The Carolina Panthers and Pittsburgh Steelers went at one another with regular-season ferocity Saturday night at Three Rivers Stadium. It was the final exhibition tune-up before the games start counting for real next week, but it was played rough, tough and physical, with blitzes by both teams.
The Steelers started it out less than three minutes after the kickoff by sacking Carolina quarterback Kerry Collins, forcing him to fumble and returning it for a touchdown. The Panthers countered with a five sacks of Pittsburgh backup quarterback Mike Quinn in the second quarter alone.
The Steelers won 38-24 after a break-even first half (17-17). The defeat gave the Panthers a 2-2 preseason record heading into next Sunday's home opener against the Atlanta Falcons.
The night was packed with extreme highs and lows for Carolina.
Off the field, there was the news that first-round pick Jason Peter finally had agreed to contract terms and would be ending his 37-day holdout.
On the field, there was the glum sight of the team's other prized rookie defensive lineman, Chuck Wiley, having to leave the game with an injured right Achilles tendon, suffered on the Steelers' third offensive play. He will be out for the season.
Fortunately, a cervical injury to second-team offensive lineman Jamie Wilson late in the first quarter wasn't as serious as first feared. X-rays were negative and he was able to fly back to Charlotte with the rest of the team.
It was a tough night for the Panthers' run defense, which got repeatedly gashed by the Steelers' power rushing attack. Pittsburgh starter Jerome Bettis carried two times for 9 yards, but the real damage was done by rookie backup Chris Fuamatu-Ma'afala, who had 51 yards on seven carries in the first half.
Carolina's offense entered the game hoping to show more promise in its running attack. The results were only mildly satisfactory in the first half when the first-team line was playing. Starter Fred Lane had a nifty 16-yard run, but gained just six yards on his other four attempts.
Backup Tshimanga Biakabutuka showed some spark in the second half in what was clearly his most impressive performance of the preseason.
Collins played for only three offensive possessions and faced a much fiercer pass rush than he had in his other two exhibitions. He was sacked just once, but it was a doozy of a breakdown.
On the fifth play of the game, Pittsburgh's Chris Oldham came blaring into the Carolina backfield and decked Collins. Steelers linebacker Jason Gildon picked up the ball and ran 47 yards down the right sidelines into the end zone for a touchdown and a 7-0 lead.
The Panthers gained only 5 yards in three plays on their next possession and had to punt.
Steelers' quarterback Kordell Stewart then orchestrated what might have been the most impressive drive against the Carolina defense in the preseason -- a 70-yarder for a touchdown. Stewart ran twice for 29 yards on the drive and completed passes for another 26 yards.
The touchdown came on a 5-yard Stewart pass to Charles Johnson, who caught the ball in front of cornerback Doug Evans and then spiked it in front of Evans as an exclamation point.
The 14-0 deficit looked ugly, but Panthers coach Dom Capers had to like the way his team responded.
A 53-yard kickoff return by Michael Bates gave the Panthers excellent field position at the Steelers' 44. The offense scored a touchdown in five plays, but it was nullified by a penalty. Six plays after that, the Panthers got a touchdown that counted when Collins threw a 4-yard pass to tight end Wesley Walls in the left corner of the end zone.
Walls' concentration was the key to the score. He was double-covered and wasn't the first player to get his hand on the ball. Steelers' cornerback Dewayne Washington deflected up. Walls tipped the ball with his right hand and then caught it as it came back down for the score.
Steelers coach Bill Cowher challenged the play by calling for an instant replay by officials -- something allowed on an experimental basis in the NFL's 10 nationally-televised exhibitions this preseason. However, the play stood.
Capers had a highly successful replay challenge moments later. A fumble by Fuamatu-Ma'afala was initially ruled to have happened after he was tackled, meaning Pittsburgh retained possession. But the replay showed the ball was knocked away by Panthers' safety Mike Minter's tackle and recovered by teammate Brent Alexander at the Steelers' 29.
Three plays later, Walls was in the end zone again, catching a 21-yard touchdown pass from backup quarterback Steve Beuerlein that tied the score 14-14.
The Panthers and Steelers each added a field goal in the second quarter for a 17-17 halftime tie.
A Carolina defense featuring a mix of starters and backups had a dominating second quarter against Pittsburgh's second-team offensive line.
Nose tackle Mike Fox led the way with two sacks of Quinn, bringing his preseason total to five. Also getting in on the sackfest were Lamar Lathon, Tim Morabito and Don Sasa.
The five sacks combined for a total of 34 yards in losses.
Pittsburgh took a 24-17 lead in the third quarter when former Monroe High and Winston-Salem State running back Richard Huntley scored on a 23-yard run.
The Panthers tied it at 24-24 on a 16-yard touchdown pass from Beuerlein to tight end Luther Broughton, who celebrated by dunking the ball over the goal post.