8:20 PM EST, NFL Network – Line: Steelers -4, Over/Under: 51.5
Two of the hottest teams in the league meet in a midweek clash as the surging Pittsburgh Steelers host the Carolina Panthers on Thursday Night Football from Heinz Field, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Despite an 11-5 finish to the 2017 Campaign, the Panthers (6-2, 2nd in NFC South) were very much a question mark in a stacked NFC, undergoing a wealth of change on the offensive side of the football, where they had greatly underachieved since advancing all the way to Super Bowl 50 just two years ago. A great deal of their struggles came with the mismanagement of former MVP Quarterback Cam Newton (67.3%, 236.6 Y/G, 6.58 NY/A, 15 TD, 4 INT, 66.8 QBR), who had proven maddeningly inconsistent of late, due in large part to injuries and the Coaching Staff’s perpetual inability to get the most out of his considerably unique talents. And it’s with that said, that Ron Rivera made a seismic decision in hiring his former mentor, Norv Turner, to coordinate the Offense, which despite the veteran Playcaller’s extensive experience was very much a gamble given his recent track record; Turner quit on the Vikings midway through the 2016 term, and hasn’t presided over a potent attack since his final days as the Head Coach with the then-San Diego Chargers (2011). However, if one thing is clear, this guy can still coach the hell out of an Offense, for Carolina has improved greatly from the past few years in this regard; the Panthers are averaging 27.5 Points (11th Overall) on 382.2 Total Yards (13th Overall), including 238.3 Yards through the air (22nd Overall) on 6.60 Net Yards per Attempt (13th Overall) along with another 143.9 Yards on the ground (2nd Overall) on a league-best 5.2 Yards per Carry (1st Overall). And nobody has benefitted more from his influence than Newton, who is quietly turning in a darkhorse MVP caliber season; Newton’s Completion Percentage (67.3%) is by far and away the highest of his career, while his Touchdown Percentage (5.7%) and Quarterback Rating (66.8) are a slim second to that aforementioned 2015 campaign, with his Interception Percentage (1.5%) and Sack Percentage (4.4%) representing career-bests. Furthermore, the 3-Time Pro Bowler has managed to improve such as a passer without compromising his unique ability to eviscerate Defenses with his legs, averaging another 42.8 Rushing Yards on 4.7 Yards per Carry, while averaging a career-high 9.1 Carries per Game, with Four Touchdowns to boot. Unlike the past two seasons, his success running the football seems natural in the context of the Offense, which is a credit to Turner, particularly when you consider the turnover along the Offensive Line, which has also dealt with a number of injuries thus far. Aside from Newton, there have been plenty of others that have benefitted in this new scheme, with Sophomore Tailback Christian McCaffrey (158 Touches, 880 YDS from Scrimmage, 5 TD) finally justifying his lofty selection from last year’s Draft, finding far more success as a traditional Rusher (109, CAR, 502 YDS, 4.6 Y/C, 3 TD), while still factoring heavily into the Passing Game, leading the unit with Forty-Nine Receptions on Fifty-Nine Targets. When we last saw the Panthers, they were busy embarrassing their Division Rival, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in a 42-28 affair that wasn’t nearly as close as the final score would indicate. Carolina ran out to a 35-7 lead shortly before Halftime, and never looked back, posting 407 Total Yards, including a whopping 179 of the rushing variety, with Newton completing 19-of-25 Passes for 247 Yards and Two Touchdowns, while rushing for another Thirty-Three Yards on Eleven Carries, while McCaffrey racked up 157 Total Yards and a pair of Scores on Twenty-Two Touches, with veteran Tight End Greg Olsen (18 REC, 218 YDS, 12.1 Y/R, 3 TD), who had previously missed four weeks due to a foot injury, notching a season-high Seventy-Six Receiving Yards on Six Catches and hauling in a Touchdown for the third consecutive week. If this group continues to develop at this rate, than the Panthers should be every bit as threatening as the other superpowers in the NFC, for Carolina has scored at least Thirty Points in four of their last six outings, averaging exactly that figure during this stretch. Entering a season in which nothing appeared certain, Riverboat Ron has struck again folks, and he and his charges are reaping the benefits of his gamble.
Meanwhile, the Panthers aren’t the only team rolling into this Thursday Night affair with a great deal of momentum on their side, for the Steelers (5-2-1, 1st in AFC North) are reasserting themselves as a contender in the AFC after a sluggish start to the season. Resilience would probably be the most appropriate word to describe this team in 2018, for when you consider how the term began, you can’t help but marvel at how Mike Tomlin’s charges have gotten to this point; Pittsburgh endured a turbulent Offseason for a variety of reasons, but none more so than the Contract Standoff between the storied Franchise and All-Pro Tailback Le’Veon Bell (406 Touches, 1,946 YDS from Scrimmage, 11 TD in 2017), whom they placed the Franchise Tag upon for the second consecutive year, only to see his holdout last well past the midway point of the schedule. At this point, Bell has willingly forfeited over half of his $14+ million salary for 2018, with a Week 11 Deadline rapidly approaching before his entire guaranteed payday is voided. Finances aside, the major concern was how detrimental his absence would be to an Offense, and by extension a team, that is desperately trying to extend it’s championship window. Fortunately, the Steelers remain as potent and explosive as ever without Bell, with the unheralded James Conner (151 CAR, 706 YDS, 4.7 Y/C, 9 TD) doing the impossible in making the 3-Time Pro Bowler expendable. The Sophomore Tailback has been a revelation thus far in Steel City, proving every bit as versatile and effective as his predecessor, accumulating 1,085 Yards from Scrimmage and Ten Total Touchdowns on 189 Touches thus far, which are franchise records throughout the first eight games of the term. Furthermore, if this kid is indeed able to keep this level of production up over the remaining eight games, then he will post higher figures than Bell himself has been able to muster in any season he has spent in Pittsburgh. Furthermore, it’s no coincidence that their current 4-Game Winning Streak has gone hand-in-hand with Conner’s emergence in the Offense; over the past four weeks, he’s averaged 118.5 Rushing Yards on a healthy 5.39 Carries with Six Touchdowns, while hauling in another 53.8 Yards through the air on Twenty Receptions with another score. Of course, his emergence has really endeared himself to veteran Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (64.5%, 320.0 Y/G, 7.01 NY/A, 16 TD, 7 INT, 71.9 QBR), who has also caught fire during this winning streak, completing 65.2% of his Attempts for an average of 286.5 Yards on 7.16 Net Yards per Attempt, with Eight Touchdowns in comparison to just Two Interceptions over the past four contests. Even without Bell in the Backfield, and without longtime Offensive Coordinator Todd Haley calling the shots, the Two-Time Super Bowl Champion has led a once-again prolific attack that has ranked Ninth in Scoring (28.2 P/G) and Fifth in Total Yards (424.4 Y/G), connecting with perennial All-Pro Receiver Antonio Brown (51 REC, 594 YDS, 11.6 Y/R, 9 TD) to terrorize opposing Defenses. But with all that said, Tomlin’s charges made it crystal clear that they can still roll up their sleeves and come out of an all-out brawl the victors, evidenced by their impressive 23-16 victory at the Baltimore Ravens over the weekend. When they met earlier in the season at Heinz Field, the Ravens really took it to the hosts in a 26-14 affair, though the Steelers managed to return the favor in the grudge match, meticulously extending their lead to 20-6 midway through the Third Quarter. While it ended as a one-possession decision, a deeper dive into the numbers will reveal just how the visitors dominated their bitter rivals; Pittsburgh held a considerable advantage in First Downs (27-18), Total Offense (395-265), Third Downs (10-of-16 to 4-of-12), and Time of Possession (36:29 to 23:31), manufacturing a slew of lengthy drives that chewed up the clock and diminished the opposing Defense with each passing play. However, no drive was more indicative of their superiority than the one that began the Second Half, a marathon-like 16-Play, 75-Yard Series which saw Roethlisberger complete 7-of-10 passes for Seventy-Seven Yards before calling his own number on the Goal Line, lumbering into the End Zone for the score.