CHARLOTTE — Stop us if you've heard this one before: The Panthers are wrapping up the preseason tonight against the Steelers.
The annual meeting between the preseason rivals is a tradition unlike any other, and tonight's the 22nd installment and the 18th straight year. The Steelers lead the all-time preseason series 12-9, if you're counting.
But this one's different, since the preseason as a whole is. With just three games to evaluate, teams were forced to decide anew how they wanted to deploy starters and evaluate the guys trying to make the bottom of the roster.
The Steelers had a bonus exhibition (since they played in the Hall of Fame Game), so they're parking most of their regulars and starting Dwayne Haskins at quarterback tonight. The last time he saw the Panthers, it didn't go so well, as he threw two picks and was benched in the fourth quarter by a Washington Football Team on the verge of the playoffs.
But tonight, the Panthers are only really worried about the Panthers, so here are five things to keep an eye on:
1. How's Sam?
The Panthers seem encouraged by the progress of quarterback Sam Darnold, not necessarily based on the seven snaps of preseason football he's played so far.
They're going to let him run around out there for about a half, even though Christian McCaffrey won't be out there with him.
Going against the Steelers' twos and threes won't be a reliable indicator of how Darnold's play compares to his work in joint practices against the starters from the Colts and Ravens. Still, it will be his last work against someone else before he plays against the Jets in the regular season.
He's mostly worried about making sure he has the basics down, like getting the team in and out of the huddle and getting plays called in time. That may sound basic, but it's not something they've always been able to take for granted.
2. Is the long snapping competition ending?
Veteran JJ Jansen has done what he's always done this preseason — show up, do job, leave without attracting much attention.
When they used a late draft pick on Thomas Fletcher, it would have been easy to imagine Fletcher dethroning him and making the job his own for a decade. But it hasn't worked out quite that way.
"J.J. has been doing it for a long time," Panthers head coach Matt Rhule said this week of the competition. "I think he's had a renewed sense of everything this year. Fletch obviously has a lot of talent, he's just getting used to having to block at this level."
With the kicking situation unsettled, having a long snapper you don't have to worry about is a good thing.
3. About that kicker
Joey Slye's still here, but they traded a conditional seventh-round pick to the Giants for the 6-foot-5, 258-pound Ryan Santoso on Thursday.
The "condition" is that Santoso plays two regular season games, so if they decide in the next couple of weeks he's not the guy, then it doesn't really cost anything.
They're giving Slye plenty of chances to prove himself, but this "slump" he's going through could be the thing that costs him a job, so watching them work tonight could be telling.
4. Is there linebacker help here?
The Panthers cleared things up a bit by shipping Denzel Perryman to the Raiders this week. He wasn't going to unseat Jermaine Carter in the middle anyway, but now they're scrambling a bit.
There's a decent chance the backup in the middle isn't on the roster at the moment, and inside linebackers are actually one of the positions where you can find qualified veteran help after cuts. (Left tackles, quarterbacks and pass-rushers, not so much). They want to find someone to help keep some of the tread on Carter and Shaq Thompson's tires, so reliability is a plus.
But tonight's a final chance for a few of the guys already here to nail down a roster spot, and hope to hang on through the inevitable post-cuts roster adjustments.
5. Look at all those rookies.
The Panthers will probably end up keeping at least eight or nine of their 11 draft picks, for a good reason. Terrace Marshall Jr. and Chuba Hubbard have proven to be able to make splash plays, offensive linemen Brady Christensen and Deonte Brown look like guys you can build around in the future, and several others have shown flashes of being contributors sooner rather than later.
Oh, and that Horn kid. We almost overlook first-round cornerback Jaycee Horn sometimes, because nothing about his game suggests rookie. Having grown up in an NFL home, he's mature beyond his years, and ready to get started on his seemingly inevitable NFL journey.
The Steelers lead the all-time series against the Panthers, 6-1.