Countdown: Steelers at Panthers

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Pittsburgh Steelers (1-1) vs. Carolina Panthers (2-0)
Sunday, Sept. 21, 2014
Bank of America Stadium
8:30 p.m.; NBC

SERIES HISTORY: Steelers lead, 4-1, and have won the last four meetings. The teams have split a pair of games in Carolina.

LAST MEETING: Steelers 27, Panthers 3; Dec. 23, 2010, Heinz Field. The Steelers amassed 408 total net yards to 119 for the Panthers. QB Ben Roethlisberger threw for 320 yards and one TD. Panthers K John Kasay's 27-yard field goal midway through the fourth quarter spoiled the Steelers' shutout bid.

LAST WEEK: The Steelers committed three turnovers, collected none and were beaten, 26-6, on Sept. 11 in Baltimore. The Panthers handled the Lions, 24-7, in Charlotte, in the 2014 debut of QB Cam Newton (22-for-34, 281 yards, one TD).

WHEN THE PANTHERS HAVE THE BALL: They've traditionally run it well. But this season the ground game has yet to find its legs (3.1 yards per attempt on 57 carries). Speed back DeAngelo Williams normally teams with power runner Jonathan Stewart to form a formidable one-two punch, but Williams didn't play against Detroit (thigh) and didn't practice Wednesday or Thursday. The revamped offensive line (only C Ryan Kalil is starting where he did a year ago) has used more than five players in both games this season. Newton remains read-option capable but didn't run much against Detroit after missing the opener vs. Tampa Bay (ankle). All that said, opponents' 5.2-yard average per carry against the Steelers might prove inviting.

TE Greg Olsen is most often the recipient of the lasers Newton launches down the field, as was the case a year ago. The Panthers will align Olsen in a bunch formation, in the backfield, in the slot and in-line, and they'll find him all over the field, particularly if he's lined up on the opposite side of a three-receivers grouping. Short, misdirection passes are also relied upon, as are slants off a read-option look. Protection was an issue against the Lions, as Newton was sacked four times (twice when communication/assignment breakdowns turned pass rushers free).

Carolina hasn't lost a turnover this season, and Pittsburgh hasn't come up with one.     

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The Pittsburgh Steelers prepare for the game against the Carolina Panthers.

WHEN THE STEELERS HAVE THE BALL**: The emphasis will be on eliminating the mistakes that plagued them against the Ravens (sacks, penalties, turnovers). They'll also need to find a way to get MLB Luke Kuechly blocked, no easy assignment for any team, and must avoid falling behind the chains against a defense that generates turnovers with regularity.

If Carolina approaches WR Antonio Brown the way it did Detroit's Calvin Johnson, Brown should get some one-on-one opportunities. The Panthers covered Megatron where he lined up and slid some coverage help his way at times but not all the time. And if the Steelers can run the ball against what might be a steady diet of Cover-2, more big-play opportunities may eventually present themselves. Carolina didn't blitz a great deal against Detroit and only occasionally rushed more than five.

The screen game may also come into play given the relentlessness with which Carolina rushes the passer. TE Heath Miller and slot WR Lance Moore, who's expected to make his Steelers debut, might have to show up in the red zone against a defense that's allowed two rushing TDs in its last 14 games.           

SPECIAL-TEAMS HEADLINERS: Carolina K Graham Gano hit a 53-yard field goal against Detroit and also recovered a fumble on a kickoff. Gano produced touchbacks on 70 percent of his kickoffs last season, the highest total in the NFL since 1994. Brown is fourth in the NFL in punt returns (11.8 yards per).   

THE X-FACTOR: Carolina WR Kelvin Benjamin has eight catches and a touchdown in his first two NFL games but has been targeted 16 times. It's been either feast or famine for the 6-foot-5, 240-pound first-round pick, much as it was at times last season at Florida State.

THEY SAID IT: "Our breakdowns right now are breakdowns of our own accord, and those are the best kind to have. You don't want any but those are the kind that, if we get our act together, we can get that fixed pretty quickly." – Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau

"I enjoyed working for the Rooneys, playing for Coach Tomlin and catching passes from Ben Roethlisberger. And I enjoyed working with all of the guys there. They treated me like family. I know my wife and I cherished those three years that we were there. It was a blessed period of time in my life and not just from a football standpoint." – Panthers WR Jerricho Cotchery

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