Steelers rest 19 of 22 projected starters in preseason-ending loss to Panthers
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Artie Burns played … and didn't get hurt.
And, oh yeah, the Steelers didn't allow a touchdown for the first time in a preseason game in six years.
Other than that, the Steelers preseason finale Thursday against the defending NFC champion Carolina Panthers pretty much went as expected — a big, giant dud.
Graham Gano kicked six field goals as the Steelers lost their fourth consecutive preseason finale against the Panthers with an 18-6 defeat at soggy, half-empty Bank of America Stadium.
The Steelers managed only 122 yards of offense as they finished the preseason 1-3 — their fourth consecutive losing preseason record — but they aren't complaining about it.
The Steelers will head into the regular-season opener Sept. 12 against the Washington Redskins relatively healthy, and coach Mike Tomlin made sure of that this preseason and especially this game.
Tomlin sat 19 of his 22 projected starters against the Panthers, giving playing time to only nose tackle Daniel McCullers, left tackle Alejandro Villanueva and tight end Jesse James. McCullers didn't start but played into the fourth quarter, and Villanueva and James played fewer than 20 snaps before getting rest of the night off.
“It wasn't the type of finish that we were looking for,” Tomlin said.
But it was one that didn't come as a surprise when you consider who saw most of the playing time.
In short: Carolina's backups and third-stringers were better than the Steelers.
Carolina third-string quarterback Joe Webb played the entire game and completed 12 of 17 passes for 200 yards, but where the Panthers were superior was running the ball.
Carolina rushed 42 times for 174 yards, including 77 by Cameron Artis-Payne, who will see plenty of time alongside Jonathan Stewart when the season starts.
Meanwhile, the Steelers averaged only 2.9 yards per carry and weren't helped out much by Landry Jones and Bryn Renner, who combined to go 9 of 16 for 68 yards.
“The characteristics of four preseason games is your ability to stop the run, and they did both better than we did tonight, and that's why it unfolded in the manner than it did,” Tomlin said.
On the flip side, the Steelers' defense played as well as it could.
Arthur Moats, who splits time with Bud Dupree at outside linebacker, was one of the few regulars who played and finished with 1½ sacks.
“Defensively we could've done a way better job,” Moats said. “We left a lot of plays out there, but that's part of the game. You are never going to have a perfect game, even though you strive for perfection. It is something that we can grow from.”
The lack of front-end talent was noticeable for the Steelers, especially on offense.
A week after the first-team offense got their only action of the preseason and produced two impressive touchdown drives, Ben Roethlisberger, Le'Veon Bell, Antonio Brown, DeAngelo Williams and 80 percent of the offensive line got the night off.
In all, 23 players who will have a significant role on the team did not play.
Jones started for the third time this preseason and led his version of the first-team offense on three uneventful drives. It wasn't four-interceptions-in-the-first-half ugly, as was the case two weeks ago against the Eagles, but it wasn't attractive.
Jones had drives of minus-1, 20 and 13 yards before getting giving way to Renner after 14 plays. The Steelers were dominated thoroughly in the first half in all phases of the game. On offense, they managed 47 yards and two first downs in just more than 9 minutes with the ball. Jones went 4 of 5 for 29 yards.
On defense, the Steelers were able to keep the Panthers out of the end zone and sacked Webb three times, but that was about it. The Panthers kept the ball for nearly 21 minutes, gained 216 yards and converted all four first-half field-goal attempts.
In all, the Steelers' defense was a perfect 5 of 5 in the red-zone.
“It was a good job by the defense,” safety Sean Davis said. “We definitely take that serious in practice. We take in defending that goal line and we showed it today.”
On the bright side, the Steelers got a solid performance from Burns in his debut.
Burns missed nearly a month, including all three preseason games, with a quad injury but didn't show much sign of rust.
The Steelers' first-round pick played the entire first half, which was 47 snaps. Burns had four tackles and two key pass breakups near the end zone during the waning moments of the half.
The Steelers hope Burns can catch up fast enough to help out the a paper-thin cornerback position.
“I had a good week of practice, and I feel real good and real healthy,” Burns said.
The Panthers didn't play many of their starters either. Cam Newton, Stewart, Greg Olsen and Kelvin Benjamin didn't dress, giving an opportunity to third-string quarterback Webb and Artis-Payne.
Gano kicked field goals of 47 yards in the first quarter; 42, 28 and 41 yards in the second quarter; 22 yards in the third; and 45 yards in the fourth quarter. He missed one from 44 yards.
The Steelers' only points came on the second play of the fourth quarter and was helped by a 19-yard pass interference call in the end zone on Carolina's Teddy Williams. The next play, Darryl Richardson scored from 1 yard out.
Richardson was a bright spot, rushing for 45 yards on nine carries.
The Steelers turn their attention to the regular-season, but before that, they have to cut down to 53 players by 4 p.m. Saturday.
“We know what point where we are at,” Tomlin said. “We have some decisions to make, and we will make them.”
Notes: Ricardo Mathews (neck), Anthony Chickillo (foot) and Travis Feeney (concussion) did not finish the game due to injuries, but Tomlin said they don't appear to be serious.