by Sharon Thorsland
It’s been a long time since we’ve had a meaningful football game in December at Bank of America Stadium (not including the ACC Championship!), but the Panthers have given us just that. They take on the Steelers on Sunday with their playoff hopes still alive and well. “It’s exciting, it’s exciting,” said defensive end Brian Burns. “I’ve been preaching to myself and my teammates, just lock in a little bit more so we can make this happen.”
Standing in their way of making it happen is a Pittsburgh team that has an identical 5-8 record but whose playoff chances have nearly evaporated thanks to a much tougher AFC North. But that doesn’t mean this isn’t a very good team – they’ve got plenty of talent all over the field, particularly on the defense, which features 2021 Defensive Player of the Year T.J Watt. The defense also features a pair of former Charlotte 49er standouts in defensive end Larry Ogunjobi and linebacker Alex Highsmith, who leads the Steelers with 10 sacks. All-Pro defensive end Cam Heyward is still playing at a high level in year 12, he’s got five sacks and a forced fumble. The Steelers also have an excellent secondary, they’re tied for second in the NFL with 14 interceptions, four of them from All-Pro safety Minkah Fitzpatrick.
The big question of the game is who will start at quarterback for the Steelers? Longtime starter Ben Roethlisberger retired after last season and the Steelers replaced him with first round draft pick Kenny Pickett and added former Tar Heel Mitchell Trubisky in free agency. Both have had trouble moving the offense, though, the Steelers are only averaging 317 yards and 17 points per game. Pickett has thrown eight interceptions, Trubisky has five, three of them red zone picks last week. Pickett suffered a concussion last week, so it could be Trubisky or longtime backup Mason Rudolph under center on Sunday. “When you look at Rudolph as well as Trubisky, they both are more than capable of going out and executing and running this offense,” said Panther coach Steve Wilks.
Whoever is at quarterback for the Steelers, they’ll have some excellent targets in Pro Bowl receiver Diontae Johnson, rookie George Pickens and tight end Pat Friermuth, they’ve combined for 160 catches and four touchdowns. Pro Bowl running back Najee Harris is also a threat at receiver, he’s got 32 catches, two of them touchdowns, and he leads the team with 704 rushing yards and five more scores.
The Panthers likely have a little extra motivation to beat this Steelers team, who whipped them 52-21 on Thursday Night Football in their most recent matchup in 2018. The Panthers are 1-6 all-time against the Steelers, and haven’t won since their first-ever matchup in 1996. Add that to the fact that a win Sunday would keep the Panthers in contention for the NFC South title and a playoff berth, and that makes this a huge game. “We just control what we can control right now,” said running back D’Onta Foreman. “We know what’s on the line, we want to get there. So there’s a little more riding on it.