The Pittsburgh Steelers are now 5-8, looking to get back in the win column to avoid early elimination from the postseason against the Carolina Panthers who have the same record.
Let’s get right into the matchup, starting with the quarterbacks. Carolina moved on from Baker Mayfield, and since have started Sam Darnold their last two games. Though it’s a small sample size, let’s look at the quarterbacks Expected Points Added (EAP) and Completion Percentage Over Expected (CPOE) from nflfastR:
Here we can see Darnold was an above average quarterback the last two weeks, with a particularly strong CPOE that ranks fourth out of 53 quarterbacks with a minimum of 40 dropbacks in his limited opportunities. His EPA ranks 26th in comparison to the league, and most importantly helped bring his team to victories against the Broncos (23-10) and Seahawks (30-24) on 43 attempts for 284 yards, two touchdowns, and particularly no interceptions. The Panthers have definitely been on the upswing, and really hoping the Steelers defense can get back in the turnover column (none against Baltimore last week), needing to return to a collective team effort in all three phases that was severely lacking last week.
Pittsburgh’s starting quarterback for Sunday is in question, with Kenny Pickett doubtful following his second concussion of the season, and here are how both Steelers quarterbacks that have played fared this season. They are below the mean in EPA as many would expect, but just below it with quarterback Mitch Trubisky at 32nd and Pickett ranking 24th, but very inconsistent and rollercoaster seasons to get to those averages. Pickett has the edge in CPOE, with a strong ninth rank in the NFL, compared to Trubisky at 29th which is just above the mean. Pickett is now 191/294 (65%) for 1,797 yards, with four touchdowns and eight interceptions, cleaning up the latter remarkably well with none since week seven. Whoever plays in week 15 has to trend positively in this regard, considering Trubisky’s three interception game being a huge factor in the loss. In his six games played, he now is 100/158 for 1,063 yards, with four touchdowns and five interceptions, and an improved 63.3% completion rate, highlighting a good game outside the turnovers, and hopefully there’s more of that if given the opportunity on Sunday.
I wanted to provide a bit of context to last weeks performances in anticipation to this matchup using completed air yards (CAY) and time to throw (TTT):
Very telling data, with Darnold falling on the extreme lower left with the longest TTT of the week, over a half second longer than any other quarterback that contributed to the 13 pressures and two sacks he took, and also ranked dead last by far with an extremely low 1.2 CAY which was over two full yards below any other quarterback. If the data is anywhere close to this on Sunday, Pittsburgh’s defense should be able to get pressure which will hopefully play into the coverage’s hands, likely needing to tackle the catch in front of them and be ready for the short passing game. Looking at Trubisky’s numbers in comparison, he had the third rank in CAY at a strong 9.2 in week 14, giving context to the highs of his play and how his gunslinging game compared across the league. He also had a long TTT of three seconds which was the fifth longest of the week, leading to the nine pressures he had to elude and taking one sack. Very encouraging overall sans his backward scramble that took him 22 yards behind the line on a third down fail, but hopefully these are overall elements we continue to see if he gets another opportunity for an offense desperately needing explosive plays.
There is also a possibility for Steelers quarterback Mason Rudolph to see his first action of the 2022 season, and here is how he fared in EPA and CPOE in the 2021 season in two games played:
In his most recent game action in 2021, Rudolph landed below the mean in both data points with a particularly low rank in CPOE (seventh worst) in the 2021 season, along with an EPA that ranked 40th out of the 53 qualifying quarterbacks. This was of course a long time ago, but telling with games the only action that ultimately counts, and interesting compared to the position room. He did have a good offseason, and has the backing for an opportunity to play Sunday. Very curious to see how this all unfolds at the all-important position.
Now for the running backs starting with rushing leaders through week 14:
Pittsburgh running back Najee Harris leads the outlook with 187 attempts, which is now tenth in the NFL, along with an also above the mean 704 rush yards (17th). He has also improved on his average rushing yards to 3.8 on the season and now has five rushing touchdowns including one last week. The running game was very quiet last game though, with Harris’ having only 33 yards and a 2.8 average, his third lowest mark of the season. Really hoping Pittsburgh and Harris can get back to the better results following the bye, easing the load on the passing game. As a receiver, Harris has 40 targets and 32 catches (80%), 165 yards and two touchdowns, and hoping we see more YAC contributions as we did last week, one example on a nice play call faking the third and short fullback dive to free him up the sideline. Steelers running back Jaylen Warren is fourth in the outlook with 42 attempts, 206 rush yards, and leads the outlook with a 4.9 average, along with 22 targets and 20 catches (90.9%) and just above Harris for an outlook high 167 receiving yards, and hopefully he continues to provide YAC as he seemingly does every week for his team that lacks it overall.
Carolina also moved on at this position as well, trading star running back Christian McCaffrey to the 49ers following their week six game. Panthers running back D’Onta Foreman has played in all 13 games this season, with his opportunities increasing following the trade and starting since week eight. He has 147 carries for 637 yards (just below league mean) for a healthy 4.3 average, and four touchdowns. Three of these came in week eight against the Falcons, a red zone masterpiece and facet that Pittsburgh’s defense will really need to be ready for. He also has explosive run ability, highlighted by a triple explosive run in week seven against the Bucs. Foreman also has four 100 rushing yard games on the season, a feat Harris has not accomplished in 2022.
Carolina running back Chuba Hubbard has played in 11 games this season, serving as the starter in week seven but has taken a backseat after missing weeks eight and nine. He has 55 attempts for 250 yards, also with a healthy 4.5 average and two touchdowns. He has no explosive runs on the season, but is coming off his highest number of opportunities the last two games, completing a strong one-two punch on the ground as of late, coming off a 200+ yard performance as a team which is very concerning for Pittsburgh’s defense, who just allowed one themselves. Fellow running back Raheem Blackshear leads the team in receiving yards with 82 on ten targets which ties with Hubbard, and has 61 receiving yards. Foreman is third on the team with eight targets and 26 yards, with the vast majority of the targets for all three coming post McCaffrey as expected.
Let’s get more context to how Foreman’s rushing yardage has come, first looking at the running backs with the fastest time to the line of scrimmage this season:
Here we can see Foreman is the third fastest running back to the line of scrimmage, highlighting a different style than the Steelers defense just faced against the Ravens, and how important it will be for the defensive line to win the point of attack. Hopefully they come out angry following last effort (or lack therof), with an aggressive and gap/assignment sound game to get back to a prior strength on defense, with Pittsburgh having a strong fifth rank in rush success allowed previously. Harris currently ranks 12th in the NFL in TTL, highlighting improvements since the bye in running aggressively and refreshingly far less dancing around, and it will be very interesting to see how he fares against the Panthers defense this week.
Last thing for the position, here is how the position has fared in efficiency (measures how north and south rushers are) along with eight men in the box percentages:
Here we see Foreman lands at the top right of the chart, seeing 8MIB at the third highest rate in the NFL (36.7%), which sheds impressive context to his prior results and his efficiency number that ranks sixth currently. The challenge he presents along with the rest of the position room must be number one on the priority list for Pittsburgh’s defense to stop in my opinion, or we’re in for another very long game. In comparison, Harris lands below the mean in both data points, seeing 8MIB 19.8% of the time, and a much lower efficiency number that ranks at the other end of the spectrum, at sixth least. While Harris is getting to the line of scrimmage quickly, he is running more sideline-to-sideline after the fact, and is an element I will be eagerly monitoring the remainder of the season considering his best yardage games on the season boasted quicker numbers than his season average.
Next let’s look at the wide receivers, starting with the receiving stats leaders on the season:
Pittsburgh wide receiver Diontae Johnson leads another outlook in targets, with 113 now which ranks sixth league and a notch higher in the ranks this week. He is coming off an encouraging game overall, catching six of his eight targets for 82 yards, which is Johnson’s highest mark on the season that included his longest catch of 2022 on a go route dropped in the bucket from Trubisky. He also saw his highest rate of slot snaps by far last game, at 28.6% with no other game above 20 this season, which aided an improved performance that hopefully continues. His 647 yards are still the lowest of players with at least 95 targets though, and really hoping he continues to get downfield looks to end the season on an upswing, along with finally getting in the end zone (pretty please?!). It isn’t from lack of trying or his fault, with accuracy issues from both quarterbacks in those opportunities, let’s cash in gentlemen.
Fellow wide receiver George Pickens is third in the outlook in targets (64) and yards (590), which is above average given his opportunities. He also had a good game particularly excelling down the field with two explosive plays, one a double explosive 42 yarder on his longest catch of the season as well, along with a great back shoulder grab on the sideline for 25 yards. Pickens saw more time in the slot than his season average too (26.5), an encouraging usage trend the last two weeks that is refreshing after begging for the majority of the season. Will be very interesting to see how the primary wide receivers fare, considering Carolina cornerback Jaycee Horn has the top ranked passer rating against of players with at least 150 snaps. Hopefully whoever sees less matchups against Horn can step up for a big game, and best-case scenario fare well against the oppositions top corner as they did last week.
Panthers wide receiver D.J. Moore is second in the outlook with 91 targets (T-25th in the NFL), and similarly is low in yardage (609) given his opportunities, playing in every game this season. He is listed as questionable for the contest, which would be big. He does lead the outlook with four touchdowns, and has at least one explosive play in seven games. Moore has primarily played out wide (71.1%) and moves around quite a bit with 28% slot snaps on the season. He is the only receiver on the team to make the visual, largely due to the high involvement McCaffrey had in the passing game (still the second most targets on the team) along with also parting ways wide receiver Robbie Anderson.
Carolina wide receiver Terrance Marshall Jr. just misses the minimum targets for the visual with 35, unable to play early in 2022 and has now appeared in ten games. He has largely been utilized out wide (91.3%) and has one touchdown on the season, and was on a roll in the explosive play department with at least one in five straight games prior to Darnold starting, with only one catch and less than 20 yards in each of those games. Fellow wide receiver Shi Smith is next on the team and fifth in the outlook with 28 targets, 185 yards, and a touchdown, but only a 57.1% catch percentage in 12 games played, and Laviska Shenault could also get involved (questionable), with 24 targets and a touchdown, providing an excellent 87.5 catch percentage and 198 yards in eight games.
Next, I wanted to provide percent of teams air yards at the position, which adds a great deal of context to this matchup:
Here we see Moore accounts for the highest TAY in the NFL, at a whopping 46.2%. It will be very interesting to see how this plays out against Pittsburgh’s defense who typically aims to limit the opposing offenses primary receiver, along with a lack of connection with Darnold last week, on his lowest number of targets on the season (three) and no catches. Johnson has the 12th rank in TAY, at a much lower 32.6% as the visual highlights. So, Johnson’s TAY result is mostly volume based, and next I wanted to provide more context to Moore’s top rank and the negative side of the coin for the receiver rooms, catch percentages and YAC through week 14:
Right away we can see the primary receivers have been below average in both areas this season. Moore has particularly struggled connecting with the turnstile at the quarterback position, with a very low 50.5% catch rate that is third worst in the NFL. So, very important context to his league leading TAY, and hopefully this continues with the Pittsburgh defense being another beneficiary. He is also well below average in YAC, but does lead the matchup at 3.2. Pickens leads the outlook in catch percentage (62.5) which is near NFL average, with Johnson at 59.3 which each improved from last week’s averages. As we’ve been pointing out at Steelers Depot for much of the season though, the YAC results for Pittsburgh (particularly at wide receiver) have been painfully low overall, with Pickens at 2.4 which trended downward the past couple weeks and is now fourth least in the NFL, a bit more expected given his style of play, and Johnson’s being the unexpected bugaboo at 2.2 which is second lowest, though he has trended positively overall through the season.
Let’s transition to the tight ends, and here are the receiving yardage leaders in 2022:
Pittsburgh tight end Pat Freiermuth is now fourth in the NFL in his strong season with 630 receiving yards, along with the same rank in targets (82), and receptions (53). Carolina hasn’t targeted the position much at all, mainly splitting opportunities between two players. This starts with tight end Ian Thomas, who has played in all 13 games this season with 25 targets, 19 receptions (76%), and 176 yards with no touchdowns. Tommy Tremble also fits the bill of availability, with 22 targets but only 11 catches on a low 50% catch rate with 101 yards and two touchdowns. Including every tight end for the Panthers, they have targeted the position 58 times, which is 24 less than Freiermuth alone. Here’s to hoping that factor holds true on Sunday, allowing the Steelers defense to hopefully be able to key in on the Panthers hot running game.
One other thing I wanted to provide with Freiermuth in mind, separation (distance between the receiver and nearest defender at the time of catch or incompletion) and catch percentages for 2022:
Here we see Freiermuth has gotten the second least separation at the position this season (2.6), which has actually been below his season average and less than two yards the last two games. This has a lot to do with defenses giving him more attention, along with the ill-advised targeted interceptions from Trubisky, and would really like to see him get back on a more positive trend in this regard, in turn aiding his below the mean catch percentage (64.6) that ranks 19th out of 28 players. Would be great to see his great hands maximized more with continued scheme/route development, personally wanting to see him in more bunch formations to hopefully get him (and others) more open for easier opportunities with a bit more separation and crisper routes at times moving forward.
The offensive lines are always key to any matchup, and let’s see how the two teams have fared thus far with PFF grades:
Right away we can see Carolina has the stronger grades overall, with right tackle Taylor Moton having the highest overall number as a pass blocker at 81, but the lowest run block grade for the Panthers at 56. Will definitely be an intriguing matchup with Steelers edge rusher T.J. Watt, who will hopefully be able to step up in the teams attempts to stop the run and of course buck the data and get to the quarterback as he did for a sack last week. Right guard Austin Corbett has the most well-rounded grades in the outlook by far, the only player clearly above the mean and ranking second as a run (66) and pass blocker (76.9). He also makes ESPN’s top ten win rates ranking seventh as a run blocker. Left guard Brady Christian and has the lowest grades of this group with 70.4 pass and 56.5 run block numbers. ESPN thinks more highly of him in the run game, landing just below Corbett at the position as the eighth ranked run blocker. Center Bradley Bozeman leads the outlook with a 71.4 run block grade, but well below the mean as a pass blocker at 67.2, missing six games at the beginning of the season but has played every snap since. So, the interior o-line in particular provides a huge challenge in the run game, highlighting the challenge for defensive lineman Cameron Heyward, Larry Ogungobi, and company looking to right the ship in this regard.
Rookie left tackle Ikem Ekwonu was the top lineman selected in the 2022 draft and is one of four lineman to play every snap for Carolina this season. He is clearly above the mean in the matchup as a run blocker (62.6), and lands right at it as a pass blocker (71). Ekwonu has allowed the most sacks on the team (four) which ties for second most in the matchup, and hopefully Pittsburgh edge rusher Alex Highsmith can step up similarly to Watt, with both getting good pressure as they did last game, with the former knock-on wood getting back in the sack column (his last coming in week 12). Pat Elflein filled in at the center position the first six games, and we can clearly see the drop off from Bozeman in both regards. Cameron Erving has played 62 snaps, coming in as an extra lineman the last six games and has particularly fared well with the third ranked 76.1 pass block grade, but well below the mean in the expected role of a run blocker (57).
Pittsburgh’s highest individual PFF grade is Kevin Dotson as a pass blocker (73.2) which is fourth in the outlook. This may ruffle some feathers with his most recent admittance to missing a line call that led to Pickett’s injury, but he does have the lowest number of pressures allowed on the season (14), along with a 60.2 as a run blocker which is at the mean for the matchup. Considering guard James Daniels and center Mason Cole make ESPN’s top ten in pass block win rates at their positions (eighth and ninth, encouragingly), perhaps their grades should be a bit higher, with Daniels (69.6) not charged for a sack all season and Cole (66.8) with two which are the fewest on the team. Cole leads the team and third in the outlook as a run blocker (65.2), while Daniels comes in at 63.6 which is fourth in the matchup. The tackles have the worst grades for Pittsburgh, with Dan Moore’s 68.9 pass block grade seemingly a bit high considering his team and outlook high 32 pressures allowed and six sacks, pairing this with a 54.1 run block grade that is worst in the matchup. Chukwuma Okorafor has a 65.4 pass block grade, which is lowest on the team and second worst in the matchup. He has allowed 31 pressures which is second most on the team and in the outlook, and charged with three sacks which is fourth most in the matchup. They will definitely have their hands full against the Panthers defensive front.
Perfect time to move on to the defenses, seeing how they have fared in the run and pass game through the season using EPA:
Carolina has fared stronger on defense this season in both the run and pass game, just above the NFL mean in both regards and particularly boast a better result as a pass defense, ranking 12th along with the 15th rank as a run defense. Being in the top half of the league highlights a big challenge for the Steelers offense, who have definitely struggled to put points on the board for much of the season. Pittsburgh’s defense comes in with their strongest rank on run defense (18th), but have struggled the last two weeks on a negative trend as mentioned earlier. Their EPA as a pass defense has also left much to be desired this season, ranking 27th in the league but has been stronger as of late. As highlighted several times in the article, the run game is priority one for the defense to remedy, and hopefully the pass defense can continue its recent improvements against the Panthers.
Wanted to share some team defense rankings I gathered when studying the matchup, many in this recent article as well. In terms of a Steelers Depot favorite, Adjusted Net Yards per Pass Attempt (ANY/A), Carolina has the edge with an offensive number of 5.1 compared to Pittsburgh at 4.6, and defensive numbers of 5.7 and 6.5, giving the Panthers the edge in differential (-0.6, 19th) compared to Pittsburgh’s -1.9 which ties for dead last in the NFL. Neither team has been particularly strong in the explosive play department, but Carolina once again has the edge heading into the contest, with 42 on offense and 50 allowed on defense for a -8 differential (25th), compared to the Steelers 38 offensive explosives which is third least and 58 allowed on defense which ties for the second most, for a -20 differential that lands at 31st in the NFL. One aspect the Steelers have a better mark in is turnovers, but not too much optimism with 17 on both offense and defense for a 0 differential, while Carolina has 16 turnovers and 14 takeaways for a -2 differential. Hopefully this aspect of the game holds true, along with bucking some of the data above on Sunday.
Let’s look at the defenses from a player stats perspective to close, starting with Pittsburgh. Linebacker Myles Jack (doubtful) is still the teams leading tackler, now with 100 combined, along with three for loss, three passes defensed, and a quarterback hit. Safety Minkah Fitzpatrick is now second on the team with 73 combined tackles, highlighting him having to make far too many as the last level of defense in the poor run defensive outing, leads the team with four interceptions and a touchdown, third on the team with eight passes defensed, along with a tackle for loss and quarterback hit. Linebacker Devin Bush is third on the team with 72 combined tackles, along with two for a loss, two quarterback hits, and two passes defensed. Highsmith still has the team lead in sacks with ten, 15 quarterback hits, four forced fumbles, tied for the team lead with eight tackles for loss, along with 47 combined tackles, and a pass defensed. Heyward is tied for the team lead with eight tackles for loss, second on the team with five sacks and 14 quarterback hits, along with 52 combined tackles, two passes defensed, a forced fumble, and a fumble recovery.
Cornerback Levi Wallace is tied for the team lead with 11 passes defensed, second on the team with three interceptions, along with 39 combined tackles. Cameron Sutton is having a good season, the other player with 11 passes defensed, along with two interceptions, 33 combined tackles, and a tackle for loss. Ogunjobi is third on the team with eight quarterback hits, along with 34 combined tackles, three tackles for loss, and a half sack. Watt is now third on the team with 2.5 sacks, along with 27 combined tackles, five quarterback hits, four tackles for loss, four passes defensed, and a forced fumble.
For Carolina, linebacker Shaq Thompson leads the team with 98 combined tackles, along with seven for a loss, four passes defensed, three quarterback hits, a fumble recovery, and a half sack. Fellow linebacker Frankie Luvu is second on the team with 78 combined tackles, 12 for a loss, five sacks, along with seven quarterback hits, an interception with an explosive return for a touchdown, and a fumble recovery. Safety Xavier Woods (questionable) is third on the team with 66 combined tackles, along with four passes defensed, and a quarterback hit.
Edge rusher Brian Burns leads the team and outlook with 10.5 sacks, 18 quarterback hits, 13 tackles for a loss, along with 55 combined tackles, two passes defensed, and a forced fumble. He plays on both sides of the formation, with more snaps to date against left tackles, so Dan Moore will likely have the primary and tough matchup. Fellow edge rusher Marquis Haynes is a rotational piece, really excelling at getting to the quarterback with ten hits (second on the team), along with 22 combined tackles, five for a loss, a fumble recovery for a double explosive touchdown, four sacks, and three passes defensed. The other starter at the deep edge rusher position is Yetur Gross-Matos, tied for third on the team with eight quarterback hits, along with 38 combined tackles, four for loss, three fumble recoveries, and a sack and a half. Defensive lineman Matthew Ioannidis also has eight quarterback hits, along with 24 combined tackles, three for loss, a sack, and forced fumble. Defensive lineman Derrick Brown has an impressive six passes defensed, along with six quarterback hits, 51 combined tackles, five for loss, an interception, and a sack. Three Panthers defenders made the ESPN top ten win rates along the defensive line as well: Gross-Matos (fifth in run stopping), Ioannidis (seventh in pass blocking), and Brown (eighth in pass blocking) at their positions. Here’s to hoping Pittsburgh’s o-line can step up to the tough challenge in the trenches.
Horn leads the team with three interceptions, seven passes defensed, along with 44 combined tackles, two for loss, and a quarterback hit. Fellow starting cornerback C.J. Henderson is second on the team with two interceptions including a double explosive 54-yard return, five passes defensed, 50 combined tackles, and two tackles for a loss. Cornerback Donte Jackson also has two interceptions including an explosive 30-yard return for a touchdown, three passes defensed, 35 combined tackles, and a tackle for loss. So, the teams takeaway numbers may not be high in comparison to the league, but Pittsburgh better be ready for field flipping returns with the ability to take it to the house that knock on wood does not come to fruition on Sunday afternoon.
How do you think the game will play out against Carolina? Thanks for reading and let me know your thoughts in the comments!