Another dose of confident offense, secondary the difference v. Steelers
A confident Panthers team enters Thursday night’s matchup with the Steelers.
This is exactly the event-game where Panther fans should have every expectation of a confident offensive team being ready for a prime time showdown with a marquee name, on the road. ‘But the Carolina Panthers have never beaten the Steelers in Pittsburgh’ say the unconvinced, and while true, that’s an 0-3 mark, not a bottomless pit of despair. If they’re ever going to “Win one for the Gipper!”—make that ‘Tepper’, as in Panthers owner David Tepper, who paid $2.275 billion for the Carolina franchise and stadium and was a part-owner of the Steelers for many years- now is a most significant time.
There will be fireworks
Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has things rolling at 320 yds/game, and Pittsburgh might have an even better array of receivers than Tampa Bay did last week. Expect Antonio Brown (51/594 yds, 9 TDs), JuJu Smith-Schuster 53/672 yds, 2 TDs) , TEs Vance McDonald–Jesse James 47/682 yards, 2 TDs) and running back James Conner (38/379 yds, TD) to see Big Ben spreading it around. Conner is every bit the threat McCaffrey is, and while there are occasional Le’Von Bell sightings, his 151/706 yards, nine touchdown line looks pretty solid.
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Based on Its performance against Tampa Bay, this is going to be a confident offense, one that uses a variety of weapons for the Panthers, and that’s unusual for Ron Rivera’s ball-control philosophy and to most fans. Absolutely, the team recognized deficiencies on several points, and they’ve done a terrific job of assembling players, specifically faster players who CAN ‘hurt you’. Case in point is Curtis Samuel’s 103-yard dance through the secondary, and McCaffrey’s and Moore’s back-to-back 32 yard gains- Moore’s off another reverse- and then super-ninja tight end Greg Olsen’s tap to self score- giving him TDs in all three games since he came back from a re-injured foot. That offense scoring touchdowns on five straight possessions will make you confident.
How important will that offensive line be?
32 carries for 178 yards, no sacks (only 10 for season), and C-MC got his first two rushing touchdown day (plus FB Alex Armah scoring his 2nd of year) says as much as anything else. Well, except for the obvious: If Panthers scoring drives average their current eight plays, that’s a lot less time for the Pittsburgh playmakers to have as much effect. If the secondary gives up some 325 yard strafing like Big Ben’s average, that’s going to put a burden on the offense to prove those five drives weren’t a fluke.
Does it sound reasonable to say the offensive line needs to keep Blitz-burgh from becoming anything that crushes Newton? He’s mobile to say the least, but once he breaks the pocket, he should be running with a purpose other than just getting down (safely does count though). Not just taking extra whacks, more that his toughness and physicality that Turner counts on when putting in regularly designed runs can’t be shelved just because Steelers have a better reputation as hitters vs. say, Tampa Bay (at this point).
Is his running really important to that part of the offense? Yes, and he is going to be hit. Roethlisberger is one of the all time greatest at ‘standing tall’ as they say. For Cam Newton, check down throws to McCaffrey have been a revelation, allowing him to look longer and then zip it to a supremely reliable receiver like C-MC. Both Olsen and Funchess are great move-the-chains guys, and ‘the other tight end’ to Olsen is Ian Thomas, a heckuva blocker (6’6″, 260) when blitzers inevitably show up. Newton is obviously confident in where his receivers (targets) will be and what they are meant to accomplish, like Mr. 3rd Down, Jarius Wright.
Newton’s O-line has jelled into a confident, model unit, keeping Newton clean (10 sacks), and ranking #2 in rush yardage at 143.9 per game. Ryan Kalil is out this week, and the expectation is that Larsen will get the nod at center. He’s been listed between C-G since camp, there shouldn’t be any fall off against Pittsburgh.
The team recognized deficiencies on several points, and they’ve done a terrific job of assembling players, specifically faster players who CAN ‘hurt you’. Case in point is Curtis Samuel’s 103-yard dance through the secondary, and McCaffrey’s and Moore’s back-to-back 32 yard gains…
If you say, “Yeah, but all that was against the Suckaneers, not PITTSBURGH’S! defense,” you miss the point about why this is a big game for Panthers. Neither team gives up 100 yards in a game often, and Blitz-burgh is #2 in sacks with 26, the Panthers have 21, with Mario Addison’s three-sack day against FitzMagik putting him at 7.5 for the year. The Panthers weren’t pleased with not being ranked at an elite level early in OTAs, this is the time to show what you’re about.
Most of the concern will be for the Panthers secondary, especially the cornerback tandem of James Bradberry and Donte Jackson. They were pretty well glued to Mike Evans and DeSean Jackson last game, but OJ Howard and Humphries had very nice games, and Pittsburgh has TWO tight ends with a bunch of catches, so everyone will have to be watching out. The defense has to get home with Roethlisberger, but as the tale goes, when you get there, he’s STILL 6’7″ and tough to get on the ground.