CHARLOTTE – After a 15-minute delay due to severe weather, the Carolina Panthers closed out the preseason with an 18-6 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers at Bank of America Stadium.
The Panthers had to settle for field goals from kicker Graham Gano for all six of their scores, but head coach Ron Rivera is still confident in his team, which finished 2-2 in the preseason, heading into the regular season.
"I think we are headed in the right direction," Rivera said. "By no means ae we where I want to be, but I feel very comfortable with us. I think we did some really good things during the preseason. Again, going back to last week I would have really liked for us to get the ball into the end zone. You move the ball like we did, and it's disappointing.
"But looking at what we did in the whole preseason, I'm obviously pleased with that. I think there were some really good things in the first two games, and as I said in the third game the only thing that bothered me is we didn't finish the plays."
Four of the Panthers' five first-half drives produced field goals as Carolina built a 12-0 lead. The Steelers sacked quarterback Joe Webb twice on third down to force Carolina's first two field goals. Webb played the entire game with many of the regulars on both sides of the ball getting the night off. Brenton Bersin said it was important for the younger guys to take advantage.
"We didn't' have a lot of receivers playing tonight – me, (Damiere) Byrd and the young guy Key (Keyarris Garrett)," said Bersin, who paced the Panthers with six catches for 89 yards. "Joe did a great job running the offense, and he gave us opportunities to make plays."
Gano's 28-yard field goal gave the Panthers a 9-0 lead late in the first half, and the Carolina defense forced a punt to afford one more opportunity for points.
The final drive of the half was the Panthers' best, but the result was the same. With 12 plays, including two third-down conversions, the Panthers traveled 59 yards. They appeared to find the end zone when Garrett made a spectacular one-handed catch in the end zone, but he was penalized for offensive pass interference. Bersin thought otherwise.
"He should have had a touchdown on that one," Bersin said. "I don't think that was a good call, and that was a great play." The defense had a strong showing in the first half, limiting the Steelers to just 47 total yards.
The Panthers' second drive of the second half started poorly, lasting only three plays before a punt. But that's where things got interesting. Recently signed punter Andy Lee's kick made contact with Steelers returner Steven Johnson, allowing long snapper JJ Jansento recover the ball at the Pittsburgh 22. But the field goal theme continued, as the Panthers were able to advance the ball only 18 yards and had to settle for a 22-yard conversion by Gano. Rivera was glad he was getting time with Lee, his new holder.
"That's always good because he has a new holder, and he has to work on that," Rivera said. "There were a couple spots that I was thinking about going for it on fourth down but I really did fight that urge and let the snapper/holder/kicker work together."
Lee was also grateful for the preseason experience, even though he's worked with Jansen before.
"You're still, in the end, catching a snap and putting it down. But you're also catching a snap from a long snapper," Lee said. "Me and J.J. worked together a little bit in the offseason because we're friends and we're both here in the offseason. Just getting familiarity there in a game situation and trying to make sure I do what Graham Gano wants me to do and make sure the hold is the way it needs to be. Just getting that experience so it will become second-nature so I can go out there and not think too much about it."
Gano's streak of successful field goals in this game ended at five. The Panthers' next drive found him on the field again to attempt a 44-yard kick. He had the yardage, but pushed the ball wide right.
A 66-yard touchdown drive finally put the Steelers on the scoreboard early in the fourth quarter. They had just 53 yards of total offense prior to that possession.
They were aided when cornerback Teddy Williams committed pass interference on Pittsburgh wide receiver Vince Williams in the end zone, spotting the ball at the 1-yard line. Running back Daryl Richardson then scored the lone touchdown of the game, but defensive ends Ryan Delaire and Larry Webster combined for a sack on the two-point conversion, holding the score at 15-6.
Webb answered right back with a 37-yard pass to Bersin to push the Panthers into Steelers territory. They were held out of the end zone once again, but Gano made a 45-yarder to extend Carolina's lead to 18-6 midway through the fourth quarter.
Rivera and general manager Dave Gettleman have a few tough decisions facing them going into Saturday's deadline for the 53-man roster, including at running back and wide receiver.
"We are going to break this tape down tomorrow and really get after it," Rivera said. "We are going to do it quickly because obviously we play Thursday night (in the season opener at the Denver Broncos)."
View game action photos from Carolina's 18-6 preseason win over Pittsburgh.