Panthers-Steelers: five things to watch for tonight

Let’s take a look at the Panthers-Steelers matchup. Five things to look for in tonight’s game at Heinz Field on NFL Network; plus my picks for the entire Week 16 NFL schedule.

1. The Steelers vertical game: The Panthers will use both zone and man pressure—along with some Cover 3 and Cover 1 to create an eight-man front. But, when they want to play coverage (think 3rd downs) they will drop seven, rush four and play some Cover 2 in the secondary. This is a great opportunity for Ben Roethlisberger to target Mike Wallace. If the Wallace can win at the line of scrimmage, the Steelers get a receiver down the field that can work against a safety. That brings into play the deep 7 (flag), post and straight 9 (fade) route. On top of that, we should expect to see the basic Cover 2 beaters: Flat-7 and 4 verticals. An opportunity for an early big play from the perspective of Pittsburgh.

Jimmy ClausenICONClausen will face multiple blitz looks from the Steelers' defense tonight.

2. Jimmy Clausen: Even with the talk of Stanford’s Andrew Luck going to the Panthers in the April draft (if he comes out), Clausen still has two games to put some quality play on tape—starting tonight. Working against Dick LeBeau’s scheme, the rookie QB has to understand where the pressure is coming form and target his hot reads. The Steelers will use multiple fronts and coverage schemes tonight—and that should cause confusion at the line of scrimmage for Clausen. Not going to be easy for the former Notre Dame QB, but this is a great test to see where he is at both mentally and physically as a pro. Can’t afford to turn the ball over against Pittsburgh.

3. Ryan Clark: Pay attention to the Steelers’ FS. Clark doesn’t have top-tier speed in the open field, but he takes great angles to the football—and that makes him play faster in pads. I played with Clark in Washington, and I can tell you that he is one of the top students of the game when it comes to film study and understanding formation alignments. And, as we have all seen, Clark is a big hitter in the middle of the field. Run any intermediate route vs. this Steelers’ defense (dig, skinny post) and he will come downhill hard from his Cover 2 or Cover 1 alignment. With Troy Polamalu still out with an injury, Clark has to play like a leader in the secondary.

4. The Panthers’ running game: Jonathan Stewart is running the ball with solid production. Two weeks ago, the Carolina RB racked up 133-yards on the Falcons and followed that up with 137-yards in the win over the Cardinals this past Sunday. If the Panthers wants to compete tonight and have a shot to win in the 4th quarter, the game plan needs to be funneled through Stewart. That will take some of the pressure off of Clausen, provide some play action opportunities and tire out the Steelers’ defense.

5. What's at stake: In Pittsburgh, this game carries a lot of weight when we talk about the playoff dynamic in the NFL. At 10-4, the Steelers need to win out to hold off the Ravens and lock up that first round bye come January. They can’t afford to slip up tonight. For the Panthers, this is more than just a throwaway game at the end of the season. With a coaching change coming, this entire roster is going to be evaluated. That new staff will spend a lot of time analyzing the film to see which players they want to keep around for the 2011 season. Every game is an interview from the perspective of these Panthers' players—and tonight is no different.

My Week 16 picks…

Charles WoodsonICONWoodson and the Packers host the Giants.

Last Week: 10-6
Overall: 109-50

Pittsburgh over Carolina
Dallas over Arizona
New England over Buffalo
Chicago over N. Y. Jets
Baltimore over Cleveland
Jacksonville over Washington
Tennessee over Kansas City
Detroit over Miami
St. Louis over San Francisco
San Diego over Cincinnati
Houston over Denver
Indianapolis over Oakland
Tampa over Seattle
N. Y. Giants over Green Bay
Philadelphia over Minnesota

Monday night
New Orleans over Atlanta

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