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They lost another player to another brutal leg injury when rookie linebacker Sean Spence, their third-round pick who lit up training camp, was carted off the field late in the third quarter with what the Steelers initially described as a left knee injury.
They’ve now lost two of their top three draft picks to injuries — guard David DeCastro had knee surgery Wednesday — along with starting fullback David Johnson (ACL) and backup halfback John Clay (torn quad).
The Steelers wound up defeating the Carolina Panthers 17-16 at Heinz Field in their final tuneup for the regular season. At least they did not lose any more starters to injuries. But then, many of their starters did not play tonight in a game in which 50,122 attended and 15,378 others who bought tickets did not.
It was a typical fourth exhibition game. The “first teams” played two or three series, depending on what description can be used to describe those first-teamers. Those not injured who did not play for the Steelers included Ben Roethlisberger, Maurkice Pouncey, Heath Miller and Antonio Brown on offense, and on defense Ike Taylor, Troy Polamalu, Ryan Clark, LaMarr Woodley and Ziggy Hood. Brett Keisel also did not play because of an ankle injury, and Isaac Redman sat out with an ankle injury.
Casey Hampton started at nose tackle, playing for the first time since his ACL surgery in January.
“It felt pretty good,” said Hampton, who played two series. “I haven’t seen full-speed action in a long time, so it was as good as it could have been. I didn’t want to go into Denver without having any full speed action.” One of the stars of the game was a guy who did practically nothing, officially anyway. Rookie Chris Rainey had one run for one yard in the first half and two receptions for minus one. What did not count were his two punt returns for touchdowns of 78 and 90 yards. Each was called back by holding penalties on his teammates. It is clear in this preseason that Rainey can be a triple-threat for the Steelers, a game-breaking little back, receiver and returner. He did have two long touchdowns that did count this summer, a 57-yard reception in the first game and a 41-yard run in the third game.
Charlie Batch completed his final nine passes while playing the entire first half. If this was his final game with the Steelers, as has been widely speculated, he went out in style.
Batch, 37, completed 11 of 14 passes for 102 yards, one very nice touchdown toss and a passer rating of 120.8. He led the Steelers to a 7-0 lead on a quick opening drive that ended spectacularly when Emmanuel Sanders caught a perfect pass from Batch between two defenders in the end zone for a 37-yard touchdown. “Charlie had a great throw and laid it out there for me to go and get it,” Sanders said.
Mike Wallace, who ended his holdout on Tuesday, watched from the sideline as Sanders started for the fourth time at the split end, or X, position. It has been Wallace’s position for the past two seasons and, presumably, again will be his, although not necessarily to start the opener. It is a position that often calls for deep routes and while Sanders said he could not match Wallace’s speed, he promised in training camp that he could get behind the defensive backs. Sanders believes the new offense under coordinator Todd Haley can surpass anything they’ve done the past few years. “The sky is the limit,” he said. “We have an exceptional amount of talent. Chris Rainey is the newest addition. We got Mike Wallace back. We have a lot of speed, so the sky is the limit.” The Steelers led 10-3 at halftime with each kicker trading field goals after the early touchdown by Sanders. Carolina, under second-year coach Ron Rivera, tied the game in the third quarter 10-10 on Jimmy Clausen’s 3-yard touchdown pass to Jared Green. The Steelers snapped that tie in the fourth quarter when Jerrod Johnson threw a 6-yard touchdown pass to tight end Weslye Saunders, who also caught a 29-yard pass on that 10-play scoring drive. It was Saunders’ final game before he must serve a four-week suspension from the NFL because he tested positive for a banned substance.
Carolina then struck with 2:31 left when Lamont Bryant caught a deep pass from Clausen, who beat rookie cornerback Terrence Frederick for the ball along the sideline and stepped free to complete a 79-yard touchdown. That brought the Panthers within a point of the Steelers, but Rivera followed custom in these preseason games — rather than kick it and possibly send the game into overtime, he went for two and it failed.
The Panthers, however, got one more chance when they reached the Steelers’ 32 yard line, but Justin Medlock missed a 50-yard field goal with 32 seconds left in the game. Jonathan Dwyer, who may be pushing injured Isaac Redman to start at halfback in the opening game in Denver, had 63 yards rushing on 13 carries, all in the first half. The Steelers punt team came up with a fumble recovery, the eighth takeaway for them in four preseason games after going all last season with just 15. “Our communication has definitely improved,” linebacker Larry Foote said of the advances they’ve made on defense this summer. “We’ve worked hard towards putting the whole package together and executing as a team.”