Steelers Too Old For This?

Mike Tomlin wondered about the quick turnaround in preparing his veteran Steelers for the 2-12 Carolina Panthers tonight. Here's the game preview.

PITTSBURGH – There might not be a better tonic for a tough loss than a visit from a 2-12 team only four days later.

The 10-4 Steelers are hoping that's the proper elixir as the woebegone Carolina Panthers visit Heinz Field tonight.

Even though Steelers coach Mike Tomlin surely welcomes the Panthers at this point in the season, he pulled out a trump card just in case his team isn't focused: He called his players old.

"It's a quick turnaround, particularly for a veteran football team,"

Tomlin said at his televised weekly press conference.

"We're going to be very conscious about how we prepare this week. We've got to prepare as smart as we can. We've got to preserve our guys in as many ways as we can because quite honestly working on this kind of week you've got to acknowledge that it's an advantage for the Carolina Panthers. They're a younger team than we are. Physically, they're capable of bouncing back faster, no question."

Oh, no he didn't.

"Yeah, I heard about that," said defensive captain James Farrior, the oldest starter on a team whose average starting age is 28.1. The Panthers' average starting age is 24.8.

"Maybe that's his way of motivating us this week. I don't know. He didn't bring it up in meetings, but I guess he knew you guys would come down here and talk about it. He knew we were going to hear about it sooner or later. But that doesn't bother us. The older guys, we don't even need motivation like that. We're already self-motivated, so it's not going to work for the old, old guys."

What will work is the same old, same old from the Steelers' run defense. The No. 1 stop-unit in the NFL will be tested by a Panthers running game that's on a bit of a roll since its offensive line was re-configured five games ago.

In beating the Arizona Cardinals 19-12 last Sunday, the Panthers rolled up their seventh consecutive 100-yard team effort behind Jonathan Stewart's season-high 137 yards on 27 carries.

It was the second straight 130-plus game for Stewart, who's averaging 115 yards at a 5.9 clip in each of his last four games. Along with sidekick Mike Goodson, Stewart and the Panthers are averaging 167.5/5.2 in those four games.

If late December football games are won by the team that can run the ball, the Panthers must be taken seriously.

"They've run the ball on everybody they've faced," Farrior said. "Good defenses, bad defenses, it doesn't matter. They're going to force that run. That's a big challenge for our defense. That's what we love to try to do. We didn't feel like we played our best run defense last week and we have something to prove this week, so it's going to be a big challenge for us."

Last week, the Steelers allowed the New York Jets to rush for 106 yards, the most allowed by the Steelers this season.

The Jets, though, didn't have a rookie quarterback and that's been Carolina's weakness, although rookie Jimmy Clausen is coming off his first career 100-plus passer rating.

Against the Cardinals on Sunday, Clausen completed 13 of 19 passes for 109 yards, no interceptions and a touchdown for a passer rating of 107.6. However, the Panthers continued to struggle in the red zone. They rank last in the NFL in red-zone touchdown percentage and last week converted only one of four opportunities.

Another stat which reflects poorly on the Panthers' three different starting quarterbacks this season is that star receiver Steve Smith hasn't caught a touchdown pass since the second week of the season.

The Panthers are coming to Heinz Field off their best defensive game of the season. They allowed the Cardinals only 218 yards behind the pass-rushing of end Charles Johnson, who's had a sack in five consecutive games to lead the team with 9½.

So, with the Panthers running the ball and playing better defense, the game has the makings for a potential letdown by the Steelers.

In their favor, though, the Steelers are coming off a loss, can clinch the division with a win and a Baltimore Ravens loss on Sunday, and would appear to be on the better end of tonight's feature match-up.

"Yeah, they're going to feed us that run the whole game," said Farrior. "I'd like to think that plays into our hands, but you never know what's going to happen. I definitely know they have two good running backs. The quarterback is young so they're not going to put too much on his plate.

"It sounds good for us but we've still got to go out there and execute."

In spite of their advanced age.


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