By Dale Grdnic
PITTSBURGH — Several players who looked to secure their positions on the Pittsburgh Steelers’ 53-man roster, appeared to solidify those spots during the club’s final preseason game against Carolina Thursday night at Heinz Field.
Few players slated to be starters or key performers saw action for the Steelers, as the backups pulled out a 17-16 victory against the Panthers. But one player who has been critical to the club’s success since was a first-round pick from Texas 12 years ago, Casey Hampton, was all to glad to get a few snaps.
“It felt pretty good,” Hampton said after his first action since a knee injury in last season’s playoff loss at Denver nearly eight months ago. 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 (for the regular-season opener Sept. 9). So, it was good being out there with my teammates and getting a little action in.”
The Panthers scored with 2:31 remaining on a 79-yard pass from quarterback Jimmy Clausen to 6-foot-5, 225-pound wideout Lamont Bryant, who out-leaped cornerback Terrence Frederick to make a spectacular catch before running it in for the touchdown. Carolina mercifully went for two points, and Clausen misfired, but Frederick was called for pass interference. The second attempt also misfired, as cornerback Cortez Allen knocked the conversion pass away from Bryant.
While Allen is slated to be the Steelers’ extra defensive back in obvious passing situations this season, he also has a chance to usurp Keenan Lewis for the starting cornerback spot opposite Ike Taylor at some point this season. A couple other players earned more playing time with their performances.
Running back Jonathan Dwyer, in his third season from Georgia Tech, started in the backfield and ran 13 times for 63 yards (4.8 per carry) with a long run for 18 yards. The carries nearly matched Dwyer’s preseason total, as he has 28 in four games for 147 yards and no touchdowns.
Rookie running back Chris Rainey, a fifth-round draft pick, displayed exceptional speed throughout this preseason. He torched the Panthers twice in the first half with punt returns for touchdowns from 78 and 90 yards out. However, both were called back on penalties. Neither was crucial to their respective plays. Rainey ended up with returns for 24 and 16 yards and no scores.
The third player likely to stick with the Steelers once again was No. 3 quarterback Charlie Batch. A 37-year-old, 15-year NFL veteran, Batch played the entire first half and threw a 37-yard scoring strike to wideout Emmanuel Sanders on the Steelers’ opening drive. Sanders split two defenders and laid out to make the touchdown grab.
“The line did a great job up front,” Sanders said “Charlie Batch had a great throw and laid it out there for me to go and get it. We feel really good (on offense). Every day that we practice, we get better and better. Everyone can feel it. Coach Haley is learning his personnel better.
“And we’re starting to click. The sky’s the limit (for this offense). We have an exceptional amount of talent. Chris Rainey is the newest addition. We’ve got Mike Wallace back. We have a lot of speed, so the sky’s the limit. We just have to be technique sound, and we’ll be fine.
Batch also benefitted from a roughing-the-passer penalty and connected with Jerricho Cotchery for 15 yards during the five-play, 80-yard drive that took 2:31 to complete for the touchdown. Batch was 11-for-14 for 102 yards and just one sack to go with the scoring pass.
Batch’s primary competition for the third spot behind starter Ben Roethlisberger and backup Byron Leftwich, who did not play in the preseason finale, is first-year player Jerrod Johnson from Texas A&M. Johnson threw a six-yard touchdown pass to tight end Weslye Saunders, who must sit out the opening four games for violating the NFL’s policy on banned substances.
Johnson wasn’t too successful in the third quarter, but midway through the fourth he led the Steelers on a 10-play, 89-yard drive in 5:58 to win the game. Johnson hit rookie wideout Marquis Maze from Alabama for 31 yards and then connected with Saunders for 29 to get to the red zone. Three runs by DuJuan Harris made it third down at the 1, but Johnson was called for a delay penalty to set up the six-yard scoring toss to Saunders.
The Steelers have until 9 p.m. Friday to make a final 22 cuts, but rookie offensive guard David DeCastro won’t count against the 53-player limit. The NFL and its players association reached an agreement to allow teams to designate one player that begins the season on injured reserve to return at midseason. Previously, that player had to be gone for the year, but now he can return after eight weeks. DeCastro is expected to be out some three months after suffering a knee injury last week.
Cornerback Curtis Brown and linebacker Sean Spence left the game with knee injuries. Their status for the season is undetermined. Spence’s injury appeared to be more severe, which would put his roster spot in jeopardy (IR?). He previously was listed as a backup to inside linebacker Lawrence Timmons.
Along with two touchdown passes, the Steelers got a 49-yard field goal from Shaun Suisham. Carolina’s other scores came on a 31-yard field goal by Justin Medlock and three-yard touchdown pass from Clausen to rookie wideout Jared Green. Medlock just missed a 56-yard field goal wide left into the open end and missed a 50-yarder with 32 seconds left that would have won the game.