PITTSBURGH – After waiting for an opportunity that never came in the Panthers' two home preseason games, reserve quarterbacks Hunter Cantwell and Tony Pike knew they'd get their chance Thursday night.
They just didn't realize how soon.
Head coach John Fox made a game-time decision to not play his starters at all in the preseason finale, eliminating the risk of injury while increasing his chance to evaluate those trying to make the team.
The result was a 19-3 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers -- who played their starters most of the first quarter -- before Carolina headed home with 22 roster cuts looming Saturday.
"We found out right before the game," starting quarterback Matt Moore said. "They wanted to rest some guys – I understand that – and see what some other guys had.
"We got ready to play all week, but that's OK. We've got a more important game coming up next Sunday, and they will start counting for real. That's what our focus is now."
The decision gave Cantwell the opportunity to start the game and Pike the chance to play the entire second half. Cantwell led the team into field goal range against Pittsburgh's first-team defense on the Panthers' first drive, and Pike led them to the same spot in the second half.
John Kasay had a 51-yard attempt in the first half bounce off the crossbar and out, but he made one from 51 toward the same end of Heinz Field in the second half.
"It was a lot of fun to play and to find out they were going to leave their starters in. To go against Troy Polamalu and that crew was a lot of fun," Cantwell said. "We were able to move the ball and get into field goal position, and you have to love that.
"After that first drive, we just couldn't find our rhythm with substitutions and things, and then we had different breakdowns here and there."
That's how much of the preseason went for the Panthers, regardless of who was under center. While Cantwell (6-for-9, 36 yards) and Pike (10-for-18, 44 yards) tried to make their pitches for the third-team job, the Panthers closed out the regular season without an offensive touchdown.
"I would have liked to have scored more touchdowns – there's no doubt – but we'll be at full strength getting ready for New York, and that's what I was most concerned with," Fox said, referencing the Panthers' regular season opener Sept. 12 at the Giants. "The key was getting our starters healthy. We didn't get anybody nicked up, and now it's full speed ahead for New York."
Again, the defense gave fans something to cheer – even as the starters watched from the sideline. The Panthers forced the Steelers' starters, including quarterback Ben Roethilsberger, into a three-and-out to open the game, though Pittsburgh's starters did muster a field goal on the next drive before calling it a night.
Over four preseason games, the Panthers allowed a total of four offensive touchdowns.
"It was good to see our guys get out there and fly around against their first team, and really for the whole game," said defensive end Everette Brown, one of Thursday's spectators. "The guys on the D-line played with a lot of energy. Guys were getting to the ball and making plays.
"It shows the depth that we do have to on this team."
The reality is that the Panthers' depth will take an unavoidable hit when the roster is slashed from 75 to 53 players by Saturday night.
While the starters enjoyed Thursday night off, it will be difficult for players like Pike to enjoy their day off Friday. Still, Pike was among those who did enjoy their extended opportunity Thursday.
"It was fun to get out there and move around a little bit," Pike said. "It's going to be tough sitting around on the day off, but at the same time, I'm grateful for every chance I've had here with Carolina.
"Whatever happens is going to happen, but I love Carolina and love the city, and I love all these guys in the locker room."
INJURY REPORT: Offensive guard Duke Robinson (knee), linebacker Jordan Senn (ankle) and tight end Jamie Petrowski (head) suffered injuries during the game.