CHARLOTTE — Mitch Trubisky knew his grasp on the Steelers’ starting quarterback job was tenuous at best when he took the field on Sunday.
But the No. 2 pick in the 2017 draft turned in one of the steadier performances of his NFL career, throwing for 179 yards and engineering three long touchdown drives as Pittsburgh held on to beat Carolina 24-16.
“I know what I can do in this league,” Trubisky said. “It feels good to be able to get this opportunity and come through and to have my teammates trust in me.”
Trubisky was named the starter on Saturday after rookie Kenny Pickett was ruled out with a concussion.
He ran for a 1-yard touchdown and played turnover-free football, giving coach Mike Tomlin no reason to replace him with Mason Rudolph, who had split reps Trubisky this week in practice.
“He managed (the game) well,” Tomlin said. “I thought he kept the ball off the ground. He played clean and had a high completion percentage. But it’s easier to do those things when you’re playing behind an effective run game.”
The Steelers ran for 156 yards and three TDs on 45 carries.
Najee Harris carried 24 times for 86 yards and a touchdown and Jaylen Warren added a 2-yard TD run for Pittsburgh (6-8), which has won three of its last four.
The Steelers held a 13-minute edge in time of possession and converted 12 of 16 third-down opportunities, while the Panthers were 4 of 11.
“Third down was horrendous to say the least — on both sides,” Panthers interim coach Steve Wilks said.
Despite the loss, the second-place Panthers (5-9) still control their own playoff destiny and will win the NFC South at 8-9 if they can beat Detroit, Tampa Bay and New Orleans to close the season. The Buccaneers (6-8) helped Carolina by losing at home to Cincinnati.
Wilks, in a much lower-key version of a famous rant by Jim Mora, said he doesn’t even want to think about the postseason.
“We’ve got to worry about trying to get ourselves right to win a football game,” Wilks said. “I don’t want anybody in this building talking playoffs.”
Carolina’s modest successes this season can be traced to its strong running game led by D’Onta Foreman, but that was absent on Sunday.
The Panthers had averaged 191.6 yards rushing in their five wins, but managed just 21 yards on 16 carries — the fifth-lowest total in franchise history — as the Steelers stacked the box and dared Sam Darnold to beat them. Foreman had 9 yards on 10 carries.
Darnold finished 14 of 23 for 225 yards and a touchdown. But he was sacked four times, and the Panthers struggled in the red zone.
Tomlin said he “threw a little schematics” at the Panthers to slow down their run game. Part of the strategy was using an extra big defensive lineman in 6-foot-4, 290-pound Marvin Leal.
Darnold said he expects to see more stacked boxes moving forward.
“With the way we’ve been able to run the ball, you see more one-high coverages,” Darnold said. “When our chances come to be able to take shots up top, we have to be able to hit them.”
The Steelers came in having dominated the series, winning the previous six games by a combined margin of 213-80 with all of those wins by at least 10 points.
This one was much closer.
Trubisky led the Steelers on touchdown drives of 67 and 75 yards on Pittsburgh’s first two possessions with Harris and Warren scoring on short runs for a 14-7 halftime lead.
Pittsburgh got the ball to start the second half and put together a 21-play, 91-yard touchdown drive that took nearly 12 minutes off the clock, culminating in Trubisky reaching the ball over the goal line to score on a QB sneak. They converted three third downs on the drive.
“Extending those long drives was huge for us,” Trubisky said.
Carolina got a pair of field goals from Eddy Pineiro to claw within 21-13, but the Steelers put together another solid 43-yard drive that took more than five minutes off the clock to set up Chris Boswell’s 50-yard field goal, which made it a two-possession game with 1:04 left.
Pineiro’s third field goal, a 52-yarder, trimmed the lead to eight with 19 seconds left, but George Pickens recovered the onside kick.
The Panthers host Detroit on Saturday.