PITTSBURGH — Ben Roethlisberger was still in the process of picking himself up off the Heinz Field turf when the scrum started, one that sent a message that at the moment it might be unwise to mess with the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Steelers center Maurkice Pouncey and right guard David DeCastro were not particularly pleased with how Carolina safety Eric Reid launched himself at Pittsburgh's franchise quarterback as Roethlisberger finished off an 18-yard scramble during the third quarter of a 52-21 dismantling of the Panthers on Thursday night.
Together the two perennial Pro Bowlers — a combined 630 pounds give or take a meal — let Reid and a handful of his teammates know they didn't appreciate Reid's approach to his job. What followed was 30 seconds of flexing, grabbing and shoving before Reid was ejected for targeting.
"You've got to be there for your guy," DeCastro said. "Just trying to stand up for him and show him we've got his back."
As the Steelers made their way back to the huddle, Roethlisberger gave his linemen peace of mind should the NFL decide to hit their wallets after sticking up for him.
"Ben came up after and said, 'If any fine gets handed out, I'll handle that,'" Pouncey said with a laugh.
Pouncey, in the fourth year of a five-year contract that will pay him $44 million, can certainly afford to write the check. He believes the fact he won't have to if it comes to that says a lot about Roethlisberger — and a lot about the current climate within the Pittsburgh locker room.
"It's cool man," Pouncey said. "I appreciate all the guys repping like that."
Those guys have found their identity over the last five weeks. Pittsburgh (6-2-1) set a record for the most points by an NFL team in the 17-year history of Heinz Field while rolling to a fifth straight victory. The reward? Five days off to rest up before starting a daunting final stretch that begins on Nov. 18 in Jacksonville in a playoff rematch that saw the Jaguars stun Pittsburgh at home in January.
"Last year is last year," Steelers cornerback Mike Hilton said. "We're a different team just like they're a different team."
If anything, Pittsburgh looks much better than while getting pushed around by Leonard Fournette and Blake Bortles in a confidence-shaking 45-42 setback that led to an exodus in both the secondary and portions of the coaching staff.
Randy Fichtner took over for Todd Haley as offensive coordinator and, even with star running back Le'Veon Bell sitting out due to concerns with his one-year contract, has put together an attack that looks as dynamic and varied as anything in the league.
James Conner, Bell's replacement, already has 11 touchdowns through nine games, as many as Bell has scored in any full season. Roethlisberger spread the ball all over the place on a night he finished with more scoring passes (five) than incompletions (three).
"We've got a lot of weapons on this team and Ben showed it tonight getting the ball to all of them," DeCastro said.
Roethlisberger's only complaint is that Fichtner may get a little too loud in the headset because he's so pumped up about the next play call.
Pittsburgh's defense kept Carolina's Cam Newton under wraps, sacking him five times while limiting the Panthers to 242 yards, the fourth straight game an opponent has finished with 275 yards or less. Save for a couple of early communication breakdowns that allowed Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey to get loose, the Steelers kept things tight.
"I don't think it's a come-to-Jesus moment where something miraculously just happened," defensive tackle Cam Heyward said. "I think everybody got back to work. It showed on the practice field and it showed ever since. This is a big win, but it's not like we don't have games after this. We'll enjoy it for tonight and enjoy it for the weekend, but when we get back in we have to get back to work."