What to watch: Panthers at Steelers

The Carolina Panthers have an opportunity Thursday night to seriously damage the Pittsburgh Steelers' hopes for a bye in the AFC playoffs.

The Panthers would love to see that happen, but not because of the Steelers' situation.

"I don't think being a spoiler is motivating," Carolina center Ryan Kalil said. "I think it's about wanting to win, regardless of your record. It's always nice to win."

The Panthers (2-12) got their first taste of victory in nearly two months last Sunday in their home finale against Arizona, but the beating Pittsburgh (10-4) on the road presents an even taller task.

But with nothing to lose – unlike the Steelers – the Panthers appear to be taking the right mental approach to the game.

"Pittsburgh's not an easy place to play, but we're going to have fun with it," tight end Dante Rosario said. "We're going to see if we can finish off the season the right way."

Wanting to win is important for a team whose playoff hopes are long gone, but it's only part of the battle. Here are some other things the Panthers must do if they're to pull off the upset.

RUN THE BALL: The Panthers were able to beat Arizona and have been close in several games of late due in large part to their resurgent running game.

Carolina has topped 100 rushing yards in seven consecutive games after reaching the century mark just twice over its first seven games. That's helped the Panthers rise to 12th in the NFL in rushing yards per game (116.8).

Just one problem: The Steelers aren't allowing any opponents to run the ball. Pittsburgh leads the NFL - by a wide margin - in rushing defense, yielding a measly 63.4 yards per game.

"It's going to be tough," Kalil said. "They've got a great front. The biggest key for us is going to be to finish because the thing those guys do really well is keep after it. You think you've got them covered up, and the next thing you know they shed you and make a play. They're a tough bunch."

Can the Panthers find a way? They'll have to if they have any hope of finding the win column.


SCORE THE BALL: The Panthers' ability to run the ball has kept them in numerous games of late, but opponents' ability to keep the Panthers out of the end zone often has made the rushing success moot.

Too many times, a big run by Jonathan Stewart or Mike Goodson has gotten Carolina in position to score, only for the drive to bog down short of the end zone. That simply can't happen against a Pittsburgh defense that isn't likely to yield many scoring opportunities in the first place.


BRINGING BIG BEN TO DOWN SIZE: They don't refer to Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger as "Big Ben" for nothing.

At 6-5 and 241 pounds, Roethlisberger isn't easy to bring down. Add in his sneaky mobility, and he can be even harder to handle.

"He's a big man," Panthers safety Charles Godfrey said. "Big men try to tackle him, and he still can find a way to get out of it and make a play.

"I almost think he's better once he gets pressure. He gets out the pocket, those receivers find a way to get open, and he hits them."

The Panthers had difficulty getting sizable Tampa Bay quarterback Josh Freeman to the ground earlier in the season, but of late they've done a better job generating pressure in the first place, and they've been finishing.

That's especially true for defensive end Charles Johnson, who will be aiming to tie a team record with a sack in six consecutive games (previously accomplished by Kevin Greene in 1998).

If the Panthers can pick up some sacks, they'll have a shot. If they can't, they at least have to make sure Roethlisberger doesn't have all day to improvise.


YOUTHFUL EXUBERANCE: The players are going to be hitting hard, and the cold is going to pack quite a punch as well – even more so with both teams playing just four days since their last game.

Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin suggested that the Panthers' abundance of youth could allow them to bounce back quicker physically than his team, but the Steelers have more motivation based on the standings to find a way to bounce back.

Maybe, though, Tomlin's theory will prove true. The Panthers sure hope so.

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