Three things to watch Sunday when the Carolina Panthers play host to the Pittsburgh Steelers:
1. Big Money needs make a big splash
Most of the discussions about Greg Hardy’s indefinite leave of absence focused on the three-man platoon Ron Rivera will employ in Hardy’s defensive end spot. And while Mario Addison had a nice fourth quarter against the Detroit, the Panthers need production from the player who received the richest contract in franchise history in 2011. Charles Johnson leads the team with six pressures, but has just one tackle and no sacks. Johnson will see extra blockers in Hardy’s absence, but has to find a way to fight through them.
2. ‘Next man up’ mantra on offense, too
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Remember – all the way back to last week – when Cam Newton’s status was the Panthers’ biggest issue offensively? Now Newton looks like the picture of health, surrounded by hamstrung starters at every skilled position. Running back DeAngelo Williams and wideouts Jason Avant and Jerricho Cotchery all are limited with hamstring injuries, and fullback Mike Tolbert has bruised ribs but is probable. Newton, whose ankle is still not 100 percent, still has rookie Kelvin Benjamin and tight end Greg Olsen, the Panthers’ leading receiver, to throw to.
3. Tonic for Carolina running game?
Even with a banged-up backfield, the Panthers could invigorate a dormant rushing attack. The Steelers’ defense, which features four new starters, gives up 170 rushing yards a game, third most in the league. Pittsburgh allowed Cleveland rookie Terrance West to run for 100 yards and a 6.3-yard average, before Baltimore’s Bernard Pierce, Ray Rice’s replacement, went for 96 yards on 22 carries in Week 2. Look for Carolina offensive coordinator Mike Shula to feed Jonathan Stewart early and often.