The Panthers’ start to this season in terms of wins and losses has gone about as well as could be hoped after having faced four teams who sit at .500 or better for the season – as well as the NFL’s top ranked offense and defense – they sit a relatively comfortable 6-2 and after this game against Pittsburgh on Thursday Night Football, they won’t face a team currently possessing a winning record until they face the Saints in Week 15. With this in mind, a win on the road against the Steelers would put the Panthers in strong position for a home run towards a three-week stretch that will likely decide the NFC South. So what do the Panthers need to do in order to return to Carolina for their mini-bye week with a win?
Protect Cam Newton
The Steelers are a fairly mediocre pass defense on the whole, but two areas where they do excel are their pass rush (ninth-best sack %) and their ability to force incompletions – if the Panthers are going to have much of a passing game to speak of on Thursday, that is going to have to start with keeping Cam Newton upright. As the Steelers run a fairly conventional 3-4 defense, the majority of the pressure is likely to come off the edge, with the interior defensive linemen being used to eat up blockers and allowing for the Steelers to disguise where they are bringing pressure from. The Panthers offensive line has been decent this year despite giving up a couple of sacks last Sunday, but this will be similarly tough test to the one they faced against Baltimore, a game where it should be noted that they kept Newton clean.
While it is fairly obviously true that the Panthers will be relying on their tackles to play well on Thursday, there are also some things they can do scheme-wise to limit the effect of Pittsburgh’s pass rush. Firstly, they can continue to use the motion and misdirection attack that has been so impressive the past two weeks. Not only does this have the potential to produce big plays, but it also creates uncertainty for defensive linemen and pass rushers as they are afraid to be caught out of position by being too aggressive. Screens can also be useful in this regard, especially against the 3-4 front where the defense will often look to keep at least five players at the line of scrimmage at the snap. By looking to punish the Steelers should they be over-aggressive, the Panthers can slow down their pass rush and give Newton time to pick apart what is a fairly mediocre secondary.
The other scheme method for attacking the Pittsburgh pass defense is the use of more empty and four-wide formations, as by forcing more defenders out of the box to cover receivers the Panthers will limit the degree to which they are able to disguise pressure and so simplify things for the offensive line. If the Steelers don’t look to follow the receivers from these formations – as the Buccaneers failed to do a few times on Sunday – the Panthers need to use receiver screens and other quick-hitting route concepts to punish the defense for overcommitting to the box.
The Panthers will be pushed to limit the Steelers pass rush on Thursday, but if they look to use motion, misdirection and quick-hitting passing patterns then they have a good chance of preventing their edge linebackers from taking over the game and picking up some chunk yardage through the air.
Inside Receiver Issues
Mike Evans and DeSean Jackson had been dominating NFL defenses before they played the Panthers last week – but the pair were largely shut down by the Panthers’ duo of Bradberry and Jackson, who played a large part in holding the pair to just three catches for 48 yards on 14 targets; other top receivers such as Julio Jones, AJ Green and Odell Beckham Jr were held to an average of six catches for 84 yards on ten targets against the Panthers, with just one combined touchdown.
In other words, the Panthers outside corners have been pretty damn good.
What hasn’t been so hot, however, has been the Panthers’ pass coverage on the inside, with the team struggling against both tight ends and shiftier slot receivers; as highlighted by OJ Howard and Adam Humphries combining for 12 catches for 135 and four touchdowns on 14 targets on Sunday.
For tight ends, the issue doesn’t appear to be talent as the Panthers linebackers and safeties are some of the best in coverage in the NFL, and it is also true that some of Howard’s numbers were inflated in that he happened to get one of Fitzpatrick’s better high-risk throws of the day against Mike Adams, in the same way that some of Ertz’s production in the Bengals game was due to spectacular contested catches rather than any poor coverage on behalf of the Panthers. However, while Vance McDonald is a good tight end, he is not of the same caliber as the likes of Ertz, Eifert and Howard who they have already faced this season. What the Panthers must do is make sure that they don’t allow the kind of line they did to Austin Hooper, who is not a top-tier tight end but went for five catches, 59 yards and a score on five targets in what was the Panthers’ worst defensive performance of the season to date.
Where the issue seems more inherent, however, is in the slot, as while Captain Munnerlyn has been better this season than last, this is still a player who was benched in favor of Colin Jones at one point last season and hasn’t really lived up to his contract to this point. Munnerlyn wasn’t the only culprit in allowing Humphries, Tyler Boyd, Russell Shepard and Cole Beasley to combine for 24 catches for 339 yards and three touchdowns on just 27 targets thus far this season, but he was far from innocent. The Steelers passing attack will likely focus on Antonio Brown and Juju Smith-Schuster – and rightly so – but the Panthers absolutely cannot afford for Ryan Switzer or James Washington to just pick them apart from the slot. If Brown or Smith-Shuster pull something outstanding out their hat then so be it, but letting a good-but-not-great player eat you alive from the slot would be too easy a get-out for the Steelers.
Run The Damn Ball
The Steelers are actually one of the better run defenses in the NFL, allowing just 4.1 yards per carry – not only is this still a fair chunk of yardage for a running play, but because of their 3-4 defense, they are likely be be more vulnerable to play-action passes which will force their pass rushers to focus on gap control at the start of the play rather than being able to charge downhill. However, in order to have an effective play-action game, the running game that goes with it has to be healthy. If the Steelers aren’t afraid of the Panthers’ ability to run the ball, then the run fakes will be all the less convincing for it. So how do the Panthers get a run game going against the Steelers?
As with most games this season, the Panthers should look to the option attack to create chances for them on the ground. The Steelers interior defensive line is solid, but have combined for just one tackle for a loss against the run all season – if the Panthers can get either McCaffrey or Anderson past the line of scrimmage without being touched then they have a good chance of gaining consistent yardage on the ground. While CJ Anderson has been criminally underused to this point this season, the Steelers defense is actually one where it would make sense for McCaffrey to get a major chunk of the carries, as if the Steelers are unable to generate tackles for a loss, then his ability to generate big plays on the ground when he has some space can become hugely effective.
Unlike with the Buccaneers and the Ravens, there are no aspects of the Steelers’ defense that look prone to exploitation, so instead, a well-balanced attack will be needed in order to keep the defense off balance and to allow for some chunk plays on offense. To this end, the run game will be an important feature, as if the Panthers do get one-dimensional and look to the passing game to dig themselves out of any early holes, the Steelers’ pass rush is built to be effective if they are able to pin their ears back and go after the quarterback. It won’t be easy getting to 7-2, but the Panthers have the talent to match the Steelers, they just need to execute like they did in the first half against the Buccaneers, rather than how they looked in the third quarter.