CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The preliminaries mercifully finished, those Steelers who remain after the final cuts come down will embark on their 2013 season with their first practice Sunday.
Based on these four exhibition games, predicting how that season will turn out would be folly, but the Steelers did something rare for them in the preseason -- they did not win.
For only the third time in their past 48 preseasons, the Steelers went winless after their 25-10 loss Thursday night to the Carolina Panthers at Bank of America Stadium. They last went 0-4 in 2006, Bill Cowher's final season as coach when they followed with an 8-8 record in the regular season. They had lost only one preseason game in each of Mike Tomlin's previous six seasons as coach.
"Hopefully, it's reflecting of guys who don't belong and we'll correct that over the next 48 hours," Tomlin said.
Tomlin and his coaches now will get busy making 22 moves to reach their 53-man roster. Many could come today, but they have until 6 p.m. Saturday.
"Ready or not," Tomlin said. "That's the reality this time of year. I feel comfortable we'll walk into battle next week."
Ben Roethlisberger, who stepped onto the field for the coin toss Thursday and then never left the sideline, said there was some good and some bad for his team in the preseason.
"For me, the excitement is, now that it's over, we can focus in on the season and what we need to do," Roethlisberger said.
With many veterans watching from the bench, Thursday night was a chance for young players trying to win a job to make a final impression. For example, did Derek Moye do enough with his two catches for 55 yards in the first half to convince the team to keep five wide receivers?
One veteran trying to convince the coaches to keep him is halfback Felix Jones, and he made a decent case. Jones, acquired in a trade last week with the Philadelphia Eagles, ran 14 times for 56 yards, at times displaying the kinds of cuts that convinced the Dallas Cowboys to draft him in the first round in 2008.
"I thought Felix Jones helped himself," Tomlin said. "His pedigree showed, his natural run instinct showed."
Jones last week was thrown into the game one day after he came over from the Eagles and, in a short time, looks as if he has found a new home.
"You just have to go with it," Jones said. "You have to make the best of the opportunities you get."
Rookie quarterback Landry Jones already made his mark, as the team cut John Parker Wilson last week and will go with three at the position. Jones played a convincing part in the first half Thursday, showing savvy, some pinpoint passing and an ability to pull a Roethlisberger -- escape the rush and throw on the run.
But Jones, who played the entire game, threw two interceptions in the third quarter -- one returned 70 yards -- leading to two Carolina field goals.
"Some positives, some negatives," is how Tomlin assessed Jones.
"I just wanted to go out there and play to the best of my abilities and obviously I didn't do that," Jones said.
Rookie receiver Reggie Dunn, trying to convince the Steelers to keep him as a return specialist, fielded a punt at the 3 and ran backward into the end zone where he was tackled for a fourth-quarter safety. He also slipped late on a route in the fourth quarter that caused Jones to throw his third interception.
More and more, it looks as if the Steelers will use Antonio Brown again as their punt returner, although Tomlin mentioned rookie receiver Markus Wheaton along with Emmanuel Sanders as possibilities after the game.
As usual, many veterans took the night off for both teams. Among those Steelers who did not play: Roethlisberger, Troy Polamalu, Ryan Clark, Ike Taylor, LaMarr Woodley, Brett Keisel, Brown, Sanders and backup quarterback Bruce Gradkowski.
"The No. 1 goal is to get out of the preseason healthy, especially the big boys up front," Roethlisberger said. "I think that they did."
The entire offensive line started but the three interior linemen bowed out after one series.
The two offenses started fast and matched 80-yard touchdown drives on their first series of the night. Carolina went first. Ted Ginn Jr. blew past cornerback Josh Victorian to catch a 35-yard touchdown pass from Derek Anderson, and if Victorian was supposed to get any safety help, there was no one close.
Jones responded for the Steelers by tossing a dart through a crowd of Panthers to tight end David Paulson, who caught it inside the 5 and squirmed into the end zone for a 13-yard touchdown.
Carolina scored twice in the second to take a 17-10 halftime lead it never lost. The Panthers went in front, 10-7, on Graham Gano's 19-yard field goal. The Steelers did leave that 14-play, 79-yard drive with some taste of success when they held Carolina out of the end zone on two runs up the middle by Armond Smith from the 1.
Anderson, who once made a Pro Bowl with the Browns, followed on the next series by throwing deep down the middle from his 13. Ginn blazed past safeties Robert Golden and DaMon Cromartie-Smith. He caught the ball on the fly at the 30 and it was no contest from there.
That 87-yard touchdown extended Carolina's lead to 17-7.
Jones directed his team on a final drive in the first half that ended with Shaun Suisham's 37-yard field goal.
"There were a lot of positive efforts and [we] got to know some guys making decisions tough for us," Tomlin said. "Big picture: I enjoyed the effort of men vying for positions."
Now they turn their attention to vying for victories, something they did not find in the preseason. But then, did it really matter?
For more on the Steelers, read the blog, Ed Bouchette on the Steelers at www.post-gazette.com/plus. Ed Bouchette: email@example.com and Twitter @EdBouchette. First Published August 30, 2013 12:15 AM