PITTSBURGH - DECEMBER 23: Emmanuel Sanders #88 of the Pittsburgh Steelers is hit by Charles Godfrey #30 of the Carolina Panthers after catching a pass during the game on December 23 2010 at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh Pennsylvania. (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
As always, Week 4 is going to be the backups show. The starters might play for a little bit, but this is mostly the time for position battles and the depth to be decided. That being said, there will still be some exciting matchups. The Steelers have always been a strong team when it comes to running the ball and rush defense. In addition, they have a solid group of receivers that will challenge the Panthers secondary. It is tough to figure out some of the matchups, as the second-stringers can get shuffled around a lot, especially in the 4th and final preseason game. My first key matchup is one that has some implications on the Panthers regular season, and that is Louis Murphy vs. Cortez Allen (or Steelers corners). Louis Murphy has been one of training camp's biggest surprises, coming in and clicking with the offense almost instantly.
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Louis Murphy vs. Cortez Allen/Steelers cornerbacks
Murphy should get a pretty good amount of snaps this game, as LaFell probably won't play much and Steve Smith shouldn't play at all. Murphy appears to be the obvious choice as the 3rd receiver, but last week Seyi Ajirotutu did get the start opposite Brandon LaFell. A move like that would seem to point to that the coaching staff wants Murphy to continue to work hard and make plays, which he did, has done, and will continue to do. The Steelers have a young group of corners aside from Ike Taylor. They sport Keenan Lewis as the starter opposite Taylor, with Cortez Allen and Curtis Brown backing them up. It is hard to say exactly who will line up against Murphy, but he should have a good test ahead against an always strong Steelers defense. Look for guys like Ajirotutu and Kealoha Pilares to also come in and make some plays.
Thomas Keiser is another who has been an awesome player this offseason. He appears to have picked up where he left off in 2011, racking up 3.5 sacks and being tied for second in the league in sacks this preseason. We all know Keiser as a workhorse, the first in-last out players coaches love. His dedication appears to be paying off, as he has been rushing well, and the Panthers will have a nice group of rotational pass rushers in Keiser, Antwan Applewhite, and Frank Alexander. The Steelers offensive line, while never amazing, has always gotten the job done when they had to. Trai Essex has been a starter in this league before, and Chris Scott is a young player who has plenty of time to get better. It will be fun to see which defensive ends will get after the quarterbacks tonight.
Barnidge has been solid this preseason. Last week he made quite a few nice plays against the Jets, and appears to show that he can produce in this offense. While Greg Olsen clearly has the number one tight end spot on lockdown, the Panthers only other real receiving threat at tight end is Barnidge. Obviously, Mike Tolbert will be used as a situational player on receiving downs as well, but Barnidge has the speed and size to be a threat to linebackers and safeties alike. We may also see Barnidge match up against players like Will Allen. The Steelers have a great group of linebackers, and rookie Sean Spence will have plenty to prove and will look to make many plays against the Panthers offense. Any Dick LeBeau defensive group is going to give the offense some problems.
We won't see a whole lot of Antonio Brown or Mike Wallace (with Wallace possibly nothing), however the young Emmanuel Sanders has been impressive thus far in his NFL career. Josh Norman has played well in his first two preseason games, and looks to cement himself as the number 3 cornerback (and get some playing time in nickel formations as a result, with Munnerlyn moving to nickel in those packages). He will get an extended look tonight, and we will see him go up against the physical group of Steelers. Norman played extremely well last week, as the Panthers held the Jets to only 12 points and no touchdowns. The Steelers will look to do more than just score one touchdown in the final preseason game.
Well fans, its been a fun preseason. Tonight will be the last night for the Armanti Edwards and Jordan Pugh's to fight for a roster spot. I have enjoyed watching everyone who has put on a Panthers uniform play this preseason, and I wish the ones who don't make the cut the best of luck in their careers.