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Thursday, December 23, 2010
Five things to watch: Panthers at Steelers

By Pat Yasinskas

Five things to watch in Thursday's game between the Carolina Panthers and Pittsburgh Steelers.

1. The red-hot Jimmy Clausen. The rookie quarterback got his first NFL win Sunday against Arizona and can run the streak all the way to two if the Panthers can upset the Steelers. Seriously, though, this game is important for Clausen’s future and Carolina’s future. John Fox’s last year as coach has been a lost season. Although the Panthers very well could end up drafting a quarterback in the first round in 2011, there are some people in the organization who aren’t ready to completely give up on Clausen. He showed some improvement against Arizona; doing it again against a real team could give Clausen some film that the decision-makers could take to the new coach as evidence that there might be a quarterback already on the roster.

2. A lost Gamble? Everyone’s talking about Fox’s final days and the possibility that veteran receiver Steve Smith may ask out of Carolina. But there’s another very prominent player who already may have played his last game for the Panthers. That’s cornerback Chris Gamble. He appears likely to miss another game with an injured ankle. Even before his ankle problems, Gamble had fallen so deep into Fox’s doghouse that he was benched. Sure, some guys are going to be refreshed and get a clean slate with the new coach. But I’m not sure Gamble is one of them. Let’s assume the labor situation gets settled. Even though the Panthers would have a pile of salary-cap room, Gamble has a $9.3 million salary-cap figure for next year. What happened between Fox and Gamble wasn’t just a personality clash between a player and coach. It was something that probably didn’t score Gamble many points with the front office and his big cap figure could make him expendable.

3. Tyler Brayton. Although the defensive end is questionable with a hip injury, the Steelers still need to account for Brayton’s presence at all times. If he makes the trip and is standing on the sideline, history has shown Brayton still can be a factor there.

4. The fullback factor. The Panthers already have said fullback Tony Fiammetta will miss the game because of an ankle injury. That’s going to hurt a running game that has been clicking recently and could take some protection away from Clausen. The Panthers have moved Rashawn Jackson up from their practice squad and he could get some work in Fiammetta’s place. But it’s also likely the Panthers will ask their tight ends to take on some work at fullback.

5. It's all about the draft. Even if you’re a Carolina fan, the most important thing about this game could be 2011 draft position. The Panthers lead the race for the No. 1 pick. As nice as Sunday’s win was, the Panthers don’t need to make a habit of that right now.