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Steelers nip Panthers with last second field goal

| Thursday, Aug. 28, 2008

Strong safety Troy Polamalu played and didn't get hurt.

The same goes for the rest of the Steelers' starters.

Reserve linebacker Arnold Harrison was lost for the season Thursday to a torn ACL but the Steelers emerged from their final preseason game relatively unscathed. That alone made the night a success.

Thursday didn't represent a final tune-up for the regular season as much as it did a last chance for players fighting for spots on the 53-man roster to state their cases.

Ben Roethlisberger didn't play long enough to even make it into the final box score. Both passes he threw were negated by penalties in the Steelers' 19-16 win over the Carolina Panthers.

Willie Parker, meanwhile, carried the ball just four times in front of an announced crowd of 50,485. Parker did break loose for a 26-yard run, which represented exactly half of what he had rushed for in three previous preseason games and set up the only touchdown of the game.

"We're ready," Parker said. "I know that I feel good and I can speak for the team. It's time to put what we've been practicing to work."

Established veterans like Parker no doubt slept better than players who are trying to make the team and have to be wondering how much they helped --- or hurt --- themselves against the Panthers.

For example, how much weight will the Steelers coaches put on two Paul Ernster punts that traveled a combined 55 yards as they decide whether he or Mitch Berger handles punting duties this season?

Also, did Dallas Baker separate himself from Willie Reid -- the two appear to be battling for the last wide receiver spot on the roster -- the way he did from the Panthers' defensive backs on a 33-yard reception in the second quarter?

The answers to these and other questions regarding who makes the team will be answered over the next two days as the Steelers have to set their roster for the regular season by 6 p.m. Saturday.

Steelers coach Mike Tomlin indicated that the team would make some cuts today.

"It has been a pleasure working with this group guys," Tomlin said, "but it is that time of year where we need to make tough decisions."

The Steelers still have to find answers to a couple of vexing questions when it comes to their top two draft choices from this year.

Running back Rashard Mendenhall, who fumbled twice last Saturday night at Minnesota, lost another one against the Panthers.

The first-round pick turned the ball after getting hit from behind at the end of a 12-yard run. The fumble overshadowed an otherwise solid performance by Mendenhall (a game-high 79 rushing yards on 21 carries).

Wide receiver Limas Sweed, who has also had trouble hanging onto the ball during the preseason, dropped a pass that would have gone for a long gain at the end of the first half.

Cloudy skies and the fact that starters play sparingly, if at all, in preseason finales accounted for Heinz Field being half-empty at kickoff

Even late-arriving fans did not miss much.

The Steelers went three-and-out, not to mention backwards, on their first possession.

After two short runs by Parker, new starting center Justin Hartwig snapped the ball before Roethlisberger was ready. The ball sailed over Roethlisberger's head and the Steelers lost 21 yards on the play.

"That's what we wanted to get ironed out," Roethlisberger said of the miscommunication between him and Hartwig.

Taking advantage of excellent field position, the Panthers marched inside the Steelers' 20-yard line before settling for a 32-yard John Kasay field goal.

The Steelers wasted little time in answering that score.

On the first-string offense's final possession of the preseason, Parker ripped off his biggest run of the preseason. Two plays later a pass interference penalty on Carolina turned into a 37-yard gain.

That led to a 6-yard touchdown run by Carey Davis, and the Steelers built a 16-7 lead before the Panthers rallied to tie the game late in the fourth quarter.

Dennis Dixon engineered a drive that resulted in a game-winning 43-yard field goal by Jeff Reed.

"The team is ready to go," said Steelers inside linebacker James Farrior, whose team opens the regular season against the Texans a week from Sunday. "We're going in with a lot of confidence."

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