Thursday Night Football
Carolina @ Pittsburgh
Team Totals: Steelers 28, Panthers 24
Panthers-Steelers offers shootout possibilities with Week 10’s second-highest total (52) at Heinz Field, where Ben Roethlisberger has well-known lopsided historical splits. Regardless of venue, Big Ben’s TD-to-INT ratio is 39:13 with a 326.2-yard average over his last 16 games and top-12 fantasy scores in five of his last seven starts, showing a comfortable floor. Roethlisberger’s ceiling is raised by Thursday night’s matchup; Carolina has surrendered multiple touchdown passes in seven straight games, including last week’s four Ryan Fitzpatrick TDs. Pittsburgh’s offensive line has kept Roethlisberger’s pocket clean all year, permitting the NFL’s lowest QB hit rate (8.7%) and second-lowest sack rate (3.1%). The Panthers rank bottom ten in sacks (21). … James Conner showed matchup-proof capability with 163 yards and a touchdown on 31 touches in last week’s win over Baltimore, clearing 100 rushing yards for the fourth straight week and catching four or more passes for the seventh time in eight starts. Carolina’s sub-par run defense is yielding a crisp 4.47 yards per carry to running backs, while Conner leads the AFC in rushing (706) and the entire NFL in runs of 20-plus yards (8). Le’Veon Bell managed seven 20-plus-yard carries over the 2016-2017 seasons combined. Favored at home with 25-plus-touch upside, Conner is an elite RB1 play as usual. Bell remains M.I.A. and isn’t even communicating with the team.
Big Ben’s target distribution since Pittsburgh’s Week 7 bye: Antonio Brown 19; Conner and JuJu Smith-Schuster 15; Vance McDonald 9; Jesse James 6; James Washington and Ryan Switzer 5; Justin Hunter 4. … Brown leads the NFL in touchdown catches (9) and has scored in 7-of-8 games. He beat Ravens slot CB Tavon Young with an unstoppable quick-step move for last week’s 6-yard TD. Panthers plus-sized No. 1 CB James Bradberry isn’t quick enough to hang, while No. 2 CB Donte Jackson is a speedy but wide-eyed rookie four days removed from allowing 7-of-8 targets for 115 yards and a touchdown (PFF) against the Bucs. … Tyler Boyd (6/132/1), Adam Humphries (8/82/0), Sterling Shepard (4/75/0), and Cole Beasley (7/73/0) have all produced at or above expectation against Carolina’s slot coverage, where JuJu runs 79% of his routes, and at 6-foot-1, 215 has a major size edge on Panthers slot CB Captain Munnerlyn (5’8/182). … Although James snuck behind Baltimore’s defense for a second-half 51-yard gain to tally superior Week 9 box-score results, McDonald out-targeted James 6 to 3 and ran 33 routes to James’ 17. McDonald’s inconsistency is as undeniable as his Week 10 upside. Over the last six games, tight ends have caught 39-of-53 targets (74%) for 414 yards (7.8 YPA) and six TDs versus Carolina, including O.J. Howard’s two scores last week. … A Week 8 healthy scratch, Washington returned to play a season-high 86% of Pittsburgh’s Week 9 offensive snaps but dropped a pass and finished with 25 yards or fewer for the sixth time in six appearances. Hunter is the Steelers’ No. 3 wideout alternative. … Situational slot WR Switzer’s route totals are 12 and 11 with 1 and 4 targets in two games since Pittsburgh’s Week 7 bye.
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Even as a top-ten QB1 finisher for the sixth time in seven starts, Cam Newton was a relative Week 9 disappointment in a game where Carolina rushed for four TDs – none by Cam – and Newton’s second-quarter walk-in score was negated by an illegal-shift penalty. Newton still visits Heinz Field with multiple passing touchdowns in a franchise-record seven straight games and top-16 fantasy results in 8-of-8 starts. In addition to Thursday night’s hostile road environment, Cam’s primary obstacle is Pittsburgh’s pass rush, which ranks No. 8 in sack rate (7.5%) and No. 4 in QB hit rate (17.9%). Steelers DC Keith Butler’s defense has held opponents to 17.8 points over its last four games after conceding 29.0 PPG in the opening month. Working in Newton’s favor is Pittsburgh’s allowance of the league’s eighth-most QB rushing yards per game (20.6). Cam leads all NFL quarterbacks in rushing yards (342). … The Panthers’ coaching staff’s stated preseason intention to use Christian McCaffrey as an every-down back widely drew scoffs. Others embraced the “coachspeak,” profiting with 19.8 touches for 110 yards per game plus four TDs in the last two weeks. Behind a mauling line that ranks No. 2 in yards created before contact per carry (3.4), CMC’s matchup-proof RB1 stock was locked in long ago. As both Carolina and Pittsburgh rank top five in scoring-position offense -- each team has converted over 70% of its red-zone trips into TDs -- the shootout nature of this game enhances McCaffrey's appeal even as Pittsburgh's run defense has been stout.
Cam’s Weeks 6-9 target distribution: Devin Funchess 19; McCaffrey 18; Greg Olsen 15; D.J. Moore 13; Curtis Samuel 8; Torrey Smith and Jarius Wright 6. … Robbed of TDs in consecutive games, Funchess got tackled at the one-yard line in the second quarter of last Sunday’s win one week after Funchess’ end-zone target landed in McCaffrey’s hands. Pittsburgh has allowed the league’s eighth-most touchdown catches (17), including 11 to wide receivers. … Newton’s 25 Week 9 pass attempts were his second fewest all year in Carolina’s run-dominant win over Tampa Bay, explaining Panthers pass catchers’ below-expectation target volume. A reversal is likely against the Steelers, who face the NFL’s sixth-most pass attempts per game (40.1). Despite Samuel’s superior Week 9 box score, Moore played a season-high 86% of Carolina’s offensive snaps and ran 28 routes to Samuel’s 9. Moore remains a playable WR3 with Smith (knee) out again. Gadget-guy Samuel is a big-play-dependent WR4/flex with three touches or fewer in 5-of-5 2018 appearances. … Olsen scored his third touchdown in as many weeks when he got behind Bucs LB Adarius Taylor, then twisted to deflect Newton’s errant pass back to himself in front of another defender in the end zone. Pittsburgh allows the NFL’s fifth-most fantasy points to tight ends.
Score Prediction: Steelers 34, Panthers 24