Panthers find silver lining in loss

The Carolina Panthers' exhibition season is finally over. Since you haven't had much to clap for during those four games, feel free to applaud that fact.

The last bits of the preseason wreckage drifted in Friday night, as Carolina lost 27-19 to Pittsburgh in Ericsson Stadium.

That defeat cinched Carolina's first-ever winless preseason -- the Panthers finished 0-4.

But it also showed off several rays of hope as the team prepares for its regular-season opener -- in eight days vs. Washington.

The Panthers played their best football of the preseason (although that's not saying much) and stayed in the game until the end, when a last-ditch drive led by backup quarterback Jay Barker expired on downs at the Steelers' 15.

For a Panthers team that had lost its previous three exhibitions by an average of 18 points, Friday night's performance before 67,044 in Ericsson was nearly cause for celebration -- especially the 16-carry, 81-yard rushing performance by surprising rookie Fred Lane.

Carolina outgained Pittsburgh 333-306 and held the ball 40 minutes compared to the Steelers' 20. The Panthers lost because they gave up four big-play touchdowns that averaged 64.5 yards apiece.

``Man, Santa Claus was on our sideline tonight,'' Panthers linebacker Micheal Barrow said. ``If not for those gifts, we'd have won this one.''

Not that it really matters. Whether the Panthers went 1-3 or 0-4 in the preseason, this has been a bad month. Quarterback Kerry Collins is out for at least the first three regular season games with a broken jaw, and the Panthers' defense has looked old and slow at times.

But the great thing about the preseason is that it doesn't count.

``I guarantee you, there's nobody in here moping around because we're 0-4, because now we're actually 0-0,'' Panthers quarterback Steve Beuerlein said. ``The real one starts next week, and we'll go out there and play our butts off.''

``This is not indicative of what's going to happen around here,'' linebacker Lamar Lathon said.

``I felt in tonight's game we did some things better,'' coach Dom Capers said. ``But we did not make the Steelers work real hard for their scores.''

Carolina will certainly have to work on controlling big plays in practice this week before the regular-season opener vs. Washington Aug. 31. Pittsburgh scored on an 80-yard run, a 38-yard pass, an 82-yard punt return and a 58-yard pass.

Yet the Panthers finally did some things well against Pittsburgh (5-0). Among them:

The first-string defense generally played well. Pittsburgh running back George Jones beat a blitz and zoomed untouched for an 80-yard run in the first quarter, but otherwise the first-stringers kept the Steelers mainly in check during the first half.

Lane looked great once again. On one third quarter drive, the rookie from Lane (Tenn.) College carried eight times for 41 yards -- including a second-effort touchdown on fourth-and-goal from the one. That came just after Lane was briefly pulled from the game because he was throwing up on the field. After the touchdown, he hyperventilated.

``He can play on my team any time,'' Carolina cornerback Eric Davis said fondly of Lane.

Beuerlein patiently engineered an 89-yard scoring drive against the Steelers' first-stringers, a march that ended with Tshimanga Biakabutuka scoring from 6 yards out.

Pittsburgh scored its four touchdowns as if the Steelers were auditioning for a highlight film.

Every time the Panthers seemed to gear up for their first exhibition victory of 1997, the Steelers deflated the balloon. Rookie wide receiver Will Blackwell scorched Carolina twice -- first on a 38-yard Hail Mary touchdown pass at the end of the first half when he outjumped five Panthers and then on a 58-yarder in the fourth quarter after Carolina's reserves blew a coverage.

Pittsburgh Steelers #89 Will Blackwell catches a touchdown pass in the last seconds of the first half against the Carolina Panthers. The catch put the Steelers ahead 13 to 10. Christopher A. Record/Staff

Pittsburgh's other long score was on an 82-yard punt return by Henry Bailey, who nearly fell down at the beginning, reversed field and quieted down the crowd by flying all the way into the end zone. Beuerlein played just more than a quarter and completed 6-of-9 passes for 46 yards. Collins watched the game from the sideline in blue jeans, cap and an untucked short-sleeve shirt.

Both of the quarterbacks in the fight to back up Beuerlein until Collins returns had their moments. Chad Johnston threw a 40-yard pass on his first attempt that led to a John Kasay field goal. Jay Barker paced a long touchdown drive in the second half and had a couple of nice throws while leading the Panthers to nine second-half points.

The Panthers must cut their roster from 60 players to 53 by Sunday at 4 p.m., and one of those quarterbacks will likely be waived along with six other players within the next 36 hours.

Pittsburgh lost its ability to kick field goals or extra points in the first quarter when regular kicker Chris Jacke got hurt on an extra-point attempt. After one botched extra-point attempt, from then on the Steelers went for everything on fourth down when it was close and went for two points after all touchdowns.

The Panthers did double their touchdown output from the first three combined. Carolina scored two in those three games and two more Friday night. Carolina also came out well in terms of injuries -- only running back Anthony Johnson was hurt (bruised ribs), and that wasn't considered serious.

Neither team used all of its stars. Pittsburgh coach Bill Cowher rested his star running back Jerome ``The Bus'' Bettis.

But no matter who was playing, the Panthers still lost. And linebacker Sam Mills said criticism of the team throughout the month has been understandable and deserved.

``People have fallen in love with this team,'' Mills said. ``And when someone you love isn't doing something the way you think he should, you're concerned. . . . But we're not panicking. We'll be OK.''

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