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What to watch: Panthers-Steelers


CHARLOTTE – The true outcome of the Panthers' preseason finale Thursday night at the Pittsburgh Steelers (7:30 p.m., Panthers Television Network) won't be displayed on the Heinz Field scoreboard.

In reality, the final result won't be revealed until the dust settles on a weekend of work focused on trimming the roster from 75 down to 53 players for the regular season opener.

More than any other game on the NFL calendar, the final preseason game isn't about the final score; rather, it's about the final audition for the pack of players competing for precious roster spots.

With the starters expected to give way to the reserves by the end of the first quarter, those players should have plenty of opportunities to make a last, lasting impression.

"I think for a lot of guys, especially the bottom half of the roster, this is a big weekend," head coach John Fox said. "Not that this is going to make or break them, but this is one more chance to show what they can do.

"Hopefully, they go out there and put their best foot forward."

Here's a look at the position groups featuring the most intriguing battles as the final roster cutdown approaches.

WIDE RECEIVER: For a moment, the competition for the second starting spot will take a back seat to the heated battle for roster spots.

The Panthers kept just four wideouts on their 53-man roster to start 2009, but that number easily could jump to six. Veterans Steve Smith and Dwyane Jarrett and a pair of rookies drafted in the third round – Brandon LaFell and Armanti Edwards – should be in good shape.

Who's next? It seemed to be special teams dynamo Wallace Wright, but he was placed on injured reserve Tuesday following a shoulder injury suffered in Saturday's preseason game versus the Tennessee Titans.

There are arguments to be made for everybody, from vets like Kenny Moore and Charly Martin to rookies like David Gettis and Trent Guy.

DEFENSIVE LINE: The group has exceeded all expectations in the preseason, with a half-dozen linemen recording multiple sacks. It's so competitive up front that even such sack numbers don't guarantee some of the candidates roster spots.

About seven of the eight or nine spots appear to be claimed. But what do the Panthers do with Eric Moore, a practice squad player in 2009 who has three sacks and has forced two fumbles? What about vets like Nick Hayden and Derek Landri? Does rookie Eric Norwood count toward this group or the linebacker group?

QUARTERBACK: Matt Moore is entrenched as the starter, and rookie Jimmy Clausen clearly has grabbed control of the No. 2 spot.

That leaves Hunter Cantwell and rookie Tony Pike, who played against each other in college, battling for the No. 3 spot.

Neither has played in the last two games, but both should see extensive time against the Steelers.

DEFENSIVE BACK: After the starters, several hopefuls are going to be elated, and several are going to be deflated at this deep position group.

There's an intriguing mix of veterans signed as free agents in the offseason (Aaron Francisco, Marcus Hudson, Brian Witherspoon) and rookies drafted late (Jordan Pugh, R.J. Stanford, Robert McClain).

It could come down to the ability of the candidates to contribute on special teams, and/or it could come down to whether the Panthers want someone proven or someone with potential.

The gap between many of those on the bubble appears razor-thin.

SPECIALISTS: The difficult decisions faced at the other position groups could be made that much more difficult by what the Panthers may well do with their kickers.

They'll carry a kicker (John Kasay), punter (Jason Baker) and long snapper (JJ Jansen), just like every other NFL team. Unlike nearly everyone else, however they may well carry a kickoff specialist (Todd Carter).

The alternatives – using Baker or Kasay on kickoffs – is one the Panthers haven't explored much during the preseason.

The following players will not play against the Steelers: Tyler Brayton (ankle), C.J. Davis (head), Aaron Francisco (hamstring), Trent Guy (hamstring), Richard Marshall (knee), Captain Munnerlyn (calf), Jeff Otah (knee), Tyrell Sutton (shoulder) and C.J. Wilson (head).

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