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Carolina Panthers

What to watch: Panthers vs. Steelers


The last game of the preseason typically is reserved for the reserves.

This year, however, it's just as important that the starters start strong.

Head coach Ron Rivera wants to see signs of progress from top to bottom when the Panthers wraps up their preseason schedule Thursday against the Pittsburgh Steelers at Bank of America Stadium (8 p.m., Panthers TV).

"With that first bunch, I want to see good communication, good operations and then get them off the field," Rivera said. "With the young guys, you're looking for progress. You think about where they were two or three weeks ago and then you try to see where they are now.

"The Steelers are a Super Bowl-caliber team, and you want to be able to come out and match them. If you can make a really good showing - and I'm not just saying show up, but I'm talking about going out and playing with these guys - then you've shown progress."

Rivera wants his starting groups - especially the offense - to have a couple of good series early to develop confidence heading into the regular season. After that, it will be about the reserves, with the Panthers having to cut the roster from 80 entering the game down to 53 by 6 p.m. on Saturday.

"Those guys that are all in the heated battles for the second and third positions, we'd love to see somebody step up and really play well," Rivera said. "I think it's time some of those guys separate themselves, and a lot of those guys will get some extended playing time and be given the opportunity to do that."

There will be lots to track when the starters and reserves are in. Here are some of the high points.

UNDER CENTER: The quarterback always gets plenty of attention, and that's only magnified with No. 1 overall pick Cam Newton slated to make his third consecutive start.

Newton is keeping tabs on quarterback play as well.

"I have an expectation for myself, and when I don't play to that expectation, of course I'm going to be down on myself," Newton said. "That's my competitive nature."

Everyone wants Newton to excel yesterday, but the reality for rookie quarterbacks is their best days are ahead of them. Newton, however, is driven to get them here sooner rather than later.

"Just keep making that left turn like in NASCAR, trying to come around that curve – that learning curve," he said.


BESIDE THE CENTER: Rivera lit into his second-team offensive line when quarterback Jimmy Clausen got sacked late in last Thursday's loss to Cincinnati.

No one has been overly pleased with the first-team line, either, but the group will get one more chance to right the ship before the regular season starts.

"We have been struggling," left tackle Jordan Gross said. "There's a million reasons, a million excuses. It's a new system, new calls and new quarterbacks - new everything. There's definitely a learning curve there, and we have to do it probably three times quicker than we normally would, but that's the job ahead of us.

"The nice thing about all the preseason is that all the stats and negative plays that you don't want to have are erased in a week or so."

Geoff Schwartz, a potential starter at right guard, was placed on injured reserve Tuesday with a hip injury, but Rivera said Wednesday that right tackle Jeff Otah would see his first preseason game action against the Steelers. That means the Panthers likely will have their entire projected starting line in the game at the same time for the first time Thursday: Gross at left tackle, Travelle Wharton at left guard, Ryan Kalil at center, Mackenzy Bernadeau at right guard and Otah at right tackle.


HANDS TEAM: One of the most interesting battles for playing time and roster spots since the beginning of training camp has been at wide receiver, and final auditions have arrived.

"For the younger guys and for older guys who have been around, it's time to shine," veteran Wallace Wright said. "You have to go in there and show the coaching staff what you can do."

Wright appears to be among those battling for a roster spot, along with David Clowney, Charly Martin and possibly others given that the Panthers could keep anywhere from five to seven receivers.

DEFENDING YOUR POSITION: On the other side of the ball, roster spots appear to still be up for grabs among all the position groups.

Defensive players with similar credentials are seeking the last spot at defensive tackle, linebacker and throughout the defensive backfield.

Players trying to avoid the cut, like undrafted rookie cornerback Kendric Burney, are trying to not think about the cut as their final opportunity approaches.

"I'm looking forward to Thursday, because I should be able to go out there and actually play with no fear at all, not thinking about cuts," Burney said. "I'm just going to go out and play and just be me. If I do that, I think I should be all right."

HURRICANE IRENE RELIEF COLLECTION DRIVE: The Carolina Panthers and American Red Cross are encouraging fans to assist victims of Hurricane Irene by donating to the American Red Cross relief effort at the stadium entrance gates. Volunteers will be on hand at convenient collection points through the first quarter.

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