PITTSBURGH - With the starters and many key reserves as bystanders, Thursday night gave head coach Ron Rivera and his staff one final look at personnel before Saturday’s roster cuts. The results weren't what Rivera had hoped for as the Panthers fell 39-24 to the Steelers, missing out on a chance for Carolina's first undefeated preseason since 2006.
"We did some good things. It's tough when you're not playing with everybody," Rivera said. "But we knew going in it was going to be tough. We'll take a look at things and evaluate. We'll come to conclusions."
From the onset, the defense was challenged by Steelers’ backup quarterback Joshua Dobbs, who led two touchdown drives right off the bat. Dobbs used his legs on the first, then threw deep to wide receiver Tevin Jones for an early 14-0 lead. The Panthers secondary - featuring a lot of players likely on the wrong side of the cut line - was tested throughout the first half by Jones and fellow receiver Justin Hunter.
On the other side of the ball, the ongoing battle between Taylor Heinicke and Garrett Gilbert to back up quarterback Cam Newton added its final preseason chapter. In his one quarter of action, Heinicke compiled a respectable stat line: completing 7 of his 12 passes for 68 yards and connecting with his favorite target, Mose Frazier, for a 6-yard touchdown. Frazier scored three touchdowns in the preseason.
Unfortunately for Gilbert, his final audition didn’t go quite as smoothly. He finished the game 4-for-7 for 23 yards and was the victim of a strip-sack at the hands of linebacker Olasunkanmi Adeniyi. The turnover set the stage for the Steelers to find the end zone again before halftime and build a 25-7 lead.
Panthers undrafted rookie Kyle Allen took over quarterback duties for the entire second half and played well, leading the offense to a 54-yard field goal by Graham Gano and a pair of fourth-quarter touchdowns. Wide receiver Bug Howard scored one of those touchdowns late when he won a wrestling match for a ball he had fumbled forward into the end zone.
Running backs Cameron Artis-Payne and Kenjon Barner got one more chance to make their case to play behind Christian McCaffrey and C.J Anderson, but Elijah Hood's chance was cut short. Hood - like Howard a University of North Carolina product - suffered a left knee injury on the opening kickoff that sidelined him for the remainder of the game.
Thursday's finale will play a role in roster decisions that must be made over the next two days, but Rivera stressed it will be about more than the Steelers game.
"We take everything into consideration," Rivera said. "We take what went on during training camp practices. What went on during meetings. What went on during the games that you played…we’ll talk about all of those things.
"I think there are about five or six spots that are still up in the air and we want to make sure we make good decisions.”