eighth in the league and will likely move up after this week’s statistics are tabulated.
The Steelers defense still has things to clean up even after wrecking the Carolina run game on Sunday, but them having to do it while dealing with a time of possession burden seems to be a thing of the past.