PITTSBURGH – Head coach Ron Rivera said he hoped the performance of his reserves in the preseason finale would make the team's final roster decisions that much more difficult.
Rivera may have gotten his wish.
The Panthers cruised past the Pittsburgh Steelers, 23-6, on Thursday night to finish the preseason with a 3-1 record.
"It was a good showing. A lot of young guys did good things with their opportunities," said Rivera, who will now turn his attention to the task of trimming the roster from 75 players to 53 by Saturday. "We're going to have to make some decisions that will be hard."
The only disappointing news of the night came on the injury front. Starting cornerback Josh Norman left with a head injury on the game's second snap, and reserve cornerback Teddy Williams left with a groin injury shortly after. Rivera didn't have any updates on the players' condition.
The Panthers were efficient and balanced on offense – passing for 228 yards and rushing for 226 – and their defense kept the Steelers off-balance. That was especially true in the first half, when the Panthers were pretty close to perfect.
The running game was dominant at times and the defense was dominant at all times, allowing a first down to start the half and one to end it but nothing in between. It added up to a 17-0 halftime lead.
"I'm happy with it," said quarterback Derek Anderson, who signed a two-year contract extension Wednesday and started the game with Cam Newton sitting this one out. "To run the ball the way we did was really good.
"Sometimes these games can get a little sloppy, but we did a good job of setting the tempo by running the ball, and we made plays in the passing game when we had to. Plus the defense played good."
Rookie running back Cameron Artis-Payne did the bulk of the work early, rushing 10 times for 65 yards in the first quarter to set up a 23-yard field goal early in the second quarter for a 3-0 lead.
On the next drive, Anderson's last of the night, the running game gained more ground. Undrafted rookie Brandon Wegher got it going with a 15-yard gallop, then on third-and-10, Carolina caught the Steelers off guard. Out of the shotgun, Anderson handed off to Jordan Todman, who took advantage of spacious running lanes on his way to a 49-yard touchdown.
"I've been waiting for a while to bust a big one, to have a big play," said Todman, who got more action with Jonathan Stewart a healthy scratch. "It took until the fourth preseason game to showcase, but better late than never."
Webb took over at quarterback from there and kicked the passing game into high gear just before halftime. The Panthers took over at their own 20 after the defense's fourth consecutive three-and-out with 1:42 left and started moving behind Webb and wide receiver Brenton Bersin.
They finished the drive off with a flourish. Webb hit tight end Brandon Williams for a 22-yard gain on third-and-6, advancing to the Steelers 29 with 15 seconds left. After Bersin's third catch of the drive, Webb pumped and drilled one to tight end Marcus Lucas down the sideline for a 23-yard score just five seconds before the half.
The teams traded field goals in the third quarter.
Several of Carolina's top players – Luke Kuechly and Greg Olsen among them – did not play, but two that Carolina hopes will be top players returned to action after missing two games. Defensive tackle Kawann Short recorded a sack earlier, and rookie wide receiver Devin Funchess had two catches for 22 yards.
Receiver Kevin Norwood, acquired in a trade Monday with the Seattle Seahawks, caught a 13-yard pass late in the third quarter and then broke into the clear for a 27-yarder early in the fourth quarter. That set up a 27-yard field goal that made it 23-3 with 11:40 left, a kick that improved Graham Gano to 10-for-10 in the preseason.
"It felt pretty good," Norwood said. "I just wanted to go out and do my best, I can feel like I did my best.
"I could have done better, of course, but it was a great start for me."
And a great finish to the preseason for the Panthers as a whole.
"It's great to go into the season on a high note," said Artis-Payne, who finished with 67 yards on 12 carries. "We executed. That's the biggest thing."
View game action photos from Carolina's 23-6 preseason win over Pittsburgh.