carolina panthersThe Pittsburgh Steelers, the original kings of smashmouth football and killer defense, take on the Carolina Panthers, who do it best in today’s NFL in their preseason finale. The Steelers are trying to lock down their rushing attack for the first few games of the year sans Le’Veon Bell. The Panthers have been very inconsistent on offense during the preseason. But they’ll have to get better in practice, as their starters will not be involved on Thursday.

What: Pittsburgh Steelers at Carolina Panthers, Thursday, September 1, 7:30 p.m. ET, Bank of America Stadium, Charlotte, North Carolina

Last Week/Next Week

The Pittsburgh Steelers ran over the New Orleans Saints 27-14 last week for their first victory of the preseason. The Steelers open the regular season against their oldest rival, the Washington Redskins, on Monday, September 12 at 7:10 p.m. ET. The Carolina Panthers lost to New England 19-17 to drop to 1-2 in the preseason.  They begin their defense of the NFC title when they battle Super Bowl L opponent Denver on Thursday, September 8 at 8:30 p.m. ET at Mile High Stadium in Colorado.

Pittsburgh Steelers Preview

How good is wide receiver Antonio Brown? So good that ESPN is rating him the No. 1 player in Fantasy Football  this year, something not even the likes of Calvin “Megatron” Johnson ever received. After staggering through their first two playoff games, the Steelers looked sharp with the A team on the field on Saturday.

Ben Roethlisberger threw two first-quarter touchdowns and the Saints never got closer than seven points the rest of the way in a 27-14 decision. Roethlisberger threw for 148 yards in the first quarter before turning control over to backup Landry Jones.

He took the Steelers on a 14-play, 76-yards drive on their first possession, which ended in a 5-yard touchdown pass to Jesse James, the tight end. The second drive had a familiar result – a touchdown pass to Antonio Brown, this time from 57 yards away.

“We were looking for some production and he gave us some production,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said of his quarterback. “Thankfully, he did it in a small number of (snaps), so we got him in and got him out.”

Bell also made his preseason debut was far less spectacular. He had three carries for 21 yards and lost a fumble. The Steelers won’t see him on the field again until Week 4 of the regular season because of his suspension for failing yet another drug test.

Backup quarterback Landry Jones was even more efficient than Roethlisberger, completing 19 of 22 passes for 206 yards and a touchdown. Clearly, New Orleans’ defense is about as horrifying as it was a year ago. Together the two quarterbacks completed 31 of 39 passes (79.4%) for 342 yards, three touchdowns, and no interceptions.

Defensive Stud

The star of the Steelers’ defense remains cornerback Ross Cockrell, who picked off Roethlisberger twice in practice on Monday.

“Since last season, he’s done nothing but continue to move upward and onward,” Tomlin said. “He’s good above the neck. He’s worked hard in terms fo conditioning his body, getting ready to absorb a [high] number of snaps. I don’t think he anticipated playing 700-plus snaps [last year] and did a heckuva job with it.”

Carolina Panthers Preview

It looked like a tight game between two Super Bowl contenders, but it was Carolina’s reserves that hung around with New England.

Cam Newton, reigning MVP, did not look good against the Patriots. He completed just 13 of 29 passes for 100 yards and two interceptions. The Panthers did not get on the board until the third quarter with a Graham Gano field goal.  They were down 19-3 with two minutes left in the game before putting up 14 points on two Joe Webb touchdown passes.

“We need better production from everybody including myself,” Newton said. “I have to be more mature and check the ball down and let guys do what they do.

Carolina Panthers head coach Ron Rivera was frustrated by the effort of the first-team offense. “If we lower our passes and catch the ball, then we are where we need to be.”

Both touchdown passes went to Marcus Lucas; the first for 18 yards and the second for 14. They were Lucas’ only two receptions of the game. Devin Funchess led the Panthers with five catches for 49 yards.

Pittsburgh Steelers at Carolina Panthers Predictions

There won’t be many stars out in this one. Both teams are familiar with the road to the post-season, and both know that it’s paved with injuries and who deals with them better.  The Steelers will play things even closer to the vest knowing that Bell is out to start the season, and their reserve backs will need to be fresh and ready early on.

Score Prediction: Carolina Panthers 17, Pittsburgh Steelers 13