Mitch Trubisky receives vindication in what might be his Steelers curtain call

CHARLOTTE -- For the first time since he signed with the Pittsburgh Steelers in March, Mitch Trubisky began an NFL game as a starting quarterback and ended it in victory formation.

With rookie quarterback Kenny Pickett still in the concussion protocol, Trubisky started his fifth game of the season Sunday at Bank of America Stadium and earned his first regulation win as a Steeler by outpacing the Carolina Panthers 24-16.

"Only thing I cared about today was winning, staying on the field, converting those third downs and helping this team win," Trubisky said. "I know I could protect the football -- that's what I did today. So I'm just proud of all the other guys for sticking together, believing in me, letting me lead us today and coming away with the victory."

For Trubisky, the win was personally vindicating after he lost his starting job to the first-round draft pick less than a month into the season.

Less than two months after Trubisky signed a two-year, $14.2 million deal with the Steelers (6-8) in free agency, the organization drafted Pickett, already beloved in the city as a five-year Pitt quarterback, to be the next franchise quarterback after Ben Roethlisberger's retirement. Though Trubisky was still the assumed starter through the offseason and training camp, it was obvious that his tenure in Pittsburgh would be short-lived with the franchise's heir apparent waiting behind him and gaining ground with every practice.

With Pickett improving in the second half of the season, Trubisky's future and path to earning another NFL starting job isn't likely to come in Pittsburgh, but winning Sunday is a résumé -- and confidence -- booster, validating a self-belief that he does have a place in this league.

"I know what I can do in this league," Trubisky said. "It feels good to be able to get this opportunity and then come through, have my teammates trust in me, and then we just had a plan and we executed it.

"It feels good to win, and anytime you start the game, anytime you're part of a team, it's always better when you win. I'm just proud of these guys today."

Trubisky and fellow backup Mason Rudolph split first-team reps all week in practice, but Trubisky officially got the nod Saturday.

Though Rudolph's hometown is just 30 miles from Charlotte, Trubisky, a product of UNC, also saw some familiar faces on the sideline before the game, including his former Tar Heel teammate and Steelers wide receiver Ryan Switzer. Less than an hour before kickoff, Trubisky jogged over to greet Switzer, his wife, Gabie, and their son, Christian, who is Trubisky's godson.

Trubisky won his first start for the Steelers three months ago, but the Steelers needed an overtime field goal to capture the victory despite forcing five Bengals turnovers.

This time, Trubisky and his team didn't need any extra time to squash the Panthers -- a win that sealed the Steelers' 4-0 sweep of NFC South opponents this season. After throwing three interceptions a week ago when he took over for Pickett in the first quarter, Trubisky had a clean and efficient outing, completing 17 of 22 attempts for 179 yards and no interceptions, along with a rushing touchdown.

Trubisky, 28, entered Sunday's game searching to balance being productively aggressive and overly aggressive. In finding Pickens for a 38-yard connection and Diontae Johnson for several big completions, including an 18-yard gain, Trubisky moved the ball with intermediate chunk plays without costing the offense points.

Trubisky was especially effective on third down, completing 6 of 8 attempts for 94 yards on that down, and all six of his completions went for first downs. As a team, the Steelers were 12-of-16 on third downs -- their highest conversion rate since Week 5 of 2018. Trubisky connected twice with Johnson on third-and-long during the 21-play scoring drive that ate up 11 minutes, 43 seconds to open the third quarter. That drive, one in which Trubisky went 6-of-7 for 54 yards and capped it with a 1-yard rushing touchdown, was the Steelers' longest in both time and number of plays in the past 45 years.

"I feel like he did a good job controlling the ball and making the right reads," Johnson said. "Whenever we ran the ball, they did good up front blocking. Everybody did their job as one."

That run game went a long way to helping Trubisky; it picked up 156 yards and accounted for all three touchdowns.

"I just thought he managed it well," coach Mike Tomlin said. "I thought he kept the ball off the ground and played clean. Had a high completion percentage, but it's easier to do those things when you're playing behind an effective run game."

Najee Harris rebounded from a quiet week in a loss to the Ravens to gain 86 yards on 24 carries and score a touchdown -- one in which he violently shoved the last Panthers defender between him and the end zone to score the first points of the day. Backup Jaylen Warren also got into the end zone, scoring his first career touchdown in the second quarter.

"We wanted to make it as simple as possible," Harris said. "We believed in our line. We know how good they are, so we felt confident in us taking control of the clock by running the ball and helping out Mitch or whoever was in the game.

"Mitch did a good job, though. We're confident whoever's in the game. I think Mitch did a great job today, converting the third downs, making good throws, man. He's used to putting it in tight windows. We take our hats off to Mitch."