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5 reasons our expectations are high for Steelers vs. Panthers on ‘Thursday Night Football’

Steelers vs. Panthers should be one of the better Thursday night games this NFL season. Here’s why we’re tuning in to watch.

NFL: Carolina Panthers at Pittsburgh Steelers Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

When the Steelers and Panthers meet on Thursday Night Football, Carolina will be seeking its first-ever road win in Pittsburgh and first win over the Steelers since 1996. Carolina is 1-5 all-time against Pittsburgh and 0-3 on the road, but the Panthers have been dominant in recent weeks and come into this matchup with a 6-2 record. The Steelers are no slouch either with a 5-2-1 record that has them in first place in the AFC North.

After the 49ers made last week’s Thursday night matchup against the Raiders much more exciting than you’d expect for a game featuring teams that had one win each, our expectations are higher for a game starring two teams with winning records.

Here are five things we’ll be watching for when the Steelers take on the Panthers on Thursday Night Football in NFL Week 10 (Fox/NFL Network, 8:20 p.m. ET).

1) Exciting Panthers rookies

The Panthers’ rookie second-round draft pick Donte Jackson has been having a terrific season. He is tied for first in the league with four interceptions, and recorded his fourth takeaway of the season against the Buccaneers last week. To go along with that, Jackson has 37 tackles, one sack, seven passes defensed, and a forced fumble. Look for him to make an impact tonight.

Additionally, first-round rookie receiver D.J. Moore has 297 receiving yards and a touchdown along with 117 rushing yards. Last week, Moore set a Panthers franchise record for rushing yards by a wide receiver following a 32-yard run. Look for Moore’s former college teammate at Maryland and current Steelers safety Sean Davis to put a stop to the rookie receiver’s damage tonight.

2) Stand out running backs

Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey has shown considerable improvement from a relatively impressive rookie season in 2017 and will be a big part of Carolina’s game plan tonight. He’ll be playing in his 25th career game and needs 63 rushing yards to become the seventh player in league history with at least 1,000 rushing yards and 1,000 receiving yards in his first 25 career games.

Here are the other players to accomplish that feat:

As for the Steelers, they have an up-and-coming running back on their roster, too. James Conner has 706 rushing yards and nine rushing touchdowns along with 379 receiving yards and one score through the air.

This game will be an interesting one for the second-year back as he’s been filling in for Le’Veon Bell while the star back has been home in Miami, watching football from the couch this season. Now, it seems like Bell is back in Pittsburgh and he might make his first appearance of the season at Heinz Field early next week. Could this be Conner’s last game as the Steelers’ starting running back?

Last week against the Ravens, Conner had 163 scrimmage yards and a touchdown catch. He enters this week boasting four games with 100-plus rushing yards, 50-plus receiving yards and at least one touchdown in 2018. He’s the only player in Steelers history with 1,000-plus scrimmage yards (1,085) and 10-plus touchdowns (10) in the team’s first eight games of a season. Expect him to make another splash tonight.

With that said, the Steelers defense is allowing the sixth least rushing yards per game (90.3) and the Panthers defense is allowing the eighth least (94.1).

3) The Antonio Brown-Ben Roethlisberger connection

Ben Roethlisberger started the season slow but he’s been heating up, as has his strong connection with Antonio Brown. Week 9 featured the 68th Big Ben to AB touchdown, nine of which have come this season.

With two touchdown passes from Roethlisberger to Brown tonight against Carolina, they would become the seventh quarterback-receiver duo in NFL history to connect on 70 career touchdown passes.

Here are the QB-WR duos to accomplish that task to date:

4. Statistically similar defenses

With both offenses being pretty prolific (Pittsburgh ranks ninth in points per game with 28.4 and Carolina is tied for 11th with 27.5), the game could come down to which defense steps up more. But, these are two pretty similar defenses.

Yards per game: Carolina (11th, 344.8), Pittsburgh (12th, 347.9)
Passing yards per game: Carolina (19th, 250.6), Pittsburgh (21st, 257.6)
Rushing yards per game: Carolina (8th, 94.1), Pittsburgh (6th, 90.3​)
Points per game: Carolina (t-12th, 22.5), Pittsburgh (15th, 23.5)
Forced fumbles: Carolina (t-12th, eight), Pittsburgh (t-15th, seven)

As far a differences, the Steelers are tied for fourth in the NFL with 26.0 sacks and the Panthers are tied for 19th with 21.0. The Carolina defense has among the most interceptions with 11 (fourth) while the Steelers have five (t-21st).

5) Both teams’ fans are extremely confident

Steelers fans come into this game with a high level of confidence in their team. 82 percent of fans polled in SB Nation’s FanPulse survey are confident in the direction of the team. As for Panthers fans, 85 percent of the fanbase is confident in the direction of the team. Both teams’ fanbases believe they will win tonight. You’ll have to tune in to find out who’s right.

Behind the Steel Curtain FanPulse: Steelers will win by 5
Cat Scratch Reader FanPulse: Panthers will win by 2
Odds: Pittsburgh -4