Panthers racing to catch up with Steelers on and off field ahead of preseason finale

By Mike Cranston, AP
Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Panthers-Steelers matchup a study in contrasts

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson has long said he wanted his young franchise to emulate the family-run Pittsburgh Steelers.

As the teams meet to close the exhibition schedule Thursday, the Panthers have plenty of catching up to do on and off the field.

An injury-ravaged preseason full of missed tackles, few touchdowns and no wins was overshadowed this week by the stunning resignations of Richardson’s two sons from high-ranking jobs with the team.

The rift in the family leaves no clear successor to the 73-year-old owner seven months removed from a heart transplant. And while Richardson hired TCU athletic director Danny Morrison as team president Wednesday, he’s yet to explain the resignations or his future plans with the team.

The Steelers, meanwhile, remain the definition of front-office stability — and appear in much better shape on the field, too.

Coming off its record sixth Super Bowl title, Pittsburgh, in its 76th year under three generations of ownership by the Rooney family, seems ready for the regular season.

Ben Roethlisberger, recovered from a right foot injury, led two scoring drives in a 17-0 win over the Bills on Saturday. The Steelers’ defense looks as dominating as ever, too.

With the Steelers to play the regular-season opener Sept. 10 against Tennessee, don’t expect to see the starters for more than a series or two Thursday. The night belongs to the fringe players trying to make the 53-man regular-season roster and the competition for backup jobs on the offensive line.

“There is no question their appearance is going to be a short one. That is the nature of it,” coach Mike Tomlin said of the first units. “They are going to have some teammates fighting until the bitter end to play well and make this football team. Those guys understand that process.”

In other games Thursday night, it’s Detroit at Buffalo, Philadelphia at the New York Jets, Baltimore at Atlanta, Indianapolis at Cincinnati, the New York Giants at New England, Washington at Jacksonville, Cleveland at Chicago, Green Bay at Tennessee, Kansas City at St. Louis, Miami at New Orleans, Arizona at Denver, and Oakland at Seattle.

Panthers coach John Fox didn’t play his starters at all in the final exhibition game last year before they went 12-4 and won the NFC South. But the first units will play some Thursday, a final chance to gain some confidence in what’s been an unimpressive 0-3 preseason.

The first-team offense has scored just one touchdown in six quarters, while the defense has been plagued by injuries and poor tackling. After struggling to defend the run in the first two games, Baltimore’s Joe Flacco picked apart Carolina’s secondary Saturday in the Ravens’ 17-13 win.

“We’ll tighten it up and make sure everything is fine,” defensive tackle Damione Lewis said. “We didn’t do a lot of blitzing to keep them off-kilter. I think as we get going and steadily put in our game plan getting ready for that first game we’ll have a lot more in our package.”

Lewis could be lining up next to a new face Thursday. Louis Leonard, acquired from Cleveland, is the latest stopgap following Maake Kemoeatu’s season-ending torn Achilles’ tendon.

But Carolina will again be without middle linebacker Jon Beason, whose status for the Sept. 13 opener against Philadelphia is in doubt because of a sprained knee. Running back Jonathan Stewart, who has participated in eight of 48 practices because of a mysterious Achilles’ tendon injury, won’t play Thursday.

Pittsburgh has some injury concerns. Running back Willie Parker (hamstring) has missed the past two games and receiver Santonio Holmes (back) is banged up. Linebacker Lawrence Timmons (high ankle sprain) won’t play for a first-team defense that hasn’t allowed a touchdown in the preseason.

But Tomlin’s eye is going to be on the backups, and there will be extra emphasis on whom performs well two days before the final cuts.

“If they’re going to be a guy who makes a run or potentially makes this team for the first time, it’ll usually be because they’re improving, and they’ll be a guy on the rise,” Tomlin said. “And this fourth performance will probably be their best one.”

Eagles at Jets

Michael Vick will get plenty of action at quarterback, without most of the gimmicks. He’ll probably start the second half, but could see action earlier. Most of the Jets’ starters will watch Vick from the sideline, except for linebacker Calvin Pace, who’ll get extended playing time in his last game before serving a four-game suspension for violating the NFL’s policy on performance-enhancing drugs.

Browns at Bears

Presumably, Cleveland will finally settle its quarterback race between Brady Quinn and Derek Anderson. Chicago has no such worries with Jay Cutler behind center, but the Bears have to settle questions at wide receiver.

Colts at Bengals

Cincinnati is hopeful of getting QB Carson Palmer back from a high ankle sprain so he can work off any rust after missing the last two exhibition games. The Colts will use the game as the final chance for either veteran Jim Sorgi or rookie Curtis Painter to win the job as Peyton Manning’s primary backup. Sorgi has held the spot since 2004, but pulled his right hamstring early in camp and didn’t return to practice until last week, giving Painter a chance to impress. The rookie from Purdue has completed 30 of 50 passes for 338 yards, improving a little each week.

Giants at Patriots

Replay of the 2008 Super Bowl? Hardly. Most starters will get the night off.

The Giants are trying to unravel the muddled wide receiver position, and the Patriots look to improve their performance in the secondary, which allowed some big plays by Washington last week.

Dolphins at Saints

Reggie Bush could miss his third straight preseason game with a strained right calf, while fellow running back Pierre Thomas is expected to sit out for the second time in as many games for New Orleans. Miami could complete an undefeated preseason with a victory.

Packers at Titans

The Titans, who open the season in a week against the league’s best 3-4 defense, Pittsburgh’s, get a third straight look at such an alignment in the Packers. “A lot of the schemes are similar to what we’ll do against Pittsburgh,” quarterback Kerry Collins said.

Green Bay will miss top receiver Greg Jennings, who won’t play after a blow to the head at Arizona last week.

Cardinals at Broncos

Arizona has issues with its offensive line and is looking for defensive improvement, too. Denver has problems everywhere, is down to its third-string quarterback and is dealing with recalcitrant (and suspended) receiver Brandon Marshall.

Raiders at Seahawks

The Seahawks have lost three-fifths of their starting offensive line and 2007 Pro Bowl cornerback Marcus Trufant to injuries already this summer. Not a promising indoctrination for new coach Jim Mora.

Oakland has had a controversy-filled summer and was awful in its 38-point home loss to New Orleans, the third-worst loss in the 228-game preseason history of the franchise.

Lions at Bills

No T.O. again for Buffalo, even though his sore toe has healed.

“We’re going to be smart about it,” Terrell Owens said. “We’ve got the big opener to the season against the Patriots, so that’s where my focus is right now.”

Detroit coach Jim Schwartz says first overall pick Matthew Stafford will start and be relieved after about 25 plays by newly acquired Brooks Bollinger if Daunte Culpepper can’t play. Culpepper cut his foot Saturday and needed stitches.

Ravens at Falcons

Newly acquired cornerback Tye Hill will be busy for Atlanta.

“Tye will get a big, quick introduction into what we’re trying to do defensively. He’s way, way behind for a guy walking in,” coach Mike Smith said. “I’ve told him he needs to be patient, and we’re going to be very patient with him and hopefully get him up to speed as quickly as possible.”

Baltimore has seemed up to speed throughout the preseason, primarily the first-string defense. Like many teams, the Ravens are sorting out their receiving corps.

Redskins at Jaguars

Coach Jack Del Rio’s first-teamers aren’t expected to get as much downtime for Jacksonville, 0-3 in preseason.

“If you have a veteran group that’s established, that you know more about, it’s probably a wise thing to (rest starters),” Del Rio said. “I think we have a younger team that needs to work, so we’re going to work.”

The Redskins still have some jobs open. Shaun Suisham and Dave Rayner are battling for the place-kicking position. Veteran Antwaan Randle El is trying to hold off youngsters Malcolm Kelly and Devin Thomas for the No. 2 receiver spot.

Chiefs at Rams

The Chiefs need to figure out who’ll open the season at quarterback. Starter Matt Cassel is out with an injury they won’t talk about and neither Brodie Croyle nor Tyler Thigpen has distinguished himself as a clear-cut favorite to take his place. Plus, coach Todd Haley fired offensive coordinator Chan Gailey on Monday and will take over an offense that’s scored two touchdowns all preseason.

St. Louis has been without starting QB Marc Bulger since Aug. 15 with a broken right pinkie and won’t play Thursday. Considering how green the Rams’ receiving corps is, that’s especially problematic.

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