Sunday, September 21, 2014

Gameday: Carolina Panthers

Cameron Outdoor Stadium
Radio: WDVE and other affiliates

It seems like forever since the Steelers have actually played a football game. Having a Thursday Night game basically equates to having another bye week. The good news is that the Steelers are a bit healthier than the Panthers heading into this game. The bad news is our defense hasn't proven they can stop anyone yet.

What To Watch For

1. Injured Players

Are you an offensive skill position player for the Panthers? If so, you've probably had some kind of injury at some point this year. Cam Newton had a broken rib that kept him out of the season opener but was able to play last week, though he didn't look as elusive as usual because of an ankle injury. Nevertheless, Newton will be under center for the Panthers. His backfield mates are not so certain. Starting RB DeAngelo Williams is questionable and 3rd string RB Fozzy Whitaker is doubtful. Jonathan Stewart appears to be the only healthy back right now as FB Mike Tolbert is also nursing an injury. At WR, Kelvin Benjamin has been playing through an ankle injury while Jerricho Cotchery and Jason Avant are both questionable for Sunday night. The Panthers receiving corps isn't the greatest, but as we saw against the Browns, it doesn't take Pro Bowl receivers to pick apart the Steelers defense. 

2. Steelers O-line vs Panthers D-line

Some of the biggest news of the week was Panthers DE Greg Hardy being placed on the Commissioner's Exempt list, because a paid vacation is exactly what someone accused of domestic assault deserves. The bad news for the Steelers is that Hardy is probably only the 3rd best player on the Panthers defensive line. Charles Johnson is a pass-rushing machine, having racked up 44 sacks over the last 4 seasons. In the middle, last year's first round pick Star Lotulelei is one of the fastest defensive tackles off the snap in the league and has the power to push the pocket. If there are two matchups to watch, it is Johnson against the struggling Marcus Gilbert on the right side and Lotulelei in the middle. Ramon Foster is questionable with an ankle injury so Lotulelei could be matched up against Cody Wallace in the left guard spot. Neither of those favor the Steelers so they will need to find ways to get chips on Johnson by tight ends and free up Maurkice Pouncey to help on Lotulelei. 

3. Greg Olsen

The Steelers used their first round draft pick on a 6'3" 235-pound inside linebacker that ran a 4.3 40-yard dash and spent $25 million in free agency to bring in a rangy safety. Ideally, both of these players would be able to combat the Steelers struggles with covering tight ends. Through two weeks, that hasn't happened at all. Shazier and Mitchell have been beat all over the field by opposing tight ends and they draw one of the best in the league tonight. With all of the injuries to the Panthers receivers, Greg Olsen has been the primary target in the passing game, leading Carolina with 155 yards on 14 receptions in 19 targets. Between Olsen's 19 targets and Kelvin Benjamin's 16, they account for more than half of the passes thrown by Panthers QBs this season.

4. Opening It Up

The Steelers used the No Huddle offense effectively against the Browns and were able to put up 27 points in the first 30 minutes of play. Against the Ravens, the Steelers shelved the No Huddle and the offense struggled to get into a rhythm. Carolina has one of the best defensive front 7s in the league, so if the Steelers are able to get them into a sub package where the Panthers have to take out a defensive lineman or linebacker to get extra defensive backs on the field, they need to exploit that as much as they can. There is some inherent risk with relying heavily on the no huddle offense on the road, but the Steelers will not be able to handle the Panthers up front if Carolina can easily rotate their defensive linemen and keep all 3 linebackers on the field. The Steelers need to get Carolina into a nickel or dime package and run the no huddle to keep the sub package on the field.

5. Splash Plays

Last week against Baltimore, the Steelers had no pressure on Joe Flacco, got no sacks and forced zero turnovers. In fact, the Steelers defense has yet to record a turnover this season (which is eerily reminiscent of last season where they didn't force their first turnover until 5 games into the season). The Panthers have rebuilt their offensive line and allowed 4 sacks last week. Cam Newton's injured ankle played a part in that as he wasn't able to scramble away from pressure as well as he usually can, but if the Steelers are going to have any kind of success tonight, they need to get pressure on Cam and create turnovers. The Ravens were able to stay ahead of the chains in pretty much every situation, getting favorable down and distances throughout the game. The Steelers need splash plays from the defense to slow down the Panthers running game and force Newton to be one-dimensional behind a patchwork offensive line.

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