Thursday Night football : The Pittsburgh Steelers will play their ninth game of the 2018 regular season Thursday night against the Carolina Panthers in what figures to be another exciting out of conference game for both teams. Below are five key things that I believe the Steelers will need to do in the game to come away with their third home win of the 2018 season Thursday night at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh.
Panthers quarterback Cam Newton has had a great regular season to date not only as a passer but also as a ball carrier. Offensive coordinator Norv Turner has done a great job this season of mixing in designed runs for Newton and that includes a few out of read-options as well as naked bootlegs. In total, the Steelers can probably expect Newton to use his legs on at least 10 plays Thursday night and that includes some quarterback scrambles when and if his pass protection ever breaks down. Newton is a big-bodied quarterback much like the Steelers Ben Roethlisberger and thus very hard to get to the ground. The Steelers front seven must do a great job of containing Newton inside the pocket Thursday night and make sure to hit him hard and get him down on the ground quickly whenever he does manage to get himself out in space.
While the Panthers offense has been great at times so far this season, it’s mostly been a result of that unit staying out of third and long situations. In total, the Panthers offense has converted 40.66 % of all third down opportunities and that has them ranked right near the middle of the league. However, when facing third downs with 6 or more yards needed, the Panthers offense has converted just 27.7% of those this season and Newton’s quarterback rating in those situations is just 58.9, which is one of the worst in the league compared to other quarterbacks with 25 or more pass attempts. He’s most likely to make a big mistake and perhaps even turn the football over in those 3rd and long situations.
With this being a short week for both teams and the game being played in Pittsburgh, the Steelers figure to have a slight advantage and especially with the team not being as far removed from their bye week as the Panthers are. The Steelers are likely to open the Thursday night game with their no-huddle offense and success using that could stress the Panthers solid defense right out of the chute and thus wind up tiring them out quickly. Early touchdowns by the Steelers offense like they had to open their home game against the Atlanta Falcons defense several weeks ago might even cause the Panthers offense to panic some in the first half and that could result in a few key mistakes by that unit. The Steelers do not need this Thursday night game to be close when the fourth quarter gets underway as their own defense might be the one that ultimately bends and breaks the most in the final 15 minutes of play if the Panthers offense can still have their entire playbook open to them late. In short, the Steelers are more likely to win this Thursday night game early than they are late.
The Steelers special team units have been very inconsistent at times this season and have committed several unnecessary penalties to boot. While Steelers returner Ryan Switzerhas provided a few sparks at times in the team’s first 8 games, he’s still yet to break off an eye-popping field-flipping run. Steelers punter Jordan Berry and kicker Chris Boswell both need to be on point Thursday night with their leg usage and the coverage units must get down field and wrap up quickly. This Thursday night game figures to be a tightly contested one so a big special teams play or two could ultimately decide the winner.
Thursday night could be a big one for Steelers tight end Vance McDonald as the Panthers defense has been horrible so far this season when it comes to defensing opposing tight ends. Entering Thursday night, the Panthers defense has already given up 55 receptions for 613 yards and 7 touchdowns to opposing tight ends on the season and thus McDonald should be targeted by Roethlisberger several times during the game and in the middle of the field as well with Steelers wide receivers Antonio Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster receiving most of the attention from the Panthers secondary. A big game from the Steelers tight ends Thursday night should be expected with McDonald possibly ending the game as the team’s top pass catcher.