PITTSBURGH - Charlie Batch isn't much on predictions. Still, the Pittsburgh Steelers' longtime backup quarterback believes he knows what he'll be doing next week.
"I totally expect to be sitting in the meetings Monday morning," Batch said.
The 37-year-old certainly played like a guy deserving of a 15th NFL season in Pittsburgh's 17-16 preseason win over Carolina on Thursday night. Batch completed 11 of 14 passes for 102 yards and a perfect 37-yard touchdown to Emmanuel Sanders to make a case he should stick around after teams trim their rosters to 53 on Friday.
"I feel like I can still play," Batch said. "I feel that if I step in the huddle, guys can count on me."
It's a sentiment echoed by Jimmy Clausen, who passed for 173 yards and two touchdowns, including a 79-yard score to rookie Lamont Bryant with 2:31 to play to bring the Panthers (2-2) within a point. The 2-point conversion failed, however, and kicker Justin Medlock missed a 50-yard field goal with 32 seconds left.
Clausen insists he has "no idea" whether he'll beat out Derek Anderson for the right to back up starter Cam Newton, but showed in the waning moments of the exhibition season he can perform under pressure.
"My name gets called, that's what you have to do is give the team a chance to win games and that's what I did tonight with the offense," Clausen said.
Both teams sat the majority of their top players.
Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and defensive back Troy Polamalu did not play for Pittsburgh (3-1), while Carolina coach Ron Rivera gave Newton and wide receiver Steve Smith the night off.
The Steelers, however, suffered a blow when rookie linebacker Sean Spence went down in the third quarter with what coach Mike Tomlin called a "significant" left knee injury. The third-round pick out of Miami (Fla.) was trying to chase down Clausen when he took an awkward step and wrenched his left leg. Spence slammed his helmet on the turf before being tended to by trainers and was carted off the field.
Spence was the latest and most serious of a series of injuries to the team's linebacking corps. James Harrison (knee) and Jason Worilds (wrist) didn't play at all during the preseason and backup Stevenson Sylvester (knee) is out several weeks after getting nicked up during training camp.
"I've been playing this game a long time and have been in a lot of physical battles, but to see a serious injury like that to a guy in just his fourth preseason game, it really makes you wonder," Polamalu said. "Hopefully, we won't have to deal with any more injuries."
There were bright spots outside of the quarterbacks. Pittsburgh rookie running back and kick returner Chris Rainey showcased his blazing speed with a pair of punt returns for touchdowns, though both scores were called back by holding penalties that occurred after Rainey had already raced past.
While coach Mike Tomlin was upset with the flags, he liked what he saw from the team's fifth-round draft pick.
"I thought he did some nice things in terms of making unblocked guys miss," Tomlin said. "I think that any reputable punt returner is capable of making those first one to two potential tacklers miss. He showed that tonight."
In addition to the 50-yarder in the final minute, Medlock also missed a 56-yard field goal attempt in the third quarter. Both kicks were wide, which is better than short, proof Rivera believes he made the right call by taking the unproven Medlock over veteran Olindo Mare, who was let go earlier this week.
"The kid's got a leg ... he'll make kicks for us," Rivera said. "I'm pretty excited about what he can give us as far as the distance with his leg."
The Steelers did allow a handful of starters to break a sweat, including nose tackle Casey Hampton. The 12-year veteran spent the first three weeks of training camp on the physically unable to perform list while recovering from offseason knee surgery. Still, Hampton vowed to be ready for the opener and he sprinted onto the field when he was introduced.
The five-time Pro Bowl selection played throughout the first quarter and finished with two tackles.
"I'm out there playing, so I'm feeling pretty good," Hampton said. "I told you I'd be ready to go when the season opens, that was my main goal."
NOTES: Pittsburgh WR Mike Wallace, who signed his one-year tender on Tuesday, did not dress for the Steelers. Wallace will become eligible to start practice on Friday, though the Steelers don't return to the practice field until next week. ... Carolina LB Jon Beason did not play again. Beason has been dealing with a hamstring injury throughout camp. ... Both teams open the season on Sept. 9, when the Steelers play in Denver and the Panthers visit Tampa Bay.
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