PITTSBURGH (AP) – The Pittsburgh Steelers spent their summer watching all their offseason mojo disappear underneath a steady stream of injuries, suspensions and lackluster play.
Their reward? A date with a freshly vindicated Tom Brady. And if the Steelers are being honest following a listless preseason that ended with a 23-6 loss to Carolina on Thursday night, that’s just fine.
Bring on Brady and the Super Bowl champion New England Patriots. At least the games will count. Enough with the ones that don’t.
“What better way to start the season than to play Brady?” defensive end Cameron Heyward said.
And move past a forgettable six weeks in which the Steelers dropped four of five games and saw center Maurkice Pouncey go out for at least two months with a left ankle injury and wide receiver Martavis Bryant hit with a suspension for violating the NFL’s substance abuse policy.
“It’s been a long preseason in some instances,” coach Mike Tomlin said.
One that couldn’t end fast enough for Pittsburgh, which has only a week to get ready for Brady, whose four-game suspension for his role in “Deflategate” was overturned by a judge just hours before the exhibition finale.
“Congrats to Brady, see you on Thursday,” Heyward said. “We’re just going to prepare and get ready.”
The Panthers have a little more time to get set for their opener at Jacksonville on Sept. 13. The defending NFC South champions head into the regular season with something resembling momentum after outgaining Pittsburgh 454-191.
Jordan Todman had a 49-yard sprint in the second quarter and Joe Webb found tight end Marcus Lucas for a 23-yard score just before the half as the Panthers rolled, leaving coach Ron Rivera with some tough decisions to make before rosters are trimmed to 53.
Carolina came in searching for healthy bodies at wide receiver and some depth at running back behind Jonathan Stewart and appears to have found both.
The Panthers piled up 226 yards rushing behind Todman and rookie Cameron Artis-Payne. Todman led Carolina with 72 yards on the ground, including his scoring dash in the second quarter in which he took a draw from Webb and raced nearly untouched to the end zone. Artis-Payne ran 12 times for 67 yards.
Derek Anderson, who signed a contract extension on Wednesday to remain Newton’s primary backup through 2017, completed 4 of 7 passes for 35 yards. Webb went 12 of 17 for 193 yards, including a pretty throw to Lucas for a touchdown to cap a 10-play, 80-yard drive with 5 seconds left in the first half.
Newly acquired Carolina wide receiver Kevin Norwood caught two passes for 40 yards just days after arriving in a trade with Seattle.
“It felt really good out there,” Norwood said. “You always think you can do better, do more, but I caught both passes thrown my way. And that’s all you can ask for.”
The only real competition for a starting spot in Pittsburgh is at punter, where fellow Australians Brad Wing and Jordan Berry have been locked in a tight battle for the better part of six months. Berry received the majority of the work in the finale, averaging 50.6 yards on five kicks with Wing’s one kick going 46 yards.
Pittsburgh’s only points came on a pair of field goals by Josh Scobee, brought over from Jacksonville on Monday following a hamstring injury to Garrett Hartley. All three of Scobee’s kickoffs went through the end zone.
“This place is obviously a tough place to kick later in the year,” Scobee said. “It was nice to get a couple of kicks in, get a few kickoffs and get it rolling for next week.”
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