Panthers quarterback Cam Newton has spent so much time in the training room he's started handing out nicknames to the staff.

If it's not his surgically repaired ankle or fractured ribs, it's some other nagging issue.

"It's been the story of my life all year," Newton said. "I had (ankle) surgery in March and it's been treatment, treatment, treatment and more treatment."

Still, the Panthers have persevered and are on the verge of their first 3-0 start since 2003 — the season they made it to the Super Bowl — entering Sunday night's game against the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Coach Ron Rivera said Newton probably won't be healthy until after the season.

"It's frustrating to have this nicked up, have that nicked up and trying to do things that you are not able to do," Newton said.

Still, Newton played well in his return to action last Sunday, throwing for 281 yards and a touchdown in a 24-7 win over the Detroit Lions. He didn't run much — four times for 19 yards — but was effective when he did.

The Panthers haven't changed their game plan, still running some zone reads that give Newton the option to hand the ball off or run with it. Rivera said he always hopes Newton hands it off.

"Anytime he runs I'm glad to get (the play) over with," Rivera said.

Newton ran for 2,032 yards and 28 touchdowns in his first three seasons. He's most dangerous when he's a threat to run.

Rivera admits teams probably don't respect Newton's running ability as much as they have in the past due to his current injuries. However, the Steelers certainly know he can be a huge weapon, even when not close to being fully healthy.

"We have to keep him contained, so if he is going to stay in bounds we have to get a shot on him," Steelers defensive end Cam Heyward said. "... If we can keep him in the pocket and keep him one dimensional it gives our back end a better chance."

Some things to watch Sunday night when the Panthers host the Steelers:

STAYING STRONG: The Steelers anticipated the offensive line being a strength. It didn't look like it during last week's loss to Baltimore. Right tackle Marcus Gilbert surrendered a pair of sacks and Ben Roethlisberger took a series of shots, including an illegal hit to the chest in the first quarter that affected him the rest of the game.

Keeping Roethlisberger upright may be even more difficult in Carolina, which got to Detroit's Matthew Stafford four times last Sunday even with Greg Hardy out.

"It's not a lot of exotic blitzes (and) moving guys around doing things," Roethlisberger said. "They count on their guys just to whoop you and that's their front four, which is kind of a front-seven, eight or nine because they rotate so many guys."

NEXT MAN UP: The Panthers will be without Hardy for the foreseeable future after he took a paid leave of absence to deal with his domestic abuse conviction. With Hardy out until at least late November the team will rely on Wes Horton, Mario Addison and Kony Ealy to help pressure the quarterback. Carolina led the league with 60 sacks last season, 15 from Hardy.

ALL BUSINESS: The game is a homecoming of sorts for Steelers safety Mike Mitchell, who was spectacular during his one season with Carolina in 2013. Mitchell parlayed his breakout into a five-year free agent contract in Pittsburgh. "This defense has a lot of talent on it, their defense has a lot of talent on it," Mitchell said.

KUECHLY IN THE MIDDLE: Last year's AP Defensive Player of the Year Luke Kuechly is off to another strong start with 20 tackles, two pass breakups, a forced fumble and a sack. Kuechly is the type of tough-minded, aggressive linebacker the Steelers are used to seeing in one of their uniforms.

MOORE IS MORE: Pittsburgh's veteran wide receiver Lance Moore will make his season debut after recovering from a lingering groin injury. The 31-year-old signed with the Steelers in March after eight years in New Orleans, where he built a reputation with reliable hands and an ability to work in tight spaces. The Steelers hope Moore can replicate the kind of success in the slot current Panther Jerricho Cotchery enjoyed a year ago when he caught a career-high 10 touchdowns in Pittsburgh.

___

AP Sports Writer Will Graves in Pittsburgh contributed to this report.

___

AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org and http://twitter.com/AP_NFL