Game 15 matchup: Steelers vs. Panthers

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Game plan:

When Panthers have the ball: Despite season-ending injuries to RT Jeff Otah, LG Travelle Wharton and RB DeAngelo Williams, they have averaged 152 yards rushing in the past six games. The load has been split by Jonathan Stewart (668 yards) and Mike Goodson (435), though Stewart is the featured back. They face the NFL's No. 1 rush defense that has allowed just one 100-yard rusher in the past 48 regular-season games. The Steelers allowed a season-high 106 yards to the Jets, but they didn't allow a run longer than 11 yards. They have allowed just one run of 20 yards or longer this season, fewest in the NFL. Rookie QB Jimmy Clausen threw his first two touchdown passes against the Cardinals, but has had difficulty getting the ball to WR Steve Smith, who has a team-high 43 catches but only two touchdowns.

When Steelers have the ball: Ben Roethlisberger has thrown only one interception in the past five games, but he also has just two TD passes in the past four. The Panthers rank 12th in total defense in the NFL and have been aggressive in pass coverage, intercepting 17 passes -- eighth most in the NFL -- led by S Charles Godfrey (5). Their biggest concern will be WR Mike Wallace, who has 23 catches for 256 yards in the past three game. The Panthers will try to get pressure with DE Charles Johnson (9 1/2 sacks). RB Rashard Mendenhall had his first 100-yard rushing game at home since the season opener against the Falcons and averaged 5.9 yards per attempt against the Jets. Mendenhall has 10 runs of 20 yards or longer -- only three backs have more -- and will be facing a team that allows an average of 126.2 ypg. Jon Beason has been moved back to middle linebacker after spending the first eight games at weakside LB. He leads the team with 138 tackles.

Keep an eye on

LT Jordan Gross ... The eighth overall pick in the 2003 draft, he was a first--team All-Pro in 2008. He will be matched against OLB James Harrison, who leads the Steelers with 10 sacks -- fifth among linebackers in the AFC. Harrison does not have a sack in the past three games. The Panthers have allowed 43 sacks, second most in the NFL. The Steelers are tied for third in the league with 40.


The Panthers are 0-2 all time in Pittsburgh but haven't played a regular-season game at Heinz Field since a 30-14 loss in 2002. They are the only team in the NFL that doesn't have a road victory (0-6) and lead the league in worst point differential (minus-167). They conclude the season at Atlanta Jan. 2. ... The Steelers had their four-game winning streak ended by the Jets Sunday. They have the NFL's best home record since 1970 (226-88-1) and are 57-21-1 at Heinz Field, but they are 4-3 at home this season.

Keys to victory
To win, the Panthers must ...

1. Jimmy holes for Stewart. It will be a wonderful life for Clausen if the Panthers' run game can keep the pressure off him.

2. Get some early gifts. The Panthers will need to rely on their ability to intercept passes against Roethlisberger, who has been careful to minimize mistakes.

3. Have zero deficit. They are winless on the road (0-6), winless in the division (0-5) and winless against AFC teams (0-3).

To win, the Steelers must ...

1. Bounce back. They have been able to do that following a loss every time this season, outscoring the next opponent by an average score of 30-11.

2. Remember there's no place like home for the holidays. The motivation to get a first-round bye has to be tantamount ... and prevalent.

3. Have the 'O' come to Emmanuel. Sanders is becoming a reliable target after being targeted 13 times and catching seven passes against the Jets.

Gerry Dulac: .


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