NFL Preview - Carolina (2-12) at Pittsburgh (10-4)
By Scott Garbarini, NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - The Pittsburgh Steelers are going to the playoffs despite having lost their last game, while the Carolina Panthers own the league's worst record yet are coming off a rare win in their most recent outing. That's just the way it's been during this unpredictable NFL season.
The Steelers will be out to restore a sense of normalcy when the AFC North co- leaders welcome the lowly Panthers to Heinz Field this Thursday for a Week 16 battle between teams currently residing on opposite ends of the football spectrum.
Pittsburgh had vaulted to the top of the AFC North pack on the strength of a four-game win streak highlighted by a hard-fought road victory over its chief competition for the division crown, the Baltimore Ravens, in early December. The Steelers no longer stand alone in first place, however, after coming out on the short end of a 22-17 decision to a desperate and determined New York Jets squad last Sunday at Heinz Field and the Ravens coming through with a critical triumph in their matchup with the reigning Super Bowl champion New Orleans Saints.
Though Pittsburgh and Baltimore sport identical 10-4 marks heading into the regular season's final two weeks, the Steelers do own a superior record in division play, meaning the Black and Gold would claim both the AFC North title and a much-desired opening-round bye in the upcoming conference playoffs if they can defeat the Panthers and follow up with a win at Cleveland in the finale.
A Steelers' win on Thursday coupled with a Baltimore loss in its Week 16 venture at Cleveland would also clinch the division and a postseason bye.
Achieving the first part of that equation doesn't appear to be too much of a problem, judging on past results. Carolina is a woeful 2-12 on the season and hasn't won any of its six road games thus far, with four of those setbacks coming by double-digit margins.
The Panthers also rank at the bottom of the NFL in scoring and both total and passing offense and will be going up against a fearsome Pittsburgh defense that's tied for the league lead in fewest points allowed and rates third overall in least yards surrendered.
Carolina will be entering the Steel City on a high note, however, after snapping a rough stretch of seven straight losses with last week's 19-12 besting of the declining Arizona Cardinals. The Panthers were able to get off the schneid by unleashing a potent ground attack spearheaded by running back Jonathan Stewart and mixing in a strong defensive effort that limited the punchless Cardinals to 218 total yards.
Stewart is averaging 115 rushing yards and a healthy 5.9 yards per carry in four games since returning from a concussion, but the powerful back figures to be challenged by a smothering Steelers stop unit that's holding the opposition to a league-low 63.4 yards per game on the ground.
Pittsburgh may be without one of its defensive stalwart for Thursday's test, however, with All-Pro safety Troy Polamalu uncertain to play due to a strained Achilles tendon that kept him out of last week's loss.
Pittsburgh holds a 3-1 edge in its all-time series with Carolina, and has won each of its last three head-to-head meetings with the Panthers. The Steelers took a 37-3 road decision in the most recent matchup, in 2006, and were 30-14 winners when the clubs last met in the Steel City, in 2002. The Panthers' only win in the series was an 18-14 victory in 1996.
Carolina head coach John Fox is 0-1 against the Steelers as a head coach, while Pittsburgh's Mike Tomlin will be meeting both Fox and the Panthers for the first time as a head man.
WHEN THE PANTHERS HAVE THE BALL
Don't expect Carolina to stop trying to do what it does best on Thursday in spite of the daunting task that lies ahead. The Panthers have run the football with authority over the past month, with Stewart (668 rushing yards, 7 receptions, 3 total TD) and shifty sidekick Mike Goodson (435 rushing yards, 3 TD, 36 receptions) the main cogs of an offense that's averaged an impressive 167.8 rushing yards per game over the past four weeks and backed up a punishing 212-yard effort on the ground against Atlanta in Week 14 with last Sunday's 177-yard output versus the Cardinals. Carolina's still going to have to show at least a semblance of a passing game in order to be effective, though, and that's an area in which the team has often struggled with rookie quarterback Jimmy Clausen (1304 passing yards, 2 TD, 7 INT) at the controls. The former Notre Dame star did have his best day as a pro last week, though, completing an efficient 13-of-19 throws for 141 yards and a touchdown while not committing a turnover. Much like the quarterback position, the Panthers have been plagued by inexperienced at wide receiver, where rookies David Gettis (32 receptions, 3 TD) and Brandon LaFell (34 receptions, 1 TD) have each been pressed into key roles opposite still-capable veteran Steve Smith (43 receptions, 2 TD).
Carolina's recent rushing success will be put to the test by the swarming Steelers, who hadn't permitted more than 103 yards on the ground in a game until the Jets ran for 106 last Sunday. Not having Polamalu (62 tackles, 1 sack, 6 INT) available may help explain that drop-off from the defense's usual high standards, but Pittsburgh still has a wealth of stout stoppers in place even if the difference-making safety is again held out. The inside linebacker duo of Lawrence Timmons (121 tackles, 3 sacks, 2 INT) and James Farrior (100 tackles, 5 sacks) may be the best in football, while nose tackle Casey Hampton (18 tackles, 1 sack) and end Brett Keisel (26 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT) are outstanding space eaters who enable the playmakers behind them to roam free. Look for crafty coordinator Dick LeBeau to dial up plenty of blitz packages designed to both rattle and confuse the still-developing Clausen, with outside linebackers James Harrison (89 tackles, 6 sacks, 2 INT) and LaMarr Woodley (46 tackles, 8.5 sacks, 2 INT) heavily a part of those plans. The exceptional pairing has accounted for nearly half of the Steelers' total of 40 sacks, tied for third-most in the league.
WHEN THE STEELERS HAVE THE BALL
The Pittsburgh offense benefits from its balance, blending the passing talents and field presence of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (2600 passing yards, 14 TD, 5 INT) with the NFL's eighth-ranked running game (122.1 ypg) to form what can be a difficult combination to defend. Add in the field-stretching skills of speedy wide receiver Mike Wallace (53 receptions, 1048 yards, 8 TD), who's averaging nearly 20 yards per catch and burned a well-regarded New York secondary for 102 yards on seven grabs a week ago, and it's safe to say the Panthers may not have an easy time on their hands on Thursday. Protecting Roethlisberger has usually been the Steelers' biggest issue, as the valued field general has been sacked 15 times over the last four weeks, and he'll need adequate time to survey the field and connect with Wallace and four-time Pro Bowler Hines Ward (51 receptions, 4 TD), the preferred targets among a solid receiving corps that's expected to get tight end Heath Miller (33 receptions, 1 TD) back from a concussion that sidelined him the past two games. Rookie wideout Emmanuel Sanders (23 receptions, 2 TD) helped offset Miller's absence by posting career bests of seven catches and 78 receiving yards against the Jets, while workhorse running back Rashard Mendenhall (1173 rushing yards, 10 TD, 20 receptions) contributed his fourth 100-yard day of the season in the loss.
Carolina's defense is fresh off its best showing of the season, with linebackers James Anderson (115 tackles, 3.5 sacks, 1 INT) and Jon Beason (104 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT) organizing a charge that held the Cardinals to 43 rushing yards last week and the team sacking rookie quarterback John Skelton three times. One of those takedowns came from end Charles Johnson (57 tackles, 9.5 sacks), giving the standout pass rusher a total of six over his last five games. His ability to create pressure, along with the steady play of young secondary members such as cornerback Captain Munnerlyn (39 tackles, 3 INT, 11 PD) and strong safety Charles Godfrey (75 tackles, 5 INT) is a big reason why the Panthers rank fifth in the NFL in pass efficiency defense and have come up with 17 interceptions for the year. Containing the run has been more of a problem, with the unit having yielded an average of 126.2 yards per game on the ground at the moment (23rd overall).
There hasn't been a better defense for fantasy purposes this season than Pittsburgh's, and the opportunity to face a Carolina offense that too often can't get out of its own way is one owners absolutely can't pass up at this critical stage of the schedule. Mendenhall falls into the must-start category as well, while Wallace has proven his worth as a weekly fixture in lineups during a tremendous sophomore campaign. Roethlisberger should only be used as a fall-back option, as there's a good chance the Steelers won't have to air it out a lot to win, and that prospect in turn deflates the value of any other Pittsburgh receiver other than Wallace. However, there's no reason to downgrade Steelers kicker Shaun Suisham, who's a perfect 10-for-10 on field goal tries since joining the team at midseason. Stewart is the only player on a moribund Panthers roster that merits starting consideration here, and his production could be impacted by the tough assignment Pittsburgh's run defense poses.
Polamalu's status normally is a huge factor to consider, as the Steelers' record in games in which the star safety doesn't play isn't even remotely as good as when he does. That likely won't be as big a deal this week, however. The Panthers aren't built to succeed when their running game isn't grinding out yards, a distinct possibility against a Pittsburgh defense that's a brick wall in that aspect, and Clausen's brief professional track record hardly suggests the rookie's capable of leading a team to victory in a hostile environment against a superior opponent at this stage. The Steelers may struggle at times on the offensive end, but they'll get at least one big play out of Wallace and a touchdown on defense that will turn a somewhat competitive game into a comfortable win.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Steelers 30, Panthers 10
12/21 16:32:29 ET