This week's edition of 'Thursday Night Football' should be a damn good one. The 5-2-1 Pittsburgh Steelers are rolling and once again look like one of the best teams in the AFC, and on Thursday night they play host to the 6-2 Carolina Panthers, who look like one of the best teams in the NFC.
Pittsburgh leads the AFC North and surely wants to avoid a loss that could knock them backward if the Bengals manage to get a win on Sunday. The Panthers, meanwhile, are still a game behind the 7-1 Saints, and need a win in order to keep pace in the NFC South and potentially get a home game or two in the playoffs.
Luckily for football fans, we'll get to see a ton of stars on both sides of the ball do battle, in particular some of the best quarterbacks (Ben Roethlisberger, Cam Newton), running backs (James Conner, Christian McCaffrey), and wide receivers (Antonio Brown, JuJu Smith-Schuster) in the NFL. That's a whole lot of offensive talent on the field, going back and forth trying to score against a couple strong defenses playing well of late.
How will things shake out Thursday night (8:20 p.m., NFL Network, stream on fuboTV)? We're glad you asked.
When the Steelers have the ball
Le'Veon Bell has still not reported to the Steelers. The Steelers still have not missed him all that much.
Pittsburgh ranks fourth in the NFL in yards per game, ninth in points per game, and eighth in efficiency, per Football Outsiders' DVOA. Last year, the Steelers ranked third, eighth, and third in the same measurements. Bell's backup, James Conner, has been flat-out better this season than Bell himself was a year ago. In 2017, Bell averaged 27.1 touches per game, with averages of 4.8 yards per touch and 129.7 total yards per game. This season, Conner is averaging 23.6 touches per game, with averages of 5.7 yards per touch and 135.6 total yards per game. Conner has 10 total touchdowns in eight games, just one fewer than Bell had in 15 games last year. Conner has four separate games of 100-plus yards and two touchdowns on the ground, which is one more than Bell has in his entire career.
Defenses may not be quite as "scared" of Conner as they are of Bell, but Conner has been more effective on the ground (4.7 yards per carry compared to Bell's 4.0 last year) despite facing stacked boxes with eight-plus defenders far more often than Bell did a year ago. According to NFL.com's NextGen Stats, 19.94 percent of Bell's carries in 2017 came against an eight-man box or more, while 30.46 percent of Conner's carries have come against eight-plus-man boxes.
Conner could be set up for a tough night against the Carolina defense this week, however. It'd be his first tough night in a while. The Panthers rank seventh in rush defense DVOA, per Football Outsiders, and have been one of the toughest defenses in terms of holding down running backs in the passing game. They've allowed 33 catches to running backs, sixth-fewest in the NFL, and just 217 receiving yards to the position, which ranks third-fewest. Then again, Conner just tore up a Baltimore defense that is one of the NFL's best against running backs to the tune of 163 total yards and two touchdowns. That was four days ago. So, perhaps he's just matchup-proof at this point.
The more interesting battle could come in the passing game. Ben Roethlisberger is one of the most well-protected quarterbacks in the, but the Panthers are among the NFL leaders in hurries (10th), hits (fourth), knockdowns (12th), and total pressures (fifth), according to Sports Info Solutions. Unpressured quarterbacks, though, have been able to find some success against the Carolina secondary. Overall, the Panthers have allowed opponents to complete better than 65 percent of their passes at an average of 7.2 yards per attempt. In particular, Panthers defensive backs have been picked on in man coverage, according to SIS.
The Steelers, of course, have two of the best receivers in football, and perhaps two of the receivers best-suited to work against this Carolina secondary. JuJu Smith-Schuster lines up in the slot on nearly 80 percent of his routes; the Panthers have been flamed by slot receivers all year -- especially lately. Tyler Boyd (6-132-1), Adam Humphries (8-82-0), Sterling Shepard (4-75-0), and Cole Beasley (7-73-0) have all gone off against the Captain Munnerlyn-led slot coverage. Carolina has allowed 87 catches for 988 yards and seven scores to slot wideouts, per SIS. Antonio Brown, meanwhile, seems likely to see shadow coverage from underrated corner James Bradberry. Bradberry is one of the most-targeted cornerbacks in the league, as only the Chiefs' Steven Nelson has been thrown at more often. He has been good if not necessarily great in coverage, allowing an 86.1 passer rating on throws in his direction. Bradberry does not often travel to the slot, so it'll be interesting to see how coverage changes as Brown moves around the formation.
Tight ends Vance McDonald and Jesse James, meanwhile, could play sizable roles in the passing game as well. The Panthers have allowed more catches by tight ends this season than any team in football, and a 127.84 passer rating on throws to the position -- fourth-highest in the league.
When the Panthers have the ball
The Steelers' ability to find great success in the absence of Le'Veon Bell has been one of the season's biggest surprises, but the Panthers' emergence as one of the funnest offenses in the NFL is also on that list. The hiring of Norv Turner as offensive coordinator was panned in many circles given the stodgy nature of his offense in recent stops, but Turner has reinvented himself and has been one of the small handful of most creative play-callers in the league this season. Turner has figured out the best ways to use Cam Newton, Christian McCaffrey, Devin Funchess, and D.J. Moore, and did an excellent job reincorporation Greg Olsen on the fly after the star tight end returned from a recurrence of his foot injury that cropped up in the first game of the season and kept him out for several weeks after.
McCaffrey was in a full-on timeshare last season and occasionally went full games without making an impact. That has not been the case this year, as he's largely been used as a true feature back, averaged 19.8 touches per game. He has not suffered a dip in efficiency even with the rising usage (12.3 touches per game last year), and is in fact averaging more yards per touch this season than he did a year ago (5.6 per touch to 5.5 per touch). Pittsburgh actually ranks first in DVOA against running backs in the passing game this season, per Football Outsiders, and has allowed only 32 completions for 195 yards, two touchdowns, and an interception on 45 throws to players at the position. The Panthers move McCaffrey all around the formation and manufacture touches for him on jet sweeps and screens so it's possible he could still break a long-gainer if they figure out a way to use the Pittsburgh defense's aggressiveness against it.
Conversely, the Steelers' defense has struggled badly against tight ends, indicating that Greg Olsen, who has been heating up, could be in line for a big night. Olsen was quiet for a couple weeks after returning from injury but has gone for 4-56-1 and 6-76-1 over the past two weeks. His ability to stretch the field vertically up the same is as perfect a fit for Newton's playing style as it has always been, and they have found a rhythm over the past two weeks. The Steelers, meanwhile, are 26th in DVOA against tight ends, and have allowed 53 catches for 584 yards and four touchdowns to the position. They've been torn up over the middle of the field, where Olsen tends to eat.
On the perimeter, there should be a one-on-one battle waged between Funchess and Joe Haden for most of the night. Funchess is having his best NFL season, averaging career-highs in receptions (4.5) and yards (55.6) per game, as well as catch rate (65.5 percent). His season-highs of seven catches and 77 yards don't jump off the page but Newton has been able to count on him when he needs a first down or drive-extending play, as 28 of his 36 grabs have gone for first downs, per SIS. Among 146 players with 25-plus targets, that first-down rate of 77.8 percent ranks 15th in the league.
Beyond those three players, Newton does not have a particular target he seems to place a ton of trust in. Jarius Wright, Torrey Smith, rookie D.J. Moore, and second-year man Curtis Samuel have all had their moments, but none has carved out a regular place in the offense just yet. Turner has been able to design ways for Moore and Samuel in particular to get into open space, which is key for players with their skill sets. Leveraging the attention paid to McCaffrey and Olsen in order to get them an opportunity at a pop play would be a wise idea against the Steelers.