The Carolina Panthers and Steelers fans made a combined case for the NFL to shorten the preseason when each failed to show up in large numbers at Heinz Field last night for a game the Steelers won, 19-16, on Jeff Reed's 43-yard field goal with no time left.
It was the second consecutive game Reed has won with a kick in the final seconds and his fourth of the game, which left the Steelers with a 3-1 preseason record.
None of Carolina's starters played, and only 50,485 fans came through the gates on a pleasant midweek night at Heinz Field, which holds 65,050 and has sold out for every game, real or practice, since it opened. The stadium never looked more than half full as some fans arrived late and others left early.
The season-ticket packages include preseason games, but fans have long gotten the message about this fourth one in which, even when the starters play, it's a cameo for a series or two.
The main goal for every team is to escape the final preseason game without injuries.
The Panthers showed graphically what they think of these fourth exhibition games. Coach John Fox not only did not play his starters on offense or defense, he even rested his top three running backs --DeAngelo Williams, rookie Jonathan Stewart and Pitt's Nick Goings.
But then Fox pulled one of the strangest preseason decisions ever -- he chose to kick an extra point after quarterback Brett Basanez's 29-yard touchdown pass to Chris Hannon brought the Panthers within one with 1:54 to go. Most coaches go for two -- Bill Cowher did it several times -- under such conditions to win it or lose it and get out of Dodge without risking any more injuries.
"To each his own," Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. "I've learned to focus on ... our issues."
Even Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger looked across the sideline and raised his arms as if to ask "Why?"
John Kasay's kick tied it, but, mercifully, rookie quarterback Dennis Dixon marched the offense to Reed's winning kick.
Roethlisberger and the offense bowed out after two series, and their first-team defense also played the first two series. Roethlisberger never threw an official pass because the one he threw ended in a 37-yard interference penalty.
The play on the field reflected the disinterest by the fans and coaches.
Roethlisberger went to the no-huddle offense on a few occasions in his two series, and it was far from smooth.
"It wasn't good; that's why I wanted to practice it in the preseason," Roethlisberger said. "We had a couple of mistakes, but I'm glad we got it done now."
Reed kicked three other field goals and fullback Carey Davis ran 6 yards for a touchdown for the Steelers. Reed also missed one from 43 yards. John Kasay kicked three field goals for the Panthers.
Despite the ho-hum nature of the game, some Steelers said they're in good shape for the start of the real season Sept. 7 against Houston at Heinz.
"We're going in with a lot of confidence," linebacker James Farrior said. "We feel like we're ready to play. The team is ready to go."
"We're ready," proclaimed halfback Willie Parker, who had a 26-yard run in the first half. "I know that I feel good, and I can speak for the team. We've been practicing, gone through the preseason, and it's time to put what we've been practicing to work."
His backup, rookie Rashard Mendenhall, however, did not look ready in one aspect, even though he gained 79 yards on 21 carries. He lost another fumble, his third in the past two games. As Mendenhall came off the field, Tomlin smacked him lightly on the back of his helmet with his left hand.
Veteran center Justin Hartwig also erred to contribute to Carolina's first field goal when he snapped the ball early and high over Roethlisberger in the shotgun formation on the first series.
Roethlisberger caught up to the ball at his 4 and covered it for a 21-yard loss. Mitch Berger got off a 48-yard punt and Anthony Madison made another perfect tackle for no gain, but the Panthers set up at their 48 and turned the error into Kasay's 32-yard field goal and a 3-0 lead.
"I'm pretty upset, actually," Hartwig said, "because I snapped it too early on the third play of the game. I shut down a drive. We had a few errors with the no-huddle offense that we'd like to have back, but that's why we have practice."
The Panthers weren't perfect either, and two mistakes by their defense helped the Steelers keep their 77-yard touchdown drive going on the next series. First came an illegal contact on second-and-12 for a first down. The next was an interference penalty against cornerback Richard Marshall on Nate Washington that carried 37 yards to the 7.
Two plays later, Davis ran over right guard for a 6-yard touchdown and a 7-3 lead.
It became 10-3 when Reed kicked a 41-yard field goal (Berger holding). That came after cornerback Bryant McFadden intercepted a Matt Moore pass and returned it 31 yards to Carolina's 28.
"That's what we want to do," fellow corner Deshea Townsend said. "We want to make sure we can make plays and get our offense the ball back."
Reed kicked his second field goal, from 49 yards, midway through the second quarter. It was set up by two big passes from Byron Leftwich, a 26-yarder to Mewelde Moore and a 33-yarder to Dallas Baker.
Kasay kicked another, from 32 yards in the second quarter, and Reed came back with his third in the third quarter, from 41 yards.
Ed Bouchette can be reached at email@example.com . First Published August 29, 2008 4:00 AM