PANTHERS // STEELERS OVERVIEW
Week 10 provides us with the rare “appealing Thursday Night Football game,” with the 6-2 Panthers traveling to take on the 5-2-1 Steelers. These teams have combined for 10 consecutive wins (four straight for Pittsburgh; six straight for Carolina), and while this game would set up even better if each team were given a full week to prepare, we won’t complain about the NFL giving us something that is actually worth watching on Thursday night.
The Steelers have gotten to this point with one of the better defenses in the league (ninth in yards allowed per carry, fifth in yards allowed per pass attempt, 12th in yards allowed per game) and one of the better offenses on the other side (fourth in yards per game, ninth in points per game), while ranking eighth in time of possession and second in red zone touchdown rate.
The Panthers have gotten to this point with a more average defense (16th in yards allowed per carry, 10th in yards allowed per pass attempt), but with their above-average ball control style, they have managed to rank 11th in yards allowed per game. Carolina’s offense ranks just a few spots behind Pittsburgh in red zone touchdown rate (fifth overall), but the big mismatch in this game will come when the Panthers’ defense tries to slow down the Steelers’ offense close to the goal line. While Pittsburgh ranks second in red zone touchdown rate on offense, the Panthers rank 31st on defense — better than only the Buccaneers. The Panthers have allowed six touchdowns to running backs (middle of the pack), seven touchdowns to wide receivers (seventh fewest in the NFL), and seven touchdowns to tight ends (worst in the NFL).
One thing to watch for in this spot: the Panthers run the ball at the seventh highest rate in the NFL, which shortens their games — leading to Carolina ranking only 22nd in plays per game, while allowing the 10th fewest opponent plays per game. Pittsburgh is tough to run on, but they are also tough to pass on, so expect Carolina to stick to this approach as long as this game stays close — which tilts us toward “upside plays” over “volume plays” in roster decisions.
PANTHERS PASS OFFENSE
Speaking of “volume” and “upside” — Cam Newton has four games already this year of fewer than 30 pass attempts, but he also has three games this year of 39+ pass attempts. Competitive games have led to spikes in passing workload for Cam, as the Panthers seem content to keep the ball in his hands more often when games stay close. In those three games in which Cam threw 39+ times, Christian McCaffrey carried the ball eight times, eight times, and seven times. Outside of his game against Atlanta (15 targets), CMC’s targets did not spike when his rushing volume went down — with six and eight targets in those other two games games, right in line with what he has seen in all his other games this year. The Panthers should enter this game with a game plan to lean on the run as much as normal, but we should recognize that Norv Turner and Cam have shown a tendency to move away from the run in back-and-forth games — which would lower McCaffrey’s floor if that trend continues. Encouragingly (and ironically, given that we highlighted this stat just last week), CMC saw one target inside the 10 last week and three carries inside the five…after seeing only one such target and one such carry all season heading into that game.
Cam’s target distribution over the last two weeks (sans Torrey Smith) has looked like this (Week 9 snap count in parentheses) ::
:: Devin Funchess — 3 // 5 || (45)
:: Greg Olsen — 4 // 6 || (60)
:: Christian McCaffrey — 6 // 6 || (61)
:: D.J. Moore — 6 // 2 || (53)
:: Curtis Samuel — 3 // 4 || (17)
:: Jarius Wright — 3 // 1 || (22)
In this spread-the-wealth offense, Devin Funchess (once) and Christian McCaffrey (once) are the only players who have seen double-digit targets in a game this year. On the Showdown slate, it’s safe to assume a slight bump in volume for Cam, which will spread a few extra looks across these names. Moore and Samuel can each be penciled in for one to two carries per game as well, as the Panthers use each guy on a lot of pre-snap motion that opens the door for jet sweeps and end arounds.
The Steelers have allowed the second fewest receptions in the league to running backs, but they have provided a slight matchup boost to wide receivers, and they have allowed the second most tight end receptions (the Panthers are the only team that has allowed more).
STEELERS PASS OFFENSE
The Steelers and Panthers each run a similar zone-and-pressure based defense that allows opponents to attack on aggressive, downfield-based routes, but that makes up for this by allowing a below-average catch rate and tackling well after the catch. The Steelers have allowed the second lowest YAC/R rate in the league. The Panthers have allowed the lowest.
The Steelers have gratifyingly produced the fifth highest pass play rate in the league this year, allowing Ben Roethlisberger to pile up the following pass attempt numbers :: 41 // 60 // 38 // 47 // 29 // 46 // 36 // 47. Primary pass catchers Antonio Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster have piled up 11.38 and 9.75 targets per game, respectively, with AB seeing eight or more looks in all but one game this year, and with JuJu seeing eight or more in all but two games. Brown has reestablished himself as the clearly superior play in this attack, with more games of double-digit targets (five, to four for JuJu), a higher percentage share of the team’s air yards (36.24%, to 26.17% for JuJu), a deeper aDOT (10.7 to 9.0), and more touchdowns (nine, to two) — but realize that JuJu is still heavily involved, seeing what would amount to a WR1 workload on most other teams. While AB is tied for the league lead in targets per game, JuJu ranks 11th; and while AB has all the touchdowns, JuJu leads the team in red zone targets and targets inside the 10. In fact, his 19 red zone targets rank second in the NFL.
It is likely that one of the tight ends on the Steelers will take advantage of this plus draw (no team has allowed more catches or touchdowns to tight ends than the Panthers, and only two teams have allowed more yards). Vance McDonald out-snapped Jesse James in Week 9, but roles were reversed in Week 8, as the Steelers continue to deploy these two in a game plan specific manner. For what it’s worth, Vance’s quickness should play much better against this Carolina defense, with the Bucs providing a solid blueprint last week with O.J. Howard of how to attack this unit with an athletic tight end. Vance has recent target counts of 2 // 8 // 3 // 6. James has topped three targets in only one of his last six games.
If digging deep on the Showdown slate, the Steelers reinstalled James Washington as their number three receiver last week, giving him 69 out of 80 snaps and showing him a season-high-tying five targets. Washington was a healthy scratch in Week 8 and has yet to top 25 receiving yards in a game.
STEELERS RUN OFFENSE
Another week without Le’Veon Bell, which leaves James Conner locked into lead duties. Because of Conner’s three-week dip early in the season, people seem to not quite have registered the fact that Conner has been the best fantasy back in the NFL (better even than Todd Gurley) across his other five games. In two of those lower-production games, the Steelers fell into a deep hole early, and in the other they were playing the stout Ravens’ D (a defense that Conner pasted last week to the tune of another top-tier box score). Barring an outlier scenario, Conner should be considered the most workload-secure player on the slate, with a fine draw against a Panthers team that is middling against the run and awful in the red zone. Conner has recent touch counts of 25 // 23 // 29 // 31, and Gurley is the only player in the NFL with more carries inside the five.
If playing the full-weekend slate, there are actually some pieces to like in this game — and this will especially be a fun game for the Showdown.
Cam and Ben are both in play at quarterback, with Cam slightly preferred, given the multiple ways in which he can pick up points (and given his more locked-in red zone role), though it’s a close call between the two.
Conner jumps out (as always) as one of the top plays on the slate, while CMC carries a high floor with his guaranteed touches — but the matchup and his uncertain red zone role make him more “solid” than “elite.”
On the full-weekend slate, I would have strong interest in Antonio Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster, with Greg Olsen and Vance McDonald as solid upside options behind them. A.B. is my favorite of the bunch, but JuJu would definitely make my early-week list if this game were on the main slate.
Volume projections are far lower on the Panthers’ side of this game, as Carolina throws less and spreads the ball around more; but if digging deeper in the Showdown, I would prefer Moore over Funchess (more snaps last week; more upside with the ball in his hands), while the latter will provide solid value if he scores a touchdown. Samuel and Washington are dart throws. Wright has almost no role outside of third downs.