The Panthers find themselves embattled in the fight for the top pick in the 2011 draft. There are several reasons for that, but Gross isn't one of them. He's anchoring blindside protection for the most anemic passing offense in the game, and he's doing quite well. He's an intriguing match-up for Harrison, because, unlike many other behemoth bookend blockers Harrison has faced, he's undersized (loosely interpreted). Standing at 6 feet 4, Gross might have a better chance fending off the leverage advantage that has made Harrison the elite player he is.
Harrison is winding down another excellent regular season, and with the Panthers' struggles in the passing game, it wouldn't be surprising to see Harrison rushing the passer a bit more than usual. Gross, like Harrison, plays with great leverage and Harrison will have to use his full arsenal to get the better of him.
The Panthers are a two-win team for a reason, but that reason has nothing to do with the production of the fourth-year end Johnson. He's one of the best all-around defenders in the NFC, and has at least one sack in each of his last five games. In his first year as a starter, Johnson has 9½ sacks, and is equally dominant against the run.
Adams has been battling a high ankle sprain the last few games, and after a poor outing against Buffalo he's held his own despite the injury. He was the standout lineman against New York, the unit's best performance of the season. Johnson presents a unique challenge to Adams, who's five inches taller. Johnson uses his below-average height to gain leverage against taller tackles, and Adams will have to remain technically disciplined all game to prevent the Panthers' most explosive defensive player from reaching the quarterback.
Miller returns after a two-week absence caused by lingering effects from a concussion at Baltimore. While Matt Spaeth and David Johnson played well overall in his stead, Miller is the unquestioned starter due to his outstanding skills as an in-line blocker and a pass receiver.
It will be tough tonight, considering Beason's coverage ability. The opposing tight end has only one catch in the last three games against the Panthers. Beason had coverage on that throw (a 36-yard completion to Seattle's Cameron Morrah), but four other attempts have fallen incomplete. Pittsburgh seems likely to establish a ground assault against the Panthers, but Miller's height advantage over Beason (6-5 to 6-0) could be an attractive option off play-action.
Carolina doesn't have much of a passing game, but clearly embattled coach John Fox is sticking to his guns on the ground. Since coming back from a concussion four games ago, Stewart has rushed for 460 yards and a touchdown, while Goodson has added 163 yards and 2 touchdowns on 36 carries. Goodson also has 11 catches for 114 yards during that span. Each back complements the other, and the Panthers are able to effectively control the line of scrimmage with a commitment to the run.
The Steelers' defense can stop anyone's rushing plans over four quarters, but in their Week 15 loss to the Jets they were less stingy than usual. Facing one of the NFL's best rushing teams over the last four games, they can expect a similar challenge. The Jets used misdirection a bit more than the Panthers are likely to, so Timmons must be prepared to handle Stewart and Goodson straight up; Stewart between the tackles and Goodson bouncing outside.