PITTSBURGH (AP)The Pittsburgh Steelers put the pads on in practice last week, an increasing rarity this time of year.

The coaches didn’t apologize for it while the players understood the necessity, even four-plus months and more than a dozen games into the 2022 season.

So they ignored the accumulated bumps and bruises and tried to recapture the fire – particularly on defense – that’s been lacking at critical junctures during a wildly uneven fall.

”It’s one of those days you might not want to get up after a long week and the struggles but it’s one of those things where it’s like, it is our career,” defensive tackle Montravius Adams said.

The results were hard to ignore during a physical and occasionally dominant 24-16 win over Carolina on Sunday that kept the faintest of playoff hopes alive.

The Steelers (6-8) knew the Panthers were going to run the ball until Pittsburgh proved it could stop it, particularly after the Steelers surrendered a staggering 215 yards on the ground in a narrow loss to Baltimore the week before. Yet Carolina managed all of 21 yards rushing on 16 carries as the missed tackles, missed assignments and missed opportunities that plagued Pittsburgh against the Ravens vanished.

Maybe it was the sense of urgency knowing the season was essentially over with a loss. Maybe it was the scuffle that broke out during practice on Friday, proof that the edge the Steelers have been searching for was still there. Maybe it was having T.J. Watt look – for the first time since his return on Nov. 13 – like the reigning AP Defensive Player of the Year.

Or maybe it was coaching. The Steelers stacked the line of scrimmage, daring Carolina quarterback Sam Darnold to beat them. He couldn’t. Not while getting sacked four times, including 1 1/2 each from Watt and Cam Heyward and another from Alex Highsmith, who boosted his season total to 11 with a takedown of Darnold in the second quarter in the same city where he starred in college at Charlotte.

For all the talk about how the younger players needed to take a step forward, it was the older guys – Watt, Heyward and defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi in particular- who led with their actions more than their words.

”I just think there’s nothing mystical about dealing with the run,” coach Mike Tomlin said. ”Usually, it’s about guys coming off of blocks and making tackles.”

It helps when the guys coming off blocks and making tackles are the leaders of your group. Pittsburgh’s defense put together perhaps its best performance since its Week 1 stunner in Cincinnati, an upset the Steelers pulled behind five turnovers and seven sacks.

The splash plays weren’t nearly that splashy this time around. They didn’t have to be. The Steelers didn’t win with style, but substance. For an afternoon, it simply helped them avoid being eliminated from playoff contention.

”We just have to continue to have that same mindset every week because we know the type of defense we can be,” Highsmith said.

WHAT’S WORKING

The diplomatic approach to splitting carries between Najee Harris and Jaylen Warren. While the duo wasn’t necessarily explosive – neither had a run longer than 10 yards – they kept the chains moving on a day the Steelers controlled the ball for more than 36 minutes. Harris showcased his brutal stiff arm – twice – on a 7-yard touchdown run. Warren’s 2-yard score was a textbook example of the straight-ahead fury that’s become the undrafted rookie free agent’s trademark.

WHAT’S NOT

Fourteen games in, the special teams coverage units remain a bit of a mess. Carolina’s Raheem Blackshear was able to rip off a 37-yard return in the final minute to set up a field goal that allowed for some momentary but entirely unnecessary anxiety in the last seconds.

STOCK UP

Mitch Trubisky is no longer the quarterback of the present in Pittsburgh, let alone the future. Yet he rebounded nicely after tossing three interceptions last week against Baltimore that essentially cost the Steelers the game by completing an efficient 17 of 22 for 179 yards and no picks.

STOCK DOWN

Marcus Allen has carved out a niche by evolving from an underperforming safety to a third-string linebacker/special teams ace. That role, however, may be in jeopardy in 2023 – in Pittsburgh anyway – after a baffling unsportsmanlike conduct penalty for venturing into the Carolina huddle to jaw with the Panthers. The flag helped the Panthers kick a field goal and highlighted the 26-year-old’s immaturity.

INJURIES

Pickett will have an opportunity to exit the concussion protocol this week. He was limited in practice last week before being ruled out 24 hours before the game. … LB Myles Jack’s status won’t be determined until later in the week after sitting against the Panthers.

KEY NUMBER

29 – the number of years since the Steelers had a drive as long (in terms of both plays and time of possession) as the 21-play, 91-yard touchdown march they put together to start the second half that chewed 11:43 off the clock.

NEXT STEPS

Pittsburgh will celebrate the 50th anniversary of ”The Immaculate Reception” when the Las Vegas Raiders (6-8) visit on Christmas Eve. The loser will effectively be eliminated from postseason contention.

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