Sunday, September 21, 2014
Steelers vs. Panthers preview
By David Newton and Scott Brown
September 19, 2014
Carolina Panthers running back Fozzy Whittaker (43) is hit by Pittsburgh Steelers outside linebacker Ryan Shazier (50) in the first quarter of the NFL preseason football game on Thursday, Aug. 28, 2014 in Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/Don Wright
The Carolina Panthers are 2-0 despite playing their opener without starting quarterback Cam Newton and their second game without Pro Bowl defensive end Greg Hardy, who on Wednesday was placed on the commissioner's exempt list.
The Pittsburgh Steelers are 1-1 after losing 26-6 to the Baltimore Ravens in prime time.
Carolina defeated the Steelers 10-0 in Pittsburgh in the preseason finale for both teams, when few starters were on the field. Now these teams will see how they match up for real. ESPN Panthers reporter David Newton and ESPN Steelers reporter Scott Brown are here to break this one down:
Newton: Scott, the Panthers have forced a league-best six turnovers in the first two games, and the Steelers haven't forced one. Pittsburgh also committed three against Baltimore. Do you see that being a big factor Sunday night?
Brown: Absolutely. The Steelers have to take care of the football against an opportunistic Panthers defense, and they have to start taking the ball away. It has been an issue the past three-plus seasons; the Steelers haven't won a playoff game since 2010 in large part because they have consistently lost the turnover battle.
The Steelers signed former Panthers free safetyMike Mitchell to give them a speedy playmaker on the back end of their defense, but he has not flashed in the first two games. I'm sure Mitchell would love nothing more than to make a couple of what Steelers coach Mike Tomlin calls splash plays Sunday night against his former team.
How is former Steelers receiver Jerricho Cotcheryfitting in for the Panthers and how much of a positive influence has the 11th-year veteran been for promising rookie Kelvin Benjamin?
Newton: From a leadership standpoint, I'd have to give Cotchery an A. It's a much different climate on the field and in the locker room with Cotchery instead of Steve Smith, as you probably can imagine. Benjamin has all the physical tools at 6-foot-5 and 240 pounds -- not to mention hands the size of a catcher's mitt. Having Cotchery and Jason Avant there to mentor him on how to block and handle not being a part of the play has been important. The improvement Benjamin made on the little things from Week 1 to 2 was noticeable.
There is not much Cotchery or anybody can teach Benjamin about catching, though. In each of the first two games, he has made the type of phenomenal catch Cotchery and Avant probably only dream about. I have to admit I was starting to get skeptical of what Cotchery would offer on the field after the preseason. But in the first two games he has eight receptions for 78 yards. He is a nice complement to Benjamin and tight end Greg Olsen, who has been outstanding.
The Steelers have struggled to stop the run so far. The Panthers have struggled to run, and that is a big part of their game. What has been the problem on Pittsburgh's side?
Brown: Wait a second, here. Are you trying to tell me that Jonathan Stewart and De'Angelo Williams aren't Franco Harris and Rocky Bleier? Tomlin sure made them sound like a fabled running back tandem this week. And since no coach has ever employed hyperbole in talking up an upcoming opponent, I'm going to assume Carolina's problems running the ball are an aberration.
Seriously, whatever Carolina's struggles have been running the ball might simply be fixed by playing against a defense that always used to stuff the run. The Steelers haven't been good against the run since 2012, which was, not coincidentally, five-time Pro Bowl nose tackle Casey Hampton's final season with the team.
Hampton rarely lost ground while clogging the middle of the defense and often commanded double-teams. The Steelers' current defensive line has not consistently tied up blockers or maintained assigned gaps and, through two games, Pittsburgh has given up 170 rushing yards per game. The line simply has to start winning more battles up front for the run defense -- and the Steelers' defense as a whole -- to show significant improvement.
Cam Newton is a running threat. Does the Carolina quarterback gain most of his rushing yards after escaping a collapsing pocket, or will Carolina run some read-option with him?
Newton: What? No comparing Newton to Y.A. Tittle? Seriously, it's a combination of both, and the healthier Newton gets with his fractured ribs the more he will run. He took off for 13 yards Sunday on a read-option play that was similar to, if not exactly like, one coach Ron Rivera said his quarterback should have handed off on in practice to protect the ribs.
The left ankle that was surgically repaired in March still isn't completely healed, which might explain why Newton looked somewhat awkward at times running against the Lions. But what makes him a weapon is you don't know when he's going to take off, whether it's a scramble when the pocket collapses or the read-option. He also refuses to slide and protect himself, as we saw last week. If the Steelers are as bad as you say at stopping the run, I'm sure Newton will take a few shots at them with his legs.
What about Ben Roethlisberger? Is Big Ben still a quarterback who can carry a team?
Brown: He'd better be able to carry the Steelers because Roethlisberger is the biggest hope they have of returning to the playoffs after consecutive 8-8 seasons. I think he is still playing at a high level and I'm not ready raise serious concerns about Roethlisberger and the offense, although the Steelers have managed just nine points in their past six series. If the offensive line holds up, the Steelers are going to score points with the talent they have at the other skills positions, such as receiver Antonio Brown and running back Le'Veon Bell.
David, where are the Panthers vulnerable, and are you surprised by their 2-0 start?
Newton: I'll answer the second part first. Not really. I actually picked them to start 3-0. The defense really is as good as advertised, and I figured that would be enough at Tampa Bay and at home against Detroit. But I was surprised that Newton didn't play in the opener and that the offense played so well without him. I've been saying since early in organized team activities that Carolina is better at wide receiver than it was a year ago, and so far that group has proved me right.
As far as vulnerability, the lack of a running game has to be concerning. The Panthers want to control the clock and want to keep the pressure off of Newton having to run. Without a running game, that gets tough. It will also be interesting to see whether Hardy's situation ultimately becomes a distraction. So far, it appears to have galvanized the locker room.