By Teresa Varley
The Steelers closed out the preseason at Heinz Field, defeating the Carolina Panthers 19-16 and finishing with a 3-1 record. Rookie quarterback Dennis Dixon led the Panthers on a game-winning final drive to secure the win with a Jeff Reed field goal.
The starting offense played just two series and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger did not have a pass attempt as they focused more on running the ball early on and giving the offensive line work in that area.
“I thought they did a great job tonight,” said Roethlisberger of the line. “I called a lot of runs on purpose because I wanted to get them out there and they wanted to run the ball, so I think they did a great job.
“We went to our no-huddle package tonight. It wasn’t good, that’s why I wanted to practice it in the preseason. We had a couple of mistakes, but I’m glad we got it done now.”
Byron Leftwich came in for Roethlisberger in the first quarter and played into the third quarter. He finished the night with completing six of 14 pass attempts for 82 yards.
It was an auspicious start for the Steelers offense as they had to scramble to avoid a turnover on the opening drive. After two carries by Willie Parker that netted five yards, Roethlisberger lined up in the shotgun. The snap from Justin Hartwig came early and went over Roethlisberger’s head and he recovered at the four-yard line for a 21-yard loss.
“I’m pretty upset, actually, because I snapped it too early on the third play of the game,” said Hartwig. “I shut down a drive. We had a few errors with the no-huddle offense that we’d like to have back, but that’s why we have practice.”
The Panthers got the ball with excellent field position at their own 48-yard line and opened up with their starters on the sideline. LaBrandon Toefield had two carries for 10 yards and Matt Moore hit Travis Taylor for a 20-yard gain. The defense tightened the reins once the Panthers got inside the 20 and forced them to settle for a 32-yard field goal by John Kasay for a 3-0 lead.
“I think we still have a lot of room to improve,” said Brett Keisel. “Overall, I’ll give us a B-minus. I want us to go out and dominate people. I want us to go out and play three plays and come sit on the bench and watch the offense. But we had bad field position and we held them to a field goal and that’s a plus.”
The offense went back to work and this time the results were much different. Parker provided a much needed spark with a 26-yard run down the sidelines to the Carolina 48-yard line. Roethlisberger’s deep pass to Nate Washington was broken-up by Richard Marshall, but he was called for pass interference giving the Steelers a first down at the seven-yard line. Carey Davis got the Steelers on the board when he followed the blocking of Chris Kemoeatu and Willie Colon for a six-yard touchdown, giving the Steelers a 7-3 lead.
Things continued to go in the Steelers favor on the ensuing drive. After moving the ball from their 25-yard line to the Steelers 44-yard line, Moore’s pass for Dwayne Jarrett was intercepted by Bryant McFadden at the Steelers 28-yard line. McFadden returned it 31 yards to the Carolina 41-yard line.
“That’s what we want to do,” said cornerback Deshea Townsend. “We want to make sure we can make plays and get our offense the ball back.”
The Steelers made wholesale changes on offense, with Leftwich in at quarterback. Rashard Mendenhall got his first carry of the night, a three-yard gain, and followed it by taking the direct snap and going up the middle for eight yards. The Steelers weren’t able to convert another first down, but did capitalize off of the turnover with a 41-yard Jeff Reed field goal for a 10-3 lead.
A defensive stop put the ball back in the Steelers hands deep in their own territory at the nine-yard line. Mendenhall was stopped for no gain, and then bounced back for a four-yard carry. On third-and-six Leftwich completed a nice pass to Mewelde Moore for 26 yards. He converted another third down by hitting Dallas Baker for a 33-yard gain, aided by a nice breakaway move by Baker. Leftwich went deep to Limas Sweed in the end zone, but he was ruled out of bounds even after the Steelers challenged the play. Reed got the call again and hit a 49-yard field goal to extend the lead to 13-3.
The defense continued to step up and not allow the Panthers to do much, forcing another punt. But it wouldn’t be in the Steelers hands for long. Mendenhall, who fumbled twice against the Vikings and was forced to carry a football with him all week by teammates, had the ball knocked free by Gary Gibson and it was recovered by Ricardo Colclough. The Panthers weren’t able to take advantage of the turnover as the defense stopped them on fourth-and-one.
The Panthers were able to get the ball back after a three-and-out by the Steelers offense and closed out the half with a 32-yard Kasey field goal.
Leftwich remained in the game in the second half and managed to orchestrate another field goal drive with some help from Mendenhall. The rookie running back had eight carries for 50 yards, setting up Reed for a 41-yard field goal and a 16-6 lead.
Keyaron Fox brought the Panthers next drive to a quick half when he intercepted Moore and returned it 11 yards to the Panthers 39-yard line.
Dixon came in at quarterback with just over five minutes to go in the third quarter. Dixon had a 10-yard completion to Marvin Allen for a first down. The drive stalled though after Mendenhall got knocked for a three-yard loss and Dixon’s pass to Sweed fell incomplete. Reed came on for his fourth field goal attempt, but his 43-yard attempt went wide right.
Brett Basanez entered the game at quarterback for the Panthers in the fourth quarter and completed two passes for 40 yards on his first drive to put the Panthers in field goal position. Kasay put it through the uprights from 48 yards for his third score of the night, to pull the Panthers within a touchdown at 16-9.
The Panthers got the ball back and made a comeback, with Basanez hitting Chris Hannon for a 29-yard touchdown to tie the game at 16-16 with 1:54 remaining in the game.
Dixon went to work, completing a two five-yard passes to Eddie Drummond and then scrambling for an 11-yard gain. Dixon then hit Micah Rucker for 10-yards and Allen for 12 yards. Reed came on for the game-winning field goal, hitting it from 43-yards out.