The Steelers can offer some thanks today that the preseason has ended. These exhibition games have not been good for their health.
They lost another player to another brutal knee injury Thursday night when rookie Sean Spence, their third-round pick who lit up training camp, was carted off the field late in the third quarter. Coach Mike Tomlin called it a "significant" injury to his left knee and said Spence was taken to a hospital.
They now have lost two of their top three draft picks to injuries -- offensive guard David DeCastro had knee surgery Wednesday -- along with starting fullback David Johnson (ACL) and backup halfback John Clay (torn quad).
The Steelers wound up beating the Carolina Panthers, 17-16, at Heinz Field in their final tuneup for the regular season. At least they did not lose any more starters to injuries. But then, many of their starters did not play in a game that 50,122 attended and 15,378 others who bought tickets did not.
It was a typical fourth exhibition game. The "first teams" played two or three series, depending on what description can be used to describe those first-teamers. Those not injured who did not play for the Steelers included Ben Roethlisberger, Maurkice Pouncey, Heath Miller and Antonio Brown on offense, and Ike Taylor, Troy Polamalu, Ryan Clark, LaMarr Woodley and Ziggy Hood on defense. Defensive end Brett Keisel also did not play because of an ankle injury, and running back Isaac Redman sat out with an ankle injury.
Casey Hampton started at nose tackle, playing for the first time since his ACL surgery in January.
"It felt pretty good," said Hampton, who played two series. "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 without having any full speed action."
One of the stars was a guy who did practically nothing, officially anyway. Rookie Chris Rainey had one run for 1 yard in the first half and two receptions for minus-1. What did not count were his two punt returns for touchdowns of 78 and 90 yards. Each was called back by holding penalties.
It is clear in this preseason that Rainey can be a triple-threat for the Steelers, a game-breaking little back, receiver and returner. He had two long touchdowns that counted this summer, a 57-yard reception in the first game and a 41-yard run in the third.
Another player who stuck out in the first half was also a rookie -- 14 years ago. Quarterback Charlie Batch completed his final nine passes while playing the entire first half. If this was his final game with the Steelers, as has been widely speculated, he went out in style.
Batch, 37, completed 11 of 14 passes for 102 yards, one very nice touchdown toss and a passer rating of 120.8. He led the Steelers to a 7-0 lead on a quick, opening drive that ended spectacularly when Emmanuel Sanders caught a perfect pass from Batch between two defenders in the end zone for a 37-yard touchdown.
"Charlie had a great throw and laid it out there for me to go and get it," Sanders said.
Batch said afterward he thought he would be back at team meetings Monday morning.
"I felt good coming out of it," he said of the game.
He and Jerrod Johnson split the game at quarterback. Byron Leftwich did not play.
Mike Wallace, who ended his holdout Tuesday, watched from the sideline as Sanders started for the fourth time at the split end (also called the X, position). It has been Wallace's spot the past two seasons and, presumably, again will be his, although not necessarily to start the opener. It is a position that often calls for deep routes and, while Sanders said he could not match Wallace's speed, he promised in training camp he could get behind the defensive backs.
Sanders believes the new offense under coordinator Todd Haley can surpass anything they've done the past few years.
"The sky is the limit," he said. "We have an exceptional amount of talent. Chris Rainey is the newest addition. We got Mike Wallace back.
"We have a lot of speed, so the sky is the limit."
The Steelers led, 10-3, at halftime with each kicker trading field goals after the early touchdown by Sanders.
Carolina, under second-year coach Ron Rivera, tied the score, 10-10, in the third quarter on Jimmy Clausen's 3-yard touchdown pass to Jared Green.
The Steelers snapped that tie in the fourth quarter when Jerrod Johnson threw a 6-yard touchdown pass to tight end Weslye Saunders, who also caught a 29-yard pass on that 10-play scoring drive. It was Saunders' final game before he serves a four-week suspension from the NFL because he tested for a banned substance.
Carolina then struck with 2:31 left when Lamont Bryant caught a deep pass from Clausen, beating rookie cornerback Terrence Frederick for the ball along the sideline and stepping free to complete a 79-yard touchdown.
That brought the Panthers within a point of the Steelers, but Rivera followed custom in preseason games -- rather than kick it and possibly send the game into overtime, he went for two but failed.
The Panthers, however, got one more chance when they reached the Steelers 32, but Justin Medlock missed a 50-yard field goal with 32 seconds left.
Jonathan Dwyer, who may be pushing injured Isaac Redman to start at halfback in the opener at Denver, had 63 yards rushing on 13 carries, all in the first half.
The Steelers' punt team came up with a fumble recovery. It was the eighth takeaway for the team in four preseason games after going all last season with just 15.
"Our communication has definitely improved," linebacker Larry Foote said of the advances they have made on defense this summer.
First Published August 31, 2012 4:00 AM