Preview: Carolina Panthers

After losing 26-6 against their division rival, the Baltimore Ravens, the Pittsburgh Steelers head to Charlotte, North Carolina to take on the 2-0 Carolina Panthers for Sunday Night Football. The Panthers won their game last Sunday against the Detroit Lions, 24-7.

Here’s a preview of what we might expect for this game:

Steelers Offense

The Steelers offense is coming off a 3 turnover game, with 4 total this season. They have gone 6 quarters without a touchdown after putting up 27 points in their first 2 quarters of the season. Much of that lies on inefficiency and drive-stalling penalties. The Steelers had one touchdown taken off the board in their home opener for offensive holding. They also gave the ball away in their last game, when driving into Ravens territory; first from the 22 yard line and then the 18.

The team will need QB Ben Roethlisberger to play to form. Ben currently leads the AFC with 582 passing yards, but ranks 24th overall in the NFL with a 82.0 passer rating. Those numbers are skewed based on Ben’s single touchdown pass to 2 interceptions thrown.

The running game will also need to find it’s legs. Le’Veon Bell is averaging 5.3 yards this season, but the team was held to under 100 yards against the Ravens. Bell has been one constant on the team’s offense and a monster that must be leveraged to help open up the offense.

Markus Wheaton and Antonio Brown have 11 and 12 receptions each this season, with Brown averaging over 17 yards per catch. The WR corps may be bolstered by the regular season debut of Lance Moore, who has sat out the last 2 games with a groin injury. The team will also look to get TE Heath Miller more involved, as the veteran has only 7 grabs and 61 yards on his stat sheet for the season, with the goose egg being a costly fumble on Pittsburgh’s opening 4th quarter possession, which gave the Ravens the ball on their own 20.

Roethlisberger will also need to release the ball faster or find better protection from his linemen. RT Marcus Gilbert has been a disappointment so far this season, ultimately responsible for 4 of the 5 sacks Ben has taken this season.

Panthers Offense

The first thing that comes to mind when you think of the Carolina Panthers is QB Cam Newton. Newton returned last weekend after sitting out the Panthers opener with sore ribs. The recovering Newton played well enough to earn a 100.2 QB rating last game, completing 64.7% of his throws for 281 yards and a touchdown. His main weapon will be TE Greg Olsen, who has 14 catches for 155 yards and a touchdown.

Number 1 WR, rookie Kelvin Benjamin, will also be a threat. Benjamin has only caught half of his targets this season, but is capable of making circus catches, and also beat Steelers CB Ike Taylor for a TD in the preseason.

The Panthers running game is typically their hallmark, but may instead be a question mark. Three Panthers running backs, including DeAngelo Williams, are listed on this week’s injury report. Williams sat out last game, with Jonathan Stewart seeing the lion’s share of carries. Despite the what is usually a vaunted rushing attack, Carolina only has 175 yards and a single touchdown to their credit so far this season.

Steelers Defense

The Panthers running game could find life is the Steelers defense doesn’t figure out how to stop the run. The team has given up 348 yards in 2 games to mostly unproven runners such as Terrence West, Benard Pierce and Justin Forsett.

The Steelers will also need to find a way to pressure QB Cam Newton, who is operating behind a retooled offensive line that has had to rotate more than 5 players in each of their 2 campaigns thus far. However, Pittsburgh also faced a new O-line with the Ravens and came up with zero sacks, after getting to QB Brian Hoyer 3 times when playing the Browns days earlier.

Panthers Defense

The Panthers stout defense has only conceded 172 rushing yards this season, while forcing 3 fumbles and intercepting 3 passes. The team will be without DE Greg Hardy, who is suspended indefinitely. However, his replacement Mario Addison filled in against the Lions and had 2.5 sacks: a half sack shy of the Steelers team total for the season.

Particularly troubling is the Lions fared 323 total yards of offense, or 22 yards more than the Steelers gained on Baltimore. This stresses the importance of protecting the football, as the Lions turned the ball over 3 times to the Panthers, just as the Steelers did to the Ravens.

Conclusion

One bright spot is that using the Lions as a comparison, Detroit has only mustered an average of 73 yards per game. Carolina’s week 1 opponent, Tampa Bay, gained 103 yards on the ground, while only losing by 6 points. Granted, Cam Newton did not play in week 1, but the Panthers are facing a number of their own personnel problems with the offensive line, injured RBs, a weak WR corps and the Greg Hardy suspension. Nonetheless, the Steelers will have to tighten up their turnover ratio, rush defense and costly penalties to put themselves in a position to win.

It’s not as if Carolina is an unbeatable opponent, even with a 2-0 record and playing at home. However, in recent years the Steelers have been a poor road team, particularly early in the season and in prime time. Having played last on a Thursday night, the team has had a few additional days to heal and prepare for the Panthers, while fixing any inconsistency.

Regardless, a win here would be a boon to the team heading into what appears to be, on paper, a weak part of the schedule combined with a 3-game home stand. However, for the same reasons, a loss would not be the end of the world, especially if the game is competitive and the team shows improvement over their last 6 quarters of football played.

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