The 6-2 Panthers face a huge matchup on Thursday Night Football as they’ll face off against the AFC North leading Pittsburgh Steelers, who are 5-2-1 and come into Thursday riding a four-game winning streak. On their four-game win streak, Pittsburgh is averaging 31.25 points per game and features an offense that excels at practically every skill position.
Since 2014, the Steelers have been an impressive 10-2 playing home primetime games – and 10-1 with Ben Roethlisberger playing. If there’s a silver lining, it’s that their only loss with Big Ben in this time span came earlier this season against the Ravens.
So there’s a lot at stake.
The Panthers have some insurance on their season thanks to a 6-2 start, but a win here to go to 7-2 would make for a gigantic statement, especially against a team with this many weapons. Clearly, the Steelers offense is where the meat of this team resides, so with that in mind, let’s go through a profile of the 2018 Steelers’ offense.
Much of the talk surrounding second-year back James Conner has been about how Le’Veon Bell didn’t matter that much and how Pittsburgh is actually better without Bell. I don’t really agree with this statement; while the Steelers are scoring more points without Bell, let’s not forget offensive coordinator Todd Haley is no longer with Pittsburgh – or Cleveland for that matter – and often times it did seem like he was force feeding Bell.
New coordinator Randy Fichtner has responded with a more balanced attack, sharing the wealth by putting less emphasis on receiving backs and letting all the Steelers’ weapons reign. Either way, Conner has been off to a phenomenal start, posting 706 rushing yards, nine touchdowns and 379 receiving yards along with a receiving touchdown through eight games. He’s on pace for 2,000 yards from scrimmage – not bad for the hometown kid.
While Conner is experiencing similar levels of productivity as Bell, it doesn’t mean he isn’t an exceptional talent.
In terms of skill sets as runners, Bell and Conner contrast. We’ve heard to death from TV broadcasts how Bell is a patient, hesitant back who can create openings by coming to a complete stop and cutting through a hole. Conner, on the other hand, is less hesitant, and is more of a LeSean McCoy-esque back who can cut on a dime.
Take this run from last week at Baltimore for example. Conner runs at a phenomenal pad level and his hip quickness stands out, allowing him change directions and angles at a flash. He’s able to find a hole inside as he gets the ball, cuts a little outside, avoids a couple of tacklers, and cuts inside to move the chains.
As shown on this run, Conner isn’t afraid to dish out some punishment either – he’s a physical back that from time to time can contrast Bell’s hesitance with a more aggressive, contact-hungry approach. But Conner isn’t overtly aggressive and has constantly shown his intelligence as a runner. As a receiver, he’s of the same quality, too.
Who knows if Bell ever comes back to play with the Steelers again, but Conner is proving his worth – and then some – as the Steelers’ starting back. He’s become a huge chess piece on that offense without being overtly relied on.
Antonio Brown is an outlier for sixth-round picks. He’s arguably the best receiver in the league, and has been a first-team All-Pro wide receiver for four consecutive seasons. This year, he only has 51 catches for 594 yards – though he also has nine touchdowns – through eight games, which can be traced to the emergence of guys like JuJu Smith-Schuster and Vance McDonald as well as Roethlisberger failing to connect with him several times downfield.
Brown can beat you downfield, beat you in the short game, the intermediate game, with a patient route, with a quick route, or beat you with his speed for yards after the catch.
On this switch concept, Brown gets this pass inside the numbers. The Panthers need to be prepared for how detailed Brown’s footwork is – he uses all sorts of moves to beat you. Here, he pushes off his right foot and turns on the accelerating jets. His speed here makes him look like Tyreek Hill here, and there’s essentially no limits to what he can do.