This article is part of our Game Spotlight series.
Pittsburgh vs. Carolina
Open: 50 O/U, PIT -4
Live: 51.5 O/U, PIT -3.5
It's not nearly as common in fantasy sports media as it is in general NFL talk radio and talking head punditry, but you can find a lot of takes on Cam Newton that are objectively unfair to him. Newton is a very good quarterback, and the fact that he might be playing the best football of his decorated NFL career is mostly going overlooked. Whatever you think of Newton, what he's turned into in the past month or so is a different product. Despite playing with an offensive line destroyed by injury, a combination of Norv Turner's adept scheming and an influx of explosive talent at receiver have given Newton more help than at any prior point in Carolina. In the past four weeks Newton has been almost automatic, completing 69.2 percent of his passes for 1,010 yards (7.6 YPA), eight touchdowns and one interception. That sample includes two road games (Washington and Philadelphia) as well as a matchup with Baltimore, which was the most feared defense in the league before Newton breezed past it for 219 yards and two touchdowns in a 36-21 victory.
Turner has proved an excellent offensive coordinator hire, because unlike many or most legacy cases, Turner was humble enough to abandon his past conventions in favor of a pragmatic willingness to evolve, and it looks like he's just about figured out the modern game as well as he did the one from the 90s. Originally the architect of the I-formation, playaction-heavy Emmitt Smith offense the Cowboys are pitifully attempting to emulate in recent years, the Turner offense in Carolina is distinctly post-modern, and in a lot of ways an inversion of his previous methods. The Panthers are usually in a shotgun formation – just 28 of Newton's 263 pass attempts were from under center – and you'll often see trips formations with heavy pre-snap motion to make the defense cross over itself before some combination of Christian McCaffrey, D.J. Moore, and Curtis Samuel threaten to dice it up any number of ways. The speed, versatility, and after-the-catch skills of those three players puts a profound horizontal stress on the defense, and Newton is making all the right reads.
The Steelers are bringing the pressure this year, boasting the league's second-best per-game sack production with an average of 3.25 per contest. If they're getting to the quarterback, the Steelers look to compound the dynamic with aggressive press coverage. It worked well against Baltimore last week, but I don't know if that game plan will fare as well against Newton and the Turner offense. The Ravens seemingly played into the Steelers' hands by frequently calling bunched formations, whereas I think you can expect Turner and the Panthers to aggressively spread out the defense, forcing the coverage to isolate Moore and Samuel and dare the danger they present in the open field. With big targets like Devin Funchess and Greg Olsen supplementing the slashing speed of the previously mentioned trio, the Panthers present a balanced array of complications for a defense that lives by the blitz.
There's reason to be optimistic about Newton's ability to manage the pressure. Even with an already poor Panthers line decimated by injury, Turner and Newton have done a great job of avoiding the rush, as Newton is on pace for just 24 sacks this year, which would easily be a career best (33 in 2015). If Newton can avoid the pressure, then he should be able to move the ball against pretty much any defense. If the Ben Roethlisberger home splits take effect, then it helps Newton's volume projection in a scenario where the Panthers are more likely to play from behind. Since Week 6, the point where Samuel and Olsen both had returned from injury, Newton has thrown 32 targets to McCaffrey, 27 targets to Funchess, 22 to Olsen, 18 to Moore, and eight to each of Samuel and Jarius Wright. Funchess and Olsen should stand out for their red-zone viability – Funchess leads the team with nine red-zone targets on the year, while Olsen has one each in his last three games. In Olsen's case there may be some cause for optimism with the matchup, as the Steelers have allowed 7.9 YPT to opposing tight ends at a 71.6 percent completion rate. Moore and Samuel are both explosive after-the-catch targets, but they run the risk of redundancy since their functions are more similar to McCaffrey's than to those of Funchess or Olsen. Still, for at least one of the two to make a real impact wouldn't surprise at all given their substantial talent. It might be chasing recency to go with Samuel, but he's a menace on the field with eventual All-Pro upside. He might not score two touchdowns Thursday, but he's not going anywhere, either.
McCaffrey should get his customary featured role from scrimmage regardless of the game's flow, but a tough matchup harms his from-scrimmage projection. The Steelers boast the league's lowest total of yardage from scrimmage allowed to opposing runners, conceding just 516 rushing yards (3.6 YPC) and four touchdowns to go along with 32 catches for 186 yards and two touchdowns on 46 targets (4.0 YPT). As his two-touchdown game against Baltimore showed, however, McCaffrey should succeed if Newton does, because McCaffrey is Carolina's primary means of scoring from scrimmage.
As the home favorite and the owner of a four-game streak with at least one touchdown and 120 yards from scrimmage, James Conner projects for a much better floor and ceiling both than McCaffrey. The Steelers offensive line is run-blocking very well right now, and the Panthers appear beatable on the ground (4.5 YPC allowed to opposing backs), though they've managed to limit the volume of opposing runners – their 137 carries in eight games is the fourth-lowest total in the league. As the home favorite with Roethlisberger's home splits ensuring good scoring odds, Conner arguably carries the highest projection in this game.
If not Conner, then you would of course guess that Antonio Brown owns the highest projection. That's who I'm putting my money on. His stats are goofy at the moment, and some might point to his YPT of 6.6 as a cause for concern, but I think it mostly is a cause for reassurance. Brown is on pace for 1,188 yards and 18 touchdowns, and it's a safe bet that his YPT finishes well above its current mark. Brown is due for an explosive from-scrimmage effort, especially since his drop rate (1.1 percent), YAC average (6.1), air yardage share (37.1 percent), and depth of target (10.4 yards) are all sterling peripherals otherwise. Of course, Brown is due for regression in his touchdown rate, but I think the home primetime spot against a quarterback like Newton raises the urgency enough to offset that specific fear. A huge game from Brown certainly wouldn't preclude the same from Juju Smith-Schuster, who's due for a strong game in his own right. Indeed, if Roethlisberger plays to his usual homefield standards, then his output should create room for both Brown and JSS to go off. Corners Donte Jackson and James Bradberry are coming off great games against Tampa, but I think they're both at risk of getting tripped up by the route running of Brown and JSS. For the year the Panthers pass defense has looked beatable, allowing the ninth-most fantasy points to quarterbacks.
Playing at home against a great quarterback, Roethlisberger projects for a productive game generally. The players on single-game tournament slates might therefore need to concern themselves with the peripheral pieces of the Steelers passing game. Vance McDonald is the more dangerous route runner and is a more than viable play with 33 targets in seven games at 10.5 YPT, but Jesse James remains involved – and surprisingly productive – 13 targets in his last three games, catching nine for 88 yards. The other two names to consider in single-game tournaments would be depth wideouts James Washington and Ryan Switzer. I probably wouldn't bother with Switzer since he's liable to play as few as two or three snaps in any given week, whereas Washington has far superior upside and is fresh off a 70-snap effort against Baltimore.
With Roethlisberger in his home setting and Newton avoiding both sacks and turnovers, I don't see an obvious reason to buy either defense aside from game theory variation. Chris Boswell and Graham Gano are the kickers, but neither team is allowing an average of greater than 7.0 fantasy points per game to kickers. To be transparent I don't feel half as qualified to project kickers or defenses as I do the real players, so my own apprehension toward them as picks isn't really noteworthy. I'll try to get Conner in my lineups, but I'm more so committed to betting on the Pittsburgh passing game, including thinking long about the Washington/McDonald/James class of Pittsburgh pass catchers. McCaffrey isn't quite a fade to me, but he's a low-priority play for me since I buy the premise that Pittsburgh is the correct favorite in this game. I'll probably avoid putting Moore and Samuel in the same lineup, but one of either will be a serious consideration for me. I view the question of Funchess vs. Olsen similarly.