Panthers-Steelers Pick: Can Carolina Stop James Conner and AB84?

Andy Benoit
Sports Illustrated

Three things to know before the Panthers face the Steelers on Thursday Night Football (8:20 p.m. ET, Fox, NFL Network, Prime Video).

1. Few offenses put underneath defenders in schematic binds as effectively and consistently as the Steelers. They regularly employ intertwined crossing routes—a.k.a. “mesh” concepts, which Chip Kelly brought into the NFL mainstream. Most teams do this to beat man coverage, but the Steelers also use “mesh” to attack zone. And they smartly build their checkdown routes off this, which is a big reason James Conner has so many receiving yards. When the Steelers don’t run “mesh,” they find other ways to stress underneath defenders with high-low routes. We’ll find out Thursday night just how great the Steelers really are with these tactics; no linebacking unit is better equipped to deal with them than Luke Kuechly, Thomas Davis and Shaq Thompson.

2. James Bradberry could be the difference between a wild-card run and a Super Bowl run in Carolina. Even though the Panthers play more zone than man coverage, they still often have the third-year cornerback travel with opposing No. 1 receivers. Bradberry, with his strong press-jam ability and sense for positioning at the top of routes, has been stellar if not spectacular. Last week he dominated Tampa Bay’s Mike Evans. This week he sees Antonio Brown, whom the Steelers aligned in a greater variety of ways last week, especially out of trips formations.

3. With Devin Funchess and especially Greg Olsen, Carolina’s offense is at its most dangerous when passing down the seams. That happens to be where the Steelers’ single-high zone scheme is most vulnerable. When the Steelers match up out of their zones, first-round rookie Terrell Edmunds is often the primary seam defender. Edmunds at times has struggled with his transitional movement in space. Expect Carolina to test him.

Bold Prediction: If the Panthers blitz more than five times, they’ll lose. Most of Carolina’s blitzes are fire zones, meaning the coverage behind the blitz features three defenders deep and three underneath. Fire zones do not hold up if a quarterback extends the play—which Ben Roethlisberger, even at 36, still does as well as almost anyone.

Score: Steelers 27, Panthers 21

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