The 6-2 Panthers come in to the ‘Burgh rocking a 6-2 record, with the Steelers sporting a 5-2-1 record, and winning their last four games. The one detractor from this game, for me, is how it is being played on three days rest.
Nonetheless, the NFL is all about the money, and this matchup will draw plenty of it on the prime time stage. To get a better glimpse of the Steelers’ opponent, I was able to ask Walker Clement of Cat Scratch Reader several questions, and a prediction, leading up to the game. To say his answers were intriguing is an understatement.
Check out what he had to say below, and be sure to check out Cat Scratch Reader, SB Nation’s Panthers site, for all the best information on this matchup from the other side of the field.
Cam Newton has continued to improve throughout his NFL career, but what are some ways the opposition has gotten him off his game this season?
The only things that have really thrown him off this season are failures from those around him. Coaches not trusting him on 4th downs to keep drives alive and receivers dropping balls are the most common ways that drives have stalled out for the Panthers this season. It is worth noting that each of Cam’s four interceptions this season can be blamed wholly on receivers who have tipped balls to the defense or on his rookie tight end who quit on two routes against the Giants.
That said, if the Steelers want to proactively disrupt Newton tonight then their best path is to generate pressure from the interior. Cam hasn’t always dealt well with a pass rusher who is right in his face. There is a strong likelihood that starting center Ryan Kalil will not play tonight because of an ankle injury he suffered on Sunday. The opportunity will be there.
If you are a defensive coordinator, and you have to draw up a plan to stop the Panthers’ offense, what are you doing?
This team is almost like playing Georgia Tech in college football. The Panthers aren’t as heavily reliant on option plays, specifically not the triple option, but there are so many guys who are home run threats on every play that losing track of one of them can be lethal. Newton, Christian McCaffrey, Curtis Samuel, and DJ Moore each have to be accounted for on every play. The Panthers know this and have spent the last few weeks doing everything they can to put defenses on their heels and let these guys run freely.
The defense that stops the big plays these guys are capable of is one that plays a lot of man coverage and stresses the linebackers and safeties to make individual tackles. That’s a tall order against these guys. Most of them will run around you in one on one opportunities in the open field. Newton will run through you. Still, misdirection will kill a defense with the speed these guys put on the field. Samuel took a double reverse against the Buccaneers for 33 yards after getting their defense completely off balance. NFL Next Gen Stats calculated that he ran 101 yards across the field on that play.
The Panthers defense is very similar to the Steelers in a lot of ways. How have teams been able to beat the Panthers’ defense so far this season?
The Panthers started out giving up more yards on the ground than they usually have. Luke Kuechly specifically seemed to be having an off year by his lofty standards. The Falcons and Washington took advantage of that and saw big games from Tevin Coleman and Adrian Peterson. They had a lot of manageable third downs and were efficient in the red zone. They opened up big plays downfield later in the game and that was that.
Those losses aren’t a good blue print for the Steelers, however. Kuechly has picked his game up and I’m looking forward to watching his game against James Conner tonight. To beat the Panthers today, the offense needs to go through Vance McDonald. The Panthers have struggled against tight ends. Big plays from that position kept numerous drives alive for the Eagles, Ravens, and Bucs.
Would you argue the NFC South, who is obviously paired with the AFC North this year, is the best division in football this year?
Yes. Last season saw the the division send three teams to the playoffs. The Saints won the NFC South, but the Panthers and the Falcons took both NFC wildcard spots. There is a good chance they will do that again this year. As much as I hate to say it, New Orleans might be the best team in football this year and both the Panthers and the Falcons are on streaks right now that make them look dangerous for any team in the league. The Buccaneers are effectively the Browns of the this group, but, as a three team division, the NFC South is easily the most dangerous in the NFC and probably the most complete division in the NFL.
What is your prediction for the game, and how do you see it shaking out?
I see this game bucking the usual trend of Thursday Night Football. Home teams are often heavily favored in games that end up being snooze worthy. I think the Steelers have a great, high-powered offense that is going to either be pushed by or chasing Cam Newton all night. Roethlisberger has the more consistent weapons with Antonio Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster, but the difference in the game is going to come down to the design of each offense. Brown and Smith-Schuster can make plays individually, but the Panthers are rolling because of their ability to make plays as a team. They don’t beat corners or block linebackers so much as, when the offense is operating at its peak efficiency, they break defenses. I think that difference favors the Panthers on a short week when defenders have had less time to watch tape on opposing offenses.
Newton has been on fire this season in a way that the Panthers haven’t seen since his MVP year in 2015. I trust their offensive coordinator miles further this season than I did then. I think this game becomes a shoot out and I think the Panthers take it 45-38.