The Labor Day weekend arrived early for many of the Steelers and Carolina Panthers who took Thursday night off and joined the sparse crowd at Heinz Field to watch the final and most meaningless of their four practice games.
With many starters not playing or playing only cameo roles, the Carolina Panthers blanked the Steelers, 10-0, before 22,000 no-shows. It was the 12th consecutive time the teams have closed out the exhibition season against each other, and the first time the Steelers were shut out in one of these games in 22 years.
The loss left the Steelers 1-3 after going 0-4 in the 2013 preseason. Meaningless or not, it is the first time they had consecutive losing preseasons since they strung together four from 1993 to 1996 — all leading to playoff seasons.
“That’s the end of August football,” coach Mike Tomlin said, almost in relief. “It’s not the type of football we wanted, but nevertheless it was the end.”
The Steelers hope things will be different when they next step on Heinz Field to open the regular season Sept. 7 against the Cleveland Browns.
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell has pushed to squeeze the preseason schedule in half, cutting it back to two games, and Thursday night’s dance of the scrubs showed why he would like to do so.
Even the clock operator seemingly had trouble concentrating on this sleeping pill of a game; he was publicly called out by referee Tony Corrente over his microphone to pay attention to his signals to start the clock.
Both starting quarterbacks watched from the sideline, Ben Roethlisberger for the Steelers and Cam Newton for the Panthers, who ran mostly with their second-unit offense and defense.
The Steelers deployed a number of starters, but center Maurkice Pouncey, wide receiver Antonio Brown, tight end Heath Miller, linebacker Jason Worilds, cornerback Cortez Allen and safety Troy Polamalu joined Roethlisberger as healthy spectators. Defensive end Cam Heyward, wide receiver Lance Moore, linebacker Sean Spence and cornerback Shaq Richardson were held out because of minor injuries. By the second defensive series, cornerback Ike Taylor and linebacker Lawrence Timmons were done for the night and soon other first-teamers followed.
It was an important night, though, for quarterback Landry Jones, if not a big night for him.
The second-year pro, getting his second start in a final preseason game for the second time, did not look particularly sharp. He completed 14 of 18 passes but for only 97 yards. He was sacked three times and fumbled once.
The Steelers did not score in Jones’ six possessions — five in the first half and one to open the second. The Steelers did not convert any of their five third-down chances in the first half, but Jones converted two on his third-quarter drive that fizzled at the Carolina 41.
“I thought he did some good things,” Tomlin said. “Obviously not enough, we didn’t score.”
Undrafted rookie Brendon Kay then came on for the first time in the preseason with 6:19 left in the third quarter.
It was this kind of night for Jones, the team’s fourth-round draft pick in 2013 and their highest choice of a quarterback since they selected Roethlisberger in the first round in 2004.
Jones’ first pass went for a yard. His second throw was high over the middle, forcing rookie wide receiver Martavis Bryant to reach for it. Bryant was belted after only a 3-yard gain, then left the game for good with a right AC shoulder sprain.
On his second series, Jones took a 9-yard sack back to the 1. On the next play, he threw a perfect pass right to James Dockery, who happens to play cornerback for Carolina. The ball, though, hit Dockery in the face mask and dropped to the ground, avoiding an interception.
He got his best opportunity on his fourth series after linebacker Jarvis Jones recovered a fumble that followed a bad snap that sailed over Carolina quarterback Derek Anderson’s head. The Steelers, however, could not pick up a first down after a holding call.
At one point, Landry Jones tried to throw a pass, but the ball slipped out of his hand. It was ruled a fumble, although not one Carolina recovered.
Among a few bright spots for the Steelers was the return to play of veteran defensive end Brett Keisel. He started at his old spot on the right side and had a couple pressures on the quarterback. Jarvis Jones also played an active part in a defense that held the Panthers to a 3-0 halftime lead as did the secondary.
Carolina took an early lead when Graham Gano kicked a 33-yard field goal to cap the first drive.
Fozzy Whittaker, listed as Carolina’s fourth-string halfback, scored on a 2-yard run in the second quarter to end a 90-yard drive that put the Panthers ahead, 10-0.