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Steelers streak on line against tough Panthers
The Pittsburgh Steelers remain in control of the AFC North after beating the Ravens in Baltimore. They are 3-1-1 against division foes this season and don't have to face another AFC North team until playing host to Cincinnati in the regular-season finale at Heinz Field.
The game Thursday night against the Panthers is the first of five games in the second half of the season against teams that are currently in playoff position. The Steelers face a gauntlet over their final eight games. After the Panthers they also must face the Chargers, Patriots, Saints and Bengals.
The Panthers and Steelers are two of the hottest teams in the NFL. The Steelers have won four in a row after starting the season 1-2-1. The Panthers have won three in a row and five of their past six.
The Steelers turned their season around when the defense started to play better. They have allowed 21 points in each of the past four games, including a strong effort in Baltimore Sunday afternoon when they allowed a season-low 16 points.
The biggest weakness early in the season was giving up big plays. Once they stopped giving up an inordinate number of big plays the defense started to click.
"We are growing every day," head coach Mike Tomlin said. "Guys are getting better. Technically, they are growing in terms of knowledge, they are growing in terms of situational understanding and when you do those things you make plays, and you minimize negativity and those two things happen at the same time. Hopefully we've made a few plays and hopefully we've prevented a few plays with that approach."
The Steelers will face a tough assignment in trying to stop the Panthers, who are coming off a 42-point outburst against the Buccaneers and are averaging 27.5 points per game. They have scored 30 points or more in four of their past six games.
Panthers quarterback Cam Newton is playing well again. He has passed for 1,893 yards and 15 touchdowns, and he's the team's second-leading rusher with 342 yards and four rushing touchdowns.
Running back Christian McCaffrey has made a big difference, too. He has 880 yards from scrimmage and five touchdowns.
"You should start with Cam Newton because he can run it, he can throw it," Tomlin said. "He's strong. He can make all the throws with accuracy from a distance standpoint well. But I really think what's going on with him is just looking at the infusion of roles between what he and McCaffrey are able to do. They're multi-dimensional players that really perform really well together. McCaffrey's playing more snaps I think than any other offensive player in football. He leads them in receptions, he's a rushing threat, as is Cam Newton. The way that those two guys operate and the things that Norv Turner is able to do with those two guys is really creating issues for their opponents and particularly of late."
Carolina also has a top-10 defense. The Panthers are eighth in the NFL against the rush. Steelers running back James Conner is second in the NFL in rushing with 706 yards and has four consecutive 100-yard running games.
But this is a tough week to craft a game plan. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said the no-huddle could be a big part of the plan because of the short preparation time.
"We've been doing it a while," Roethlisberger said. "We know it. We know it pretty well. We did it really well in Baltimore, and just being able to pick up the pace and the tempo."
SERIES HISTORY: 7th regular-season meeting. Steelers lead series, 5-1. The Steelers have won the past five games in the series, including the most recent meeting in 2014, a 37-19 victory in Charlotte. The Steelers are 3-0 in games played in Pittsburgh. The only time the Panthers beat the Steelers was in 1996. The Panthers beat the Steelers 18-14.