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The Last Word: Panthers at Steelers

Bill Voth

Offensive key: It's not like I'm going out on a limb by saying the Panthers' offensive line was THE biggest surprise of the first half the season. Only the Rams have rushed for more yards than Carolina – by 0.4 yards per game – and the Panthers have allowed just 12 sacks, the fourth-lowest total in the league. Thursday night, the task for the line is to hold back the Steelers, who rank sixth against the run and whose 26 sacks tie for fourth most. Outside linebacker T.J. Watt (7.0 sacks) is the marquee name, but the interior will be an interesting area to watch if center Ryan Kalil (ankle) can't go.

Defensive key: The Steelers' potent passing attack and disgruntled running back Le'Veon Bell attract most headlines, but a good Pittsburgh team will never stray far from its punch-you-in-the-mouth roots. James Conner can do more than just run it up the gut, but his four-game stretch of running for 100-plus yards have made this offense super scary. As we know, the No. 1 goal for the Panthers' defense is stopping the run. If they don't hold Conner in check, Pittsburgh could score points aplenty.

Gutsy guess: In terms of sacks, Julius Peppers is off to his slowest start since he had 2.0 after eight games in 2010. But against Tampa Bay, he knocked down three passes and he's forced a couple of fumbles over his past four games. I say he gets to quarterback Ben Roethlisberger at least once, knocking away a fumble that's returned for a touchdown by linebacker Shaq Thompson.

Max Henson

Offensive key: The Steelers defense has been much improved on third downs in recent weeks (Browns and Ravens were just 7-for-25 combined), and a lot of that success has been credited to the implementation of sub packages where Pittsburgh puts six or seven defensive backs on the field. That's one way to get more speed out there to cover receiving threats, but Cam Newton is an entirely different beast. Defensive backs don't often fare well when trying to tackle Carolina's quarterback in the open field, so that running ability could come in handy in third-down situations, whether it be by design or on scrambles. Newton's legs just might be the difference-maker.

Defensive key: I've said it before and I'll say it again - Carolina has to start forcing some field goals in the red zone. The Panthers rank 31st in the NFL in red zone defense, allowing opponents to score touchdowns on 80 percent of red zone possessions. The Steelers rank second overall, scoring touchdowns 75 percent of the time once they get inside the 20. Got to buck the trend(s) sooner or later, preferably sooner.

Gutsy guess: Rookie wide receiver DJ Moore is still sitting on just one touchdown, which came all the way back in Week 2. He'll make make a defender miss (like he always does) and find the end zone again in prime time.

Bryan Strickland

Offensive key: So technically the Panthers' 1-5 record all time against the Steelers - the five losses coming by a combined 102 points - or the fact that they've dropped three of their last four Thursday Night Football appearances should have no bearing on this game. But playing under the "bright lights" away from home against an iconic franchise, a confidence-building drive - and/or a drive that doesn't derail confidence - could have a lasting effect. The Panthers seemed to put slow starts in the rear-view mirror the last two Sundays at home; now is the time to carry that confidence on the road. Carolina will get the ball to start one of the halves, barring a Jerome Bettis-esque coin toss malfunction. When that opportunity comes, the Panthers need to put points on the board.

Defensive key: The Panthers' secondary generally held up well against a who's who of wide receivers over the first half of the season. The unit has bent but not broken against gamut of game-breakers, but now comes a combo of pass catchers that few if any teams can match. Antonio Brown is arguably the league's best receiver, but he's not even No. 1 on his team so far in terms of catches and yards - he trails JuJu Smith-Schuster on both fronts. The Panthers have allowed just three 40-plus-yard completions to date. It won't be easy, but they need to avoid a quick strike against an offense that thrives on it.

Gutsy guess: While being asked about the versatility that relative newcomers Curtis Samuel and DJ Moore have brought to Carolina's offense, head coach Ron Rivera was quick to point out the continued contributions of "traditional" weapons. That category includes Greg Olsen, who has gotten better each week since returning from a foot injury. The Steelers gave up nine catches to Austin Hooper, nine to Tampa's tight end tandem and 10 to a trio of Ravens. Look for Olsen to catch at least eight and find the end zone for the fourth straight week.

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