Steelers' offense bracing for stern test

PITTSBURGH – The Pittsburgh Steelers’ schedule is widely perceived as favorable.

It is anything but that this week.

The Carolina Panthers, who host the Steelers on Sunday night, have been the NFL’s hottest team since last October, and they have been particularly good at home.

The Panthers are an NFL-best 13-1 in their last 14 regular-season games, and during that span, they lead the NFL in turnover differential (plus-17) and points allowed per game (14.6), according to ESPN Stats & Information.

The Panthers limited the Detroit Lions’ high-powered offense to a mere touchdown in a 24-7 victory last Sunday, and they held All-Pro wide receiver Calvin Johnson to six catches for 83 yards.

Detroit quarterback Matthew Stafford targeted Johnson 13 times in the game, but Johnson was pretty much taken out of the game.

And what stood out to Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger when watching film of the Panthers is how they limited Johnson.

“It’s not like they put two or three guys on Calvin,” Roethlisberger said. “They basically just said, “We are going to line up and if you can beat us, then beat us. If not, we are going to beat you.’ They are one of the best defenses, statistically speaking, and it’s not like it’s an exotic type of defense. They just flat-out beat you.”

The key for the Steelers will be going to Le'Veon Bell early and often Sunday night at Bank of America Stadium.

The Panthers are sixth in the NFL in rushing defense (86.0 yards per game), but they are giving up 4.0 yards per carry.

Bell has been the Steelers’ best offensive player through two games, and the second-year running back is tied for fourth in the NFL with 168 rushing yards. He is averaging 5.3 yards per carry.

“I think our offensive line should be able to handle their defensive line and I should get space to do what I can,” Bell said. “Our goal is really to be balanced. We don’t want to force it if it’s not there.”