Teams that follow similar blueprints will face off against each other when Pittsburgh takes on Carolina tonight on NBC. The Steelers (1-1) and Panthers (2-0) are somewhat carbon copies in that they are defensive-oriented teams who have big quarterbacks calling the shots on offense. Pittsburgh is coming off of a lopsided road loss to AFC North rival Baltimore, while Carolina stifled Detroit’s offense last week to seize control of the NFC South.
This is just the sixth meeting all-time between these two teams. After losing the first matchup, Pittsburgh has won the past four by an average margin of 21 points. The last meeting was back in 2010 when Ben Roethlisberger threw for 320 yards and a touchdown in the easy 27-3 home victory. This will be Cam Newton’s first time facing the Steelers.
Pittsburgh Steelers at Carolina Panthers
Kickoff: 8:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: NBC
Spread: Carolina -3.5
Three Things to Watch
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1. Getting Defensive
Pittsburgh’s reputation as a defensive team is well known, going all the way back to the days of the original Steel Curtain. However, the Steelers’ defense has slipped somewhat in recent seasons and is off to another slow start in 2014. Carolina meanwhile broke through defensively in a big way in 2013, finishing second in the NFL in both yards and points allowed. The Panthers have built on this success, holding their first two opponents (Buccaneers and Lions) to less than 294 yards and 10.5 points per game. While Pittsburgh has undergone a youth movement on defense, Carolina has a front seven that matches up with any in the league, led by reigning Defensive Player of the Year linebacker Luke Kuechly. With the Panthers’ defense playing as well as it has and given Carolina’s issues on offense, this figures to be a low-scoring game. The defenses will likely dictate the outcome and while it may be too much to expect Pittsburgh to out-perform Carolina’s defense on its own turf; the Steelers still need to make enough plays on that side of the ball to give their offense a fighting chance.
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2. Cam Can’t Do It All Alone
Carolina has a championship-caliber defense, there’s no disputing that, but in order for this team to be considered a legitimate contender in the NFC, the offense will have do its part. And with apologies to Derek Anderson, the success of the offense falls on the shoulders of one player – Cam Newton. After missing the season opener with bruised ribs, Newton returned and helped lead his team to a convincing 24-7 victory over Detroit. Working behind a retooled offensive line and throwing to a practically brand-new receiving corps, Newton completed 22 of 34 passes for 281 yards and a touchdown. The bigger concern with Newton right now is making sure his bruised ribs don’t get any worse. One way to do this is to not ask him to not make as many plays with his legs. Against the Lions, Newton ran the ball just four time for 19 yards. Unfortunately, that was good enough for second on the team and he also was sacked five times. Starting running back DeAngelo Williams didn’t play last week because of a thigh injury and Jonathan Stewart managed just 37 yards rushing on 15 carries in his absence. Through two games, Panther running backs have combined for 135 yards rushing on 49 carries. That’s an average of less than three yards (2.8 ypc to be exact) per attempt. That’s not going to get the job done, even against a team like Pittsburgh, who gave up 157 yards on the ground to Baltimore last week. Carolina’s offensive line is a work in progress and the receiving corps also needs more time to gel and develop chemistry. That means it is critical that the Panthers’ running game picks up some of the slack. And without asking an already banged-up quarterback to do the heavy lifting.
3. Molding the Steelers’ Offense
In the season opener, Pittsburgh piled up 503 yards of offense and 30 points behind its superstar trio of Ben Roethlisberger (365 yards passing), Le’Veon Bell (197 total yards, including 109 rushing), and Antonio Brown (five receptions for 116 yards and a TD). Compare that to last week’s offensive output against Baltimore (301 yards, two field goals), as the Ravens pushed the Steelers around up front on both sides of the ball. The 26-6 score could have been much worse considering Baltimore had to settle for field goals on four separate trips into the red zone. Comparatively speaking, Pittsburgh’s collection of offensive weapons is better than Carolina’s. The problem is the Steelers have a much tougher task ahead of them in trying to solve and move the ball against the Panthers’ stout defense. Roethlisberger, Bell and Brown will lead the charge, but supporting players like wide receiver Markus Wheaton, tight end Heath Miller, running back LeGarrette Blount and of course the offensive line, will have to do their part as well. Pittsburgh could receive an additional boost with the expected debut of veteran wideout Lance Moore and the possible return of all-purpose back Dri Archer. The bottom line is that points figure to be hard to come by tonight, so Big Ben and company need to make the most of their limited opportunities if they want any chance of leaving Bank of America Stadium with a win.
Pittsburgh and Carolina are mirror images of each other in many ways, so this should be an entertaining cross-conference matchup. The Panthers have become one of the toughest teams to beat at home, thanks in large part to a stingy defense. The Steelers are coming off of a tough divisional loss on the road, and even though the extra rest gained from playing a Thursday night game will benefit them, I don’t believe this is the best timing for them to play the Panthers. Pittsburgh will continue to get better as the season progresses, as a young defense continues to gel and the offense finds its rhythm. But as far as tonight goes, Carolina’s defense is just too tough and Cam Newton and the offense make just enough plays to stay perfect on the season.