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Winless preseason ends with 21-10 loss

Posted Sep 3, 2009

Nick Hayden and the defense had more to celebrate, only allowing a touchdown Thursday. But two returns for scores doomed the Panthers to defeat. (PHOTO: MATTHEW BRINKLEY / PANTHERS.COM)


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CHARLOTTE -- If winning is a habit, the Panthers will have to wait until after Labor Day to discover it.

The team concluded its first winless preseason in nine years with a 21-10 defeat to the Pittsburgh Steelers on Thursday night in a game played primarily by reserves but bearing a different tone than the three August defeats.

This time, the Panthers dominated the pace of the game, running 30 more plays, gaining 109 more yards, holding the football for over 11 more minutes and converting seven of 16 third-down attempts. But the Panthers gave away the football three times -- with an interception off Matt Moore being returned for a score and a fumble setting up the Steelers' only offensive touchdown. Another fumble by running back Mike Goodson torpedoed a 72-yard drive inside the Pittsburgh 5-yard-line.

An 80-yard punt return by Stefan Logan just 100 seconds into the proceedings accounted for the Steelers' other score; it put them in front to stay, consigning the Panthers to exit the warm-up slate without a win.

"I wouldn't use the word frustrated, but definitely some hunger has been built up here," said wide receiver Muhsin Muhammad. "I don't know if you can really pull a lot of positives from losses, but I think in these situations you can. I think the one positive thing is that this team is ready for a win."

That possiblity did not finally vanish until the Panthers' final drive, which saw quarterback Hunter Cantwell convert one fourth down with a 20-yard pass to Marcus Monk, but came up short when he was asacked at the Pittsburgh 32-yard-line four plays later, ending the Panthers' hopes with 1:40 left.

With that sack, the tuneups ended and the Panthers began moving into regular-season mode. The roster must be trimmed to 53 men by Saturday, and if previous years are any indication, the team's complement may not be set until the days after the deadline, as the annual shuffle of waived players begins en masse.

By the time the team reconvenes next Tuesday, their preseason record will be wiped away, a relative irrelevancy compared to the looming regular-season opener against Philadelphia.

"I'm just happy we're 0-4 now instead of the regular season," said defensive tackle Nick Hayden. "We've just got to keep getting better as a defense. We'll get some players back, which will definitely help. We've just got to keep getting better, pay attention to more detail and watch film, make corrections and just get better."

The first-teamers got a final chance to prepare under game conditions early in Thursday's game, and the results were mixed. Both offense and defense opened with three-and-outs, which was followed by four plays and a punt for the offense and a six-play, 34-yard Steelers touchdown drive at the first team defense's expense.

But both sides managed to stabilize their efforts after some wild swings in the previous three games -- particularly the defense, which held Ben Roethlisberger and Pittsburgh's No. 1 offense to just eight yards on their three snaps.

"I'm fine with where this defense is," said safety Chris Harris. "I'm excited going into next week, getting ready for Philly."

LAST SATURDAY'S GAME against Baltimore was lost via tackling and the defense's inability to get off the field on third downs, allowing the Ravens some clock-chewing drives that on five occasions covered at least half the field.

Five nights later, the defense was for the most part stouter, conceding just one touchdown -- and that came off advantageous field position that followed a Josh McCown fumble that Pittsburgh recovered at the Carolina 34-yard-line.

"Overall defensively it was a little bit better," Fox said.

But the touchdown the defense permitted saw Steelers running back Isacc Redman shake free of Chris Harris' tackle attempt befor sprinting through Quinton Teal and Richard Marshall at the goal line for the score. Harris appeared to have Redman contained at around the Carolina 6-yard-line, but was then hit first by Julius Peppers and then by Thomas Davis, causing the ballcarrier to squirt free of his grasp.

"I had him wrapped up and got knocked off the tackle by one of my teammates," Harris said. That type of thing happens; (it's) friendly fire, but it's nothing to get worried about."

The Panthers were more aggressive defensively, coming after Steelers quarterbacks and finishing the game with four sacks on just 14 pass plays. They were also better on third downs; after allowing Baltimore to convert eight of 13 such opportunities, they tightened up to allow just two successful conversions in 10 Steelers attempts Thursday night.

Carolina finished the game permitting just 211 yards to the Steelers, with just one drive covering more than 35 yards -- a 68-yard third-quarter march that ended when Carolina linebacker Mortty Ivy jarred loose the football from Justin Vincent. Fellow linebacker J Leman capped his noteworthy preseason with the recovery.

"As a defense, we're definitely getting better," said Hayden, whose penetration on Pittsburgh's second play from scrimmage allowed him to stop Rashard Mendenhall for a two-yard loss and helped the defense open the game with a Steelers three-and-out.

"It was a little frustrating last week for us to play the way we did, giving up the yards we gave up," Harris said. "The most frustrating thing was the missed tackles. But that's one thing we're correcting and we'll be ready come next week."

The defense regained the services of weakside linebacker Thomas Davis on Thursday after three weeks on the sideline with a sprained medial collateral ligament. But it had to make do without middle linebacker Jon Beason, strongside linebacker Na'il Diggs, safety Charles Godfrey and dime back Dante Wesley, all of whom watched in workout gear on the sideline.

The injuries throughout the preseason didn't help the defense, but Harris said they weren't an excuse for its struggles, either.

"A little bit, but not all. Them being out had nothing to do with us missing tackles," Harris said. "We weren't tackling well, and that's one thing we have to shore up before we play.

Thursday at least brought a step the defense needed to take.

"Better than the previous three weeks," he said.

PERHAPS NO PANTHER better illustrated the ups and downs of the night than Goodson, who led all players with 92 yards from scrimmage, but lost the fumble that cost Carolina a chance for at least three points -- if not seven -- before halftime.

Goodson finished the evening with 79 yards on 15 carries and another 13 on two receptions, giving him an average of 5.4 yards per scrimmage touch. He ended the preseason as easily the Panthers' most productive offensive player; no teammate came within 100 yards of his 148 yards from scrimmage on eight receptions and 40 carries. But his three fumbles -- one for every 16 offensive touches -- left him with miles left to travel on his NFL journey.

But his production, his toughness and his versatility are impossible to ignore, causing Fox to cite Goodson as one of the players who impressed him most in the last month.

"The guy that sticks out in my mind is Goodson. He's been pretty steady throughout the preseason," Fox said. 'I thought Duke Robinson at guard, a couple of times out on pulls, looked improved. Kenny Moore has had a pretty consistent preseason as a receiver. Defensively, I thought Captain Munnerlyn a couple of times on returns made guys miss. I'm not saying they were blocked perfectly; it was late in the games. I think he's improved quite a bit as a corner."

Their progress helped, but collectively it wasn't enough for the Panthers to take a winning sensation into Labor Day weekend.

THE PANTHERS EMERGED with only one injury -- to defensive tackle Corvey Irvin's knee in the second half. Irvin did walk back to the locker room under his own power.