Panthers-Steelers preview: Keys to NFL Week 15 football game

Carolina Panthers’ Ikem Ekwonu (79) warms-up before an NFL football game against the New York Giants, Sunday, Sept. 18, 2022, in East Rutherford, N.J. (AP Photo/John Munson)

Carolina Panthers’ Ikem Ekwonu (79) warms-up before an NFL football game against the New York Giants, Sunday, Sept. 18, 2022, in East Rutherford, N.J. (AP Photo/John Munson)


The Carolina Panthers’ best individual player is probably Brian Burns. Arguments can be made for Derrick Brown, or even Jaycee Horn. Regardless, the team’s best single talent is almost assuredly a defensive player.

But Carolina’s most valuable collective unit is its offensive line.

In a single offseason, general manager Scott Fitterer turned the Panthers’ most glaring weakness into its catalyst for a December playoff push.

Last week, Carolina demoralized the Seahawks. The Panthers rushed 46 times and gained 223 yards. Fourteen of the Panthers’ 24 first downs came on the ground.

Over the past four weeks, the Panthers have transformed into one of the best rushing teams in football. Since Week 10, the Panthers are averaging 169 yards per game (4.3 yards per carry). By comparison, the Eagles’ season-long average of 161 rushing yards per game is second-most in the NFL.

On Sunday, the Panthers (5-8) host a Steelers (5-8) rushing defense that last week allowed a season-high 215 rushing yards against Baltimore.

“It’s the offensive line… I challenge those guys each and every week to be the strength of the team,” interim coach Steve Wilks said. “Those guys do a great job of really detailing their work. I think coach (James) Campen does a hell of a job coaching those guys and really giving them things that they need every week and they have taken ownership.”

Whether it’s the team’s “Arby’s” package (which features eight offensive linemen on the field at the same time), or deploying rookie guard Cade Mays at fullback, or using veteran Cam Erving as an extra tackle, the Panthers are playing more offensive linemen for all the right reasons.

Carolina’s starting five of, from left to right, Ikem Ekwonu, Brady Christensen, Bradley Bozeman, Austin Corbett, and Taylor Moton are a model of consistency. The Panthers have had the same tackle and guard starting combination for all 13 games.

Rather than using different linemen because of injury or performance issues, the Panthers are doubling down at their most robust position.

The Panthers running attack helps Carolina control the game. But its pass protection is also keeping quarterback Sam Darnold clean. Darnold has only been sacked twice over the past three weeks.

According to the Athletic’s Ben Baldwin’s 2022 True Pass Set Grades (which is a blend of Pro Football Focus and ESPN win-rate scores), the Panthers have the fifth-best pass protection rating through 13 games.

Last week, Darnold held the ball an average of 3.68 seconds per pass attempt, which was .54 seconds longer than the second-most amount of pocket time.

By controlling the line of scrimmage, the Panthers are one game out of first place in the NFC South, and control their post-season destiny.

For the first time under Wilks, the Panthers are home favorites on Sunday. Here are a few keys to the game.

Can’t stop counter runs

The Panthers’ offense found its new bread-and-butter play via the shotgun counter run last week. Of the Panthers’ 17 fourth-quarter runs, 10 were counters that Seattle could not stop.

After the game, Seahawks safety Quandre Diggs admitted Carolina successfully “ran the same play over and over” again.

The Panthers run counter by pulling the weak-side guard and tackle to the play-side. Imagine trying to tackle running back D’Onta Foreman as either Ekwonu or Moton lead block.

Carolina’s offensive line is so athletic and versatile that the Panthers can call any run either direction, which still keeps defenses off-balance even when anticipating a run play.

“We have some pretty good athletes up front. We’re a physical unit. We have some good size,” offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo said. “(Bozeman) is a big center in there. He’s physical. We can block back. Both of our guards are athletic, and both of our tackles are athletic. So we can run it not just one way, we can run it both ways.”

The Panthers’ fourth-quarter finish against Seattle is their blueprint to victory. By running the ball, Carolina doubled the Seahawks’ time of possession.

“We all love being able to finish the game on our own terms,” Moton said. “Finishing with the ball in our hands and taking that knee knowing that we were able to execute the run plan that we’re supposed to. It’s a credit to the running backs, doing their jobs, the receivers blocking. You know, it’s a team effort.”

Counter runs exposed Seattle. Pittsburgh should be ready for them. But even if T.J. Watt and the Steelers’ highest-paid defense in football know the run is coming, it does not mean they’ll be able to stop it.

Even more run plays

Against Seattle, six different Panthers recorded at least one rush.

Expect such diversity in the run game to continue. Carolina has so many capable runners largely because of how near to the line of scrimmage the running backs, receivers and tight ends play.

Foreman, Chuba Hubbard, and Raheem Blackshear are excellent complements to each other. Receiver DJ Moore earned a carry last week. Playmaker Laviska Shenault often lines up in the backfield and could be due for a carry or two soon. Both Moore and Shenault are questionable for Sunday.

“When you look at our team,” McAdoo said, “pounding the ball gives us an opportunity to win games.”

The Panthers’ dedication to running the ball takes a patient approach.

Four of the Panthers’ six scoring drives took nine plays or more last week. The offense moved methodically. Blackshear had the team’s longest rush (16 yards). Foreman and Hubbard combined for 148 yards (4.2 yards per carry) but neither had a rush longer than 12 yards.

Defenses tire in the fourth quarter against effective and dedicated rushing attacks. Carolina can do the same to Pittsburgh on Sunday.

“In the first and second quarter, where you’re getting a run for two or three (yards), and it’s like ‘oh, the run game is not working,” Bozeman said. “But when you start seeing the third and especially in the fourth quarter, and those runs turn to five or six or eight yards then you know it just starts to build and go.”

Preparing for the unknown

Steelers rookie quarterback Kenny Pickett is officially doubtful for Sunday. He was limited in practice while in the NFL’s concussion protocol. On Saturday, NFL Network’s Ian Rapport reported Mitch Trubisky would start against Carolina.

Trubisky and Mason Rudolph shared first-team reps all week in practice.

The Panthers are not preparing for any specific quarterback. Instead, defensive coordinator Al Holcomb has Carolina’s defense focused on Pittsburgh’s entire offense, especially running back Najee Harris, tight end Pat Freiermuth, and receivers Diontae Johnson and George Pickens.

“They run the ball well,” Panthers safety Jeremy Chinn said. “They got a really good running back and their perimeter game. They run the ball outside. And they got two really good receivers. … The tight end, he works hard. He’s fast. He gets over. And then guys have a hard time tackling him.”

Hailing from Minnesota, Ellis L. Williams joined the Observer in October 2021 to cover the Carolina Panthers. Prior, he spent two years reporting on the Browns for Plain Dealer. Having escaped cold winters, he’s thrilled to consume football, hoops, music and movies within the Queen City.

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