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Rapid Reactions: Panthers drop preseason finale


What It Means

Cam Newton was in full pads. So was Luke Kuechly. And Christian McCaffrey. They all played as many snaps Thursday night as you and me.

Per what's essentially tradition across the NFL, the Panthers and Steelers sat nearly all their essential starters for their fourth and final preseason game.

Head coach Ron Rivera said throughout the week that roster spots were up for grabs, but he declined to say how many. But among those who helped themselves were wideouts Kaelin Clay and defensive tackle Eric Crume. Among those who didn't – kicker Graham Gano.

The Steelers' last-minute rally dropped the Panthers to 2-2 this preseason. For what it's worth, Carolina has won at least two preseason games ahead of each of their seven playoff appearances.

Carolina is now 45-48 all-time in the preseason, including a 12-8 record over the past five years. 

Top Plays

—Even before he did this, the speedy Clay was in the conversation for a roster spot:

—Running back Cameron Artis-Payne breaks off another big preseason run:


Health Watch

—Every team's biggest goal of the fourth preseason game is to get out of it healthy. That didn't happen with wideout Curtis Samuel. The second-round pick, who tweaked his ankle in his preseason at Jacksonville, had that ankle rolled up on after making a catch early in the third quarter. Samuel gingerly limped back to the locker room and did not return.

—Cornerback Teddy Williams excited in the first quarter after banging his shoulder while making a tackle. A few minutes earlier, Williams put pressure on Steelers quarterback Landry Jones, whose floater landed in the hands of linebacker David Mayo.

—Cornerback Zack Sanchez limped off midway through the fourth quarter with an apparent groin injury. 

—Injured players who didn't dress: receivers Fred Ross and Brenton Bersin; safety L.J. McCray; cornerback Corn Elder; linebacker Jared Norris; guards David Yankey and Chris Scott; offensive tackle Dan France; center Gino Gradkowski; defensive end Daeshon Hall; tight end Scott Simonson; defensive tackles Vernon Butler and Kyle Love.

Extra Points

—Mayo's interception was his first since he played for Texas State in a game against Arkansas State on Nov. 16, 2013.

—Before exiting, Samuel provided a spark for a kickoff return unit that hasn't provided much excitement the past few years. He nearly broke a second-quarter return for a touchdown but was tripped up at the Panthers' 32-yard line. 

—Wideout Damiere Byrd came into the night tied with 12 others for most receiving touchdowns (two) this preseason. His third, a 13-yarder from Joe Webb late in the second quarter, capped off a productive preseason for Byrd. It's hard to see the South Carolina product, who totaled 119 yards on six receptions, not making the final 53-man roster.

—Same for Artis-Payne, who was arguably the Panthers' best offensive player this preseason. The third-year back rushed eight times for 51 yards, including that 35-yard scamper above and finished the preseason with a 6.4-yard average on 28 attempts.

—Luke was beaten by Steelers speedster Justin Hunter for a 58-yard score in the second quarter. As I wrote Thursday morning, Luke had an inside track at a roster spot, so we'll see Saturday if Thursday night's mistake costs the undrafted rookie. He did bounce back with a forced fumble late in the fourth quarter. 

—I know plenty of you are ready to get rid of Gano, and his 51-yard miss off the upright won't help his Q-Rating the fan base. The Panthers are in a tough spot, though. Yes, Gano missed twice this preseason while seventh-round pick Harrison Butker went 2-for-2. But do you really want to go into a season with a rookie kicker? It's not the most confidence-inspiring situation either way.

—Nice gesture by head coach Ron Rivera, who assigned Williams, Whittaker and wideout Russell Shepard to the opening coin toss. All three have ties to flood-ravaged Houston.

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