2014 PRESEASON: Steelers fall to Panthers 10-0

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PITTSBURGH —

Fozzy Whittaker ran for a 2-yard touchdown, Graham Gano added a short field goal and the Carolina Panthers beat the listless Pittsburgh Steelers 10-0 in the preseason finale Thursday night.

The Panthers (2-2) held the Steelers (1-3) to just 185 total yards.

Both teams sat their star players with just 10 days to go before the regular season begins.

Carolina backup quarterback Derek Anderson led the Panthers to a field goal drive to start the game. Anderson arrived in Pittsburgh overnight after he and his wife welcomed their first child. Whittaker rushed for 91 yards in a game even more vanilla than usual. The teams meet again in Carolina on Sept. 24.

Steelers third-string quarterback Landry Jones started, but did little to assure himself of a roster spot when the rosters are trimmed to 53 players.

Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger spent the night on the sideline with a towel around his shoulders. Carolina's Cam Newton and his dinged-up ribs did likewise. Newton said earlier in the week there's "no doubt" he'll be ready when the Panthers head to Tampa Bay on Sept. 7.

Pittsburgh's first-string defense can't exactly say the same. Coach Mike Tomlin sent all the healthy names atop the depth chart onto the field to start the game, including defensive end Brett Keisel, who re-signed with Pittsburgh last week. Tomlin wanted to see if Keisel could "swim in the deep end of the pool."

While Keisel looked spry for a player who turns 36 in a few weeks, the first unit allowed points for the fourth consecutive week.

Carolina backup Derek Anderson — just hours removed from the birth of his first child with wife Mallory — led a 14-play, 62-yard drive to open the game. The methodical march included a fourth-and-1 conversion in Pittsburgh territory, perhaps early proof coach Ron Rivera plans to keep the swashbuckling approach that helped turn the Panthers around in 2013 and earned him NFL Coach of the Year honors.

Anderson had some help in the only consequential drive by either side with players who will see regular playing time starting Sept. 7. Carolina rookie wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin hauled in a 19-yard pass to get the Panthers going. Benjamin finished with four catches for 56 yards and had little trouble getting open against Pittsburgh's aggressive secondary.

The drive was the highlight of Anderson's night. He completed 8 of 14 passes for 98 yards and left late in the second quarter when he injured his hand trying to corral a snap that sailed over his head. Pittsburgh linebacker Jarvis Jones recovered, one of the few highlights for the Steelers on a night that did little to provide the momentum boost Tomlin was looking for heading into the season.

Steelers running backs Le'Veon Bell and LeGarrette Blount — a week removed from being cited on marijuana possession — started the game on the bench but played sparingly in the first half. The team plans to discipline both players, but Tomlin stressed he would not reveal the punishment.

Either way, Bell and Blount will be heavily involved this fall. The circumstances required for Landry Jones to see playing time the rest of 2014 are probably too farfetched to even ponder, but the former Oklahoma star didn't exactly produce a compelling argument for the Steelers to keep three quarterbacks on the active roster behind Roethlisberger and backup Bruce Gradkowski.

Jones was nearly sacked for a safety on his second series of work and did little more than dump the ball off when given time to throw. He completed 14 of 18 passes for 97 yards and never managed to get the Steelers within field-goal range before giving way to rookie Brendon Kay.


DIVISION PREVIEW:

The AFC North appears as balanced as perhaps it ever has been. The Steelers' back-to-back 8-8 seasons and the Baltimore Ravens' post-Super Bowl championship slide allowed Cincinnati and Cleveland to narrow the competitive gap.

The Ravens and Steelers may have rebooted through free agency with key offseason acquisitions. The Bengals and Browns used the first round of the draft to bolster their rosters with the additions of cornerback Darqueze Dennard and quarterback Johnny Manziel, respectively.

Here is a look at the AFC North heading into training camp.

PITTSBURGH STEELERS:

Key additions: The Steelers may have strengthened their defense with rookie linebacker Ryan Shazier and free agent safety Mike Mitchell. Both come with reputations as sure tacklers, which is needed on a defense that slipped from ranking second against the run in 2012 to 21st in 2013.

Biggest loss: WR Emmanuel Sanders' departure could hurt if second-year receiver Markus Wheaton and free agent Lance Moore fail to complement Pro Bowl receiver Antonio Brown.

Biggest camp battle: DT Cam Thomas opted for Pittsburgh during free agency because he knew there was a job open. He is slated to play defensive end but could battle Steve McLendon at nose tackle as well.

BALTIMORE RAVENS:

Key additions: WR Steve Smith adds swagger to an offense that was up and down in 2013. The veteran will keep the heat off Torrey Smith, who drew double coverage with the loss of Anquan Boldin.

Biggest loss: With OT Michael Oher no longer protecting quarterback Joe Flacco's blind side, the Ravens could be challenged in the passing game, especially if troubled running back Ray Rice can't put the offense in workable third-down situations.

Biggest camp battle: OT Rick Wagner has been penciled in as the starter at right tackle, but Jah Reid and Ryan Jensen are expected to push him during training camp. It's one of the few unsettled positions on a revamped roster.

CINCINNATI BENGALS:

Key additions: CB Darqueze Dennard, a first-round pick, has the potential to be a shutdown corner. He adds immediate help to an already impressive secondary that ranked fifth in pass defense and netted 20 interceptions last season.

Biggest loss: It was somewhat surprising that the Bengals allowed offensive linemen Anthony Collins and Kyle Cook to find employment elsewhere during free agency. Now they're rebuilding an offensive line to protect an oft-erratic Andy Dalton.

Biggest camp battle: Offensive coordinator Hue Jackson already has promoted second-round pick Jeremy Hill ahead of veteran BenJarvus Green-Ellis as the feature RB. No one should be sleeping on the explosive Giovani Bernard.

CLEVELAND BROWNS:

Key additions: Johnny Manziel and RB Ben Tate are obvious upgrades for an offense that was sluggish in 2013. Manziel's mobility and surprisingly strong arm will bring the offense a different look.

Biggest loss: Donte Whitner might be the answer at strong safety, but T.J. Ward was a proven stopper against the run. With an inconsistent front seven ahead of him, Whitner will be under fire.

Biggest camp battle: QB Brian Hoyer is listed as the starter on the depth chart, but the Browns didn't draft Manziel to boost attendance and hold a clipboard. Hoyer's body of work as a starter is too incomplete to count out Manziel.


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