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Can Christian McCaffrey be to Cam Newton what Le'Veon Bell is to Big Ben?

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Panthers noticing a difference in rested Newton (1:20)

Dianna Russini shares how Carolina players are feeling after seeing Cam Newton's TD drive against the Jaguars. (1:20)

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- There’s perhaps no better example than the Pittsburgh Steelers to better understand what Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera is trying to do with Cam Newton and the offense.

Rivera wants Newton to rely more on the playmakers around him and run less. So there’s perhaps no better time to explore this as the Steelers and Panthers prepare to meet in Thursday night’s preseason finale.

Newton and Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger might not take a snap in the 7:30 p.m. ET game at Bank of America Stadium. There's no need for either to take an unnecessary hit that could impact them once the regular season begins. Particularly Newton, who continues to rehab from offseason shoulder surgery.

But Rivera cites Roethlisberger as an example of a player whose game changed in a way that made him less of a target once he was surrounded by the right players and learned how to use them.

For Roethlisberger, those players were wide receiver Antonio Brown and running back Le'Veon Bell -- Bell in particular.

For Newton, first-round draft pick Christian McCaffrey and second-round pick Curtis Samuel could do the same thing -- particularly McCaffrey.

"It’s about getting the ball out of his hands," said Rivera, motioning with quick, short passes that don’t require the quarterback to stay in the pocket a long time as routes develop. “That’s the difference."

Roethlisberger’s sacks and hits started to decline the more he was surrounded by dynamic playmakers. Brown, a sixth-round pick in 2010, was one missing link.

Roethlisberger’s hits dropped from 86 in 2009 to 65 in 2010, and the percentage of time he was pressured fell from 27.7 percent to 20.4 percent with Brown as a target. His interception percentage dropped from 2.4 percent to 1.3 percent.

But the real decline in hits and pressures came after Bell was added as a second-round pick in 2013. It didn’t happen immediately. Roethlisberger was sacked 42 times during Bell’s rookie season.

But there were immediate signs that good things were coming. According to ESPN Stats & Information research, Roethlisberger’s time in the pocket dropped from 2.36 seconds in 2012 (13th fastest in NFL) to 2.21 seconds (sixth fastest) in 2013. His time before actually throwing went from 2.73 seconds (fourth slowest) to 2.44 (ninth fastest).

Roethlisberger went from 33 sacks in 2014 to 20 in 2015 to a career-low 17 last season. That’s well below his career average of 35 sacks a season. That’s a considerable drop-off from 2006-2010, when he was sacked an average of 43 times a season, topped by a career-high 50 in 2009.

Newton has been sacked an average of 36.8 times a season.

Carolina assistant coach Jerricho Cotchery, who works with Samuel and Carolina’s other slot receivers, was a slot receiver in Pittsburgh when Bell arrived. He witnessed firsthand the transition, just as he is witnessing the transition of Newton now.

“Anytime you have playmakers, you want to get it in their hands and let it go from there," Cotchery said. “It’s across the board. A guy like Le'Veon, when you can hand off to him 25 times a game and throw to him 10 times, that helps out quite a bit."

During the season prior to Bell’s arrival, the Steelers rotated three backs who combined for 51 catches for 412 yards and one touchdown. Bell had 45 catches for 399 yards by himself as a rookie.

Then in 2014, Bell had 83 catches for 854 yards and three touchdowns. Roethlisberger completed 67.1 percent of his passes, then a career high, and his percentage of hits started to fall.

“Everybody wants you to throw checkdowns; but when you have somebody you would like to throw checkdowns to, that helps," Cotchery said.

Newton now has that in McCaffrey, a running back/receiver out of Stanford, and Samuel, a slot receiver out of Ohio State. Both create mismatches on linebackers and safeties that allow them to get open on short-to-intermediate routes.

Newton shouldn’t have to stand in the pocket and take hits as he has for much of the past six seasons. That’s why Rivera liked what Newton did in Thursday’s preseason debut at Jacksonville, completing both of his pass attempts with short, quick-strike shots on the first series before calling it a night.

“It’s not about the players; it’s about what they’re doing," Rivera said.

In 2015, Newton had that to a lesser degree in Cotchery as his slot receiver. Cotchery caught 39 passes for 485 yards and three touchdowns. Cotchery helped open up the rest of the offense, allowing Newton to throw a career-high 35 touchdown passes en route to the league MVP Award. Newton had only 19 touchdown passes last season without Cotchery.

Cotchery helped Roethlisberger in a similar way in 2013. Cotchery had a career-best 10 touchdown catches, and his quarterback had 28 touchdown passes, then the second most of his career.

Roethlisberger’s stats actually were mediocre when Pittsburgh won the Super Bowl after the 2008 season. He completed 59.9 percent of his passes, with 17 touchdowns and 14 interceptions. His passer rating of 80.1 was the second lowest of his career.

His stats didn’t take off consistently until the Steelers drafted Bell. He has averaged 27.2 touchdown passes per game the past five seasons, as compared to 20.2 in his first five seasons.

And that was inflated somewhat by 32 touchdowns in 2007.

“They did a great job of identifying guys that could come in and help us make plays, move the ball," Cotchery said.

Cotchery said the Panthers have done a great job in identifying players who can help Newton -- who has been hit or sacked 922 times since 2011, by far the most of any NFL quarterback.

He believes they will help Newton, not only in terms of being hit less, but in improving his efficiency after completing a career-low 52.9 percent of his passes in 2016.

“Obviously, Christian helps that," Cotchery said. “Hopefully, we get a chance to see more of Curtis. Those two guys are explosive.

"We have a lot of playmakers. As some guys understand their roles and grow into them and embrace them, we’re better off."