Panthers-Steelers: Two hot teams meet Thursday
Two hot teams meet at Heinz Field on Thursday night when the Pittsburgh Steelers host the Carolina Panthers.
The Panthers (6-2) have won three in a row, including Sunday's 42-28 victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The Steelers (5-2-1) have won four straight after knocking off the Baltimore Ravens 23-16 on the road.
The Steelers turned their season around when the defense started to play better. They have allowed no more than 21 points in any of the past four games, including a strong effort in Baltimore Sunday when they allowed a season-low 16 points.
"We are growing every day," Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin said. "Guys are getting better. Technically, they are growing in terms of knowledge, they are growing in terms of situational understanding and when you do those things you make plays, and you minimize negativity and those two things happen at the same time. Hopefully we've made a few plays and hopefully we've prevented a few plays with that approach."
That defense will be tested by Carolina, which has put up 78 points over its past two games against the Ravens and Buccaneers and has scored 30 points or more in four of its past six games.
Panthers quarterback Cam Newton is playing well again. He ranks 10th in the league in passer rating, and during the three-game winning streak he has completed 69.9 percent of his passes with six touchdowns and no interceptions. Newton has also run for 342 yards on 73 carries this season.
Running back Christian McCaffrey has become the all-purpose back the Panthers had hoped he would become. He has 880 yards from scrimmage and five touchdowns.
"You should start with Cam Newton because he can run it, he can throw it," Tomlin said. "He's strong. He can make all the throws with accuracy from a distance standpoint well. But I really think what's going on with him is just looking at the infusion of roles between what he and McCaffrey are able to do.
"They're multi-dimensional players that really perform really well together. McCaffrey's playing more snaps I think than any other offensive player in football. He leads them in receptions (49), he's a rushing threat, as is Cam Newton. The way that those two guys operate and the things that (offensive coordinator) Norv Turner is able to do with those two guys is really creating issues for their opponents and particularly of late."
Turner has been expanding the playbook lately, using trick plays more often.
"He's willing to call it," Panthers head coach Ron Rivera said of Turner's use of gadget plays. "The biggest thing is we use the right kind of guys. Norv is creating things and putting things together."
Newton is reluctant to call them gadget plays, however.
"We don't necessarily call them trick plays because we work on them so much, and the way we execute them is like any other play," he said.
The return of tight end Greg Olsen has helped the Carolina attack. He missed three games with a broken foot suffered in the season opener, but he has made 15 catches with three touchdown receptions during the three-game winning streak.
Defensively, Carolina is tough against the run, ranking eighth in the league in rushing defense.
That defense, which is led by linebackers Thomas Davis and Luke Kuechly, will be tested by Steelers running back James Conner, who is second in the NFL in rushing yards with 706 and has four consecutive 100-yard rushing games.
The Panthers will also have to deal with Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who said the no-huddle offense could be a big part of the plan because of the short preparation time.
"We've been doing it for a while," Roethlisberger said. "We know it. We know it pretty well. We did it really well in Baltimore, and just being able to pick up the pace and the tempo."
Roethlisberger ranks third in the league in passing yards per game, and he has eight touchdown passes and two interceptions during the four-game winning streak.
Wide receiver Antonio Brown is a problem for any defense, even though his numbers are down this season. He has 51 catches and averages 74.2 receiving yards per game, which ranks 21st in the league. He had five receptions for a season-low 42 receiving yards on Sunday against Baltimore.
The Steelers have won the past five games they played against the Panthers, and they are 3-0 against Carolina all-time in games played in Pittsburgh.
Updated November 6, 2018