Thursday Night Football this week takes us to Pittsburgh for what should be a pretty good battle of playoff contenders who have been playing their best football as of late. Carolina has won three games in a row, including a nice win over division-rival Tampa Bay on Sunday and Pittsburgh has won four in a row and are coming off of beating their hated rival, the Ravens on the road on Sunday. On paper these two teams are pretty even, but with some different strengths.
Panthers offense vs Steelers defense
Carolina has seen an improved passing game this season under the leadership of Norv Turner, which has been great for Cam Newton, but this is still a team that is lead by their running game and it’ll always be that way as long as Cam Newton is the quarterback. Pittsburgh will of course have to deal with Newton in the running game, which is difficult because he’s a physical freak, but the Panthers don’t run a normal NFL running game, so the Steelers will have to deal with the uniqueness of the Panthers running game, which features a lot of options with Newton leading them and having a guy like Christian McCaffrey being such a dynamic threat for Carolina.
I really disliked the Pittsburgh defense earlier in the season because they were playing terrible, but over the last four games they’ve been playing much better, but this will be the biggest test this defense has faced over the past few weeks. On top of that, they are only giving up 90 yards per game on the ground, which will be really helpful.
The Pittsburgh defense does struggle against the pass, so that is somewhere that Newton and the Panthers offense can really take advantage of. Devin Funchess has really emerged as a top target for Cam Newton, McCaffrey is also a big-time threat in the passing game as he already has 49 catches this season and of course the Panthers have a mainstay at tight end with Greg Olsen, but he is dealing with a foot injury and is listed as questionable.
As is usually the case when Carolina is involved, the key for the defense will be to stop the running game first and force the Panthers into third and long where Newton has to be more accurate, which is something that comes and goes with him.
Steelers offense vs Panthers defense
Despite not having Le’Veon Bell at all this season, the Pittsburgh offense hasn’t really skipped a beat and James Conner deserves a ton of credit for stepping up in Bell’s absence, but that large number of weapons the Steelers have also deserve credit.
Carolina is dealing with some injuries on defense as Eric Reid and Mario Addison are both listed as questionable going into this game and a questionable status is more uncertain when it’s a Thursday game than when it’s a Sunday game. If those two are unable to go it’ll really hamper the Carolina defense trying to slow down one of the better offenses in football.
This Carolina secondary is a little suspect so them trying to deal with Antonio Brown, JuJu Smith-Schuster and those other weapons that Ben Roethlisberger has to throw the ball to should concern the Panthers, especially with the way the Steelers have been running the ball.
Now the Panthers do have a top-10 rush defense in the league, but Pittsburgh has been rushing the ball so well that Carolina will have to respect it, only making it easier for Pittsburgh to move the ball through the air.
In terms of special teams I’ll give the edge to the Panthers because I think Graham Gano is the better of the kickers and Michael Palardy is the better of the punters.
These two teams are really equal, which should set up for a really good game that could easily come down to the wire. When that’s the case in a Thursday Night game I tend to go with the home team and I’m going to do that again this week with Pittsburgh being able to wear down the Panthers traveling on a short week and will pull away late.