STEELERS 17, PANTHERS 16**
Steelers' record: 3-1
One year ago: 3-1
Preseason series record: Steelers lead, 9-4
Coach Mike Tomlin summed up the significance of the preseason finale. "This game presents a significant opportunity for guys to make a final statement in their charge to etch out a role for themselves within this group, or simply be a part of the group. We looked at the recent history of the series this morning to reiterate to some men in the room that this is a legitimate opportunity, the last opportunity to make a strong push to put them on the right side of the ledger. I talked openly about the recent history of the game and what it provided to certain men. Stevenson Sylvester and Jonathan Dwyer represented themselves well in the past games, and they staked their claim on their position and spot. I want the guys to know that this is a very tangible thing."
If there is anything NFL coaches hate more than having to play overtime in the preseason, it's having to play overtime in the preseason finale. In keeping with that, Carolina Coach Ron Rivera did the right thing by going for two following a fourth quarter touchdown that cut the Steelers lead to 17-16. That the attempt failed was not as significant as the fact the attempt was made.
STAT THAT STANDS OUT
Even though Charlie Batch quarterbacked the team to 10 first half points, the Steelers offense converted only 1-for-8 third down situations. Jerrod Johnson took over at quarterback and played the entire second half, and in addition to throwing what turned into the game-winning touchdown pass to Weslye Saunders, he also helped the offense to a 4-of-8 conversion rate on third down over the game's final two quarters.
WHAT WENT RIGHT
* The 37-yard touchdown pass that opened the scoring for the Steelers was a lovely throw by Charlie Batch and a fine catch by Emmanuel Sanders. Batch's pass was perfectly place for Sanders to run under it into the end zone, and the catch was made in between CB Josh Thomas and SS Reggie Smith.
- In what became their eighth takeaway of the preseason, Curtis Brown recovered a fumble by Seyl Ajirotutu on a punt return.
- Jonathan Dwyer started this game because of an injury to Isaac Redman, but the way he has played throughout this preseason could have him starting against Denver on merit. Coming into the game with 84 yards on 15 carries (5.6 average) that included runs of 23 and 33 yards, Dwyer had 44 yards on seven carries in the first quarter. Included in that were runs of 14 and 18 yards. Dwyer finished the half with 63 yards on 13 carries, which meant he finished the preseason with 28 carries for 147 yards, a 5.3 average.
- The Steelers placekickers came into the game a perfect 8-for-8 on field goal attempts, but Shaun Suisham had only two of those attempts. But with Daniel Hrapmann having been waived on Monday, Suisham was the only placekicker in uniform against the Panthers. He made his first attempt of the night, from 49 yards out to make him 2-for-2 from 40-49 yards on the preseason.
- Charlie Batch started the game and put together a very efficient performance. Batch completed 11-of-14 for 102 yards, with one touchdown and no interceptions, for a rating of 120.8. The touchdown pass was a pretty 37-yarder to Emmanuel Sanders, and he also completed a very nice 27-yard touch pass to Will Johnson.
- Weslye Saunders is facing a four-game suspension at the start of the season for violating the league's policy on performance-enhancers but he made some plays on the Steelers' go-ahead touchdown drive to create a favorable impression. Saunders caught a 29-yard pass over the middle to convert a third-and-5, and then he made a nice play on a 6-yard pass on third-and-goal to stretch the ball over the goal line for the touchdown.
WHAT WENT WRONG
* Chris Rainey returned the game's first punt 78 yards for a touchdown, but the play was nullified by a holding penalty on Will Allen. Instead of the touchdown, the Steelers offense began the possession at their own 36-yard line.
- In what has to be something of a record for frustration, Rainey returned a second punt for a touchdown in the first quarter, only to have it again called back by a holding penalty. This return went for 90 yards and a touchdown, and the holding penalty was called on Ryan Mundy. The Steelers started this offensive possession on their own 16-yard line.
- Early in the third quarter, Chris Carter broke through to sack Jimmy Clausen, and the ball came out and was recovered by Cameron Heyward. In reality what happened was that Clausen committed intentional grounding in an effort to avoid the sack, but the original ruling on the field was a fumble and a recovery by the Steelers. But because of the new replay rule in which all turnovers are reviewed automatically, the call was reviewed, and referee Jim Winterberg determined it was not a fumble. But since penalties cannot be called based on instant replay, the only course of action was to rule the pass incomplete and return the ball to the original line of scrimmage.
- There was a lot of excitement surrounding the Steelers' 2012 draft class as training camp opened, but as the preseason ends the upper portion of the class has been beset by knee injuries. It started with a mild knee sprain for No. 2 pick Mike Adams in the preseason opener, then there was No. 1 pick David DeCastro sustaining a severe knee injury in Buffalo, and then late in the third quarter in the preseason finale Sean Spence sustained what looked like the worst knee injury of them all, based on the reaction of the players and coaches on the sideline. Spence had his left leg strapped into a stabilization device and he was driven off the field on a cart.
- On a third-and-goal from the 1-yard line midway through the fourth quarter, QB Jerrod Johnson tried to change the play at the line of scrimmage. But the running back at the time was DuJuan Harris, who had been signed just days ago off the waiver wire. Harris had no idea what to do, and when Johnson tried to explain it to him, the play-clock expired and the Steelers were flagged for delay of game.
Brett Keisel (ankle), Isaac Redman (ankle), and Stevenson Sylvester (knee) all missed the game with their injuries.
Coach Mike Tomlin also didn't play nine other guys who had been starters throughout the preseason. That included Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown, Heath Miller and Maurkice Pouncey on offense; Ike Taylor, Troy Polamalu, Ryan Clark, Ziggy Hood and LaMarr Woodley on defense. Also on defense, Casey Hampton started in place of Steve McLendon.
This is how Tomlin detailed the in-game injuries: "Sean Spence's knee injury is significant. He's in the process of being examined at the local hospital. Robert Golden has got a hamstring injury. I don't know to what extent and we had some other bumps and bruises in the game. But the significant one is Spence. Curtis Brown left the game with some knee issues. I don't know whether it's major or minor but he's being examined. We'll let you know when we do. David DeCastro, it was a successful surgery. I haven't seen one those surgeries that isn't successful. We'll let the dust settle and we'll follow his progress."