The Pittsburgh Steelers host the Carolina Panthers tonight at Heinz Field, looking to score their fifth victory in a row, which would make it three consecutive seasons in which they have been able to compile a winning streak during the regular season of at least that many games.
Doing so tonight will be arguably their second-biggest challenge of the season so far, the first being the Kansas City Chiefs, against whom they crashes and burned in fairly spectacular fashion during the second half. But this is a much better team, perhaps on both sides of the ball, than that one hosting the leaders of the AFC West.
One of the problems, I think, with the Chiefs is that hey are a familiar opponent, yet one that hasn’t changed as much as Kansas City has, so they had a bit of an advantage. For the Panthers, not only have they not changed a great deal, they’re also not an opponent Pittsburgh sees and thus studies much, and with it being a short week, both sides will be similarly disadvantaged.
Earlier in the week, offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner highlighted the use of the no-huddle offense to deal with the lack of preparation time. The Steelers did that last year when they had a Thursday game to great effect, so I would expect that to continue.
Defensively, Keith Butler’s focus was maintaining discipline against at team that wants to throw a lot of different things at you. Calling them a ‘gadget offense’ that likes to get the ball in the hands of wide receivers a couple of times a game with several designed runs for quarterback Cam Newton, he wants his defense to run to the ball, but be mindful of their responsibilities on reverses.
To that end, the key for the game defensively is going to be to continue to pick up in terms of being a clean and consistent tackling team, which they have gotten significantly better at during their winning streak. Strong tackling played a big role in keeping the Baltimore Ravens out of the end zone for most of Sunday’s game.
Offensively, they have learned that they can run the ball effectively out of three-receiver sets, and so are going to continue to build on that. If they can run from passing sets, it will provide another layer of deception they can use against defenses. They’ve already tried (and somewhat failed) to throw out of heavy sets earlier this year.
After a game in which the Steelers had several drops, including a big one from JuJu Smith-Schuster, and a couple of big penalties that negated plays, the offense is going to have to play a cleaner game as well.
That includes executing in situational football, as they have been, converting on 10 of 16 third-down plays (plus one-for-one on fourth down) and getting into the end zone on three of four trips inside the 20.