PRESEASON GAME IV: Panthers vs. Steelers

On Thursday night the Panthers have their final tune up for the regular season with a game at Bank of America Stadium verses the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Steelers roll into town with a 2-1 record this preseason, but they have had serious issues with their offense.

Their first team offense has yet to score a single touchdown this preseason and both Duce Staley and Jerome Bettis have suffered injuries. It appears that local boy, Willie Parker, will be the starter for the Steelers in week 1 of the season. Parker was an undrafted free agent out of North Carolina last year but made the Steelers' team after a good preseason. This year he is showing again why the Steelers kept him. With long runs against both the Dolphins and Redskins in the past two weeks, Parker has become the only bright spot for a struggling Steelers offense. The Steelers defense has had no such problems. They have forced 11 turnovers in three games and have had three touchdowns. After coming off a season where they had the number 1 ranked defense in the league it looks like the Steelers are poised again to make it tough on opposing teams to score.

Facing this very good Steelers defense would prove a good challenge for the Panthers' first team offense, but we can expect to see very little of them in this game. The Panthers have had little trouble moving the ball against the opposing team all preseason, but it is expected to see John Fox rest his first team for most of this game in preparation for the regular season. The exception will be the return of running back, Stephen Davis. Davis could see his first game action against a very stout Steelers defense. This will be a good test of Davis' surgically repaired knee against last years number 1 ranked rushing defense.

Just because the first teams will not be on the field long does not mean this game will not be filled with drama. There are many players that are looking to make the team and this will be their last shot at impressing the coaches. Players to watch include the battle for the punter position between Tom Rouen and Jason Baker. The veteran, Rouen has proven to be very consistent but Baker has played better than expected. Baker also has the ability to kick off and did put a kick off deep into the end zone against Cleveland. That might just be enough for Baker to get the job as kick offs have been an area of weakness lately. We should also see a large amount of playing time for both Chris Weinke and Stefan LeFors. Weinke will be the number 2 quarterback with LeFors number 3, but this game could show us a little bit of what the future may hold at the quarterback position.

The fight for roster spots at running back should clear up some after Thursday night's game. The Panthers currently have 7 running backs on the roster and that number will certainly be cut down. Stephen Davis, DeShaun Foster, Eric Shelton, Brad Hoover and Nick Goings are pretty much guaranteed roster spots. The last couple spots will be fought for by Rod Smart, Jamal Robertson and Casey Cramer. It remains to be seen how many running backs the Panthers will keep but it has to be said that Jamal Robertson has stood out this preseason with both his play for the line of scrimmage and in his ability to returns kicks.

The battle for wide receiver spots will be no less tough. Steve Smith and Kerry Colbert have entrenched themselves as the starters and Rod Gardner will likely be the third guy off the bench. Veteran, Ricky Proehl will also hold down a roster spot. He has become a favorite of Jake Delhomme on third downs and in the red zone. The fifth wide receiver spot has long belonged to special teams captain Karl Hankton, but he has been slowed by injuries this preseason. Hankton could lose his spot to either speedster Drew Carter, NFL Europe stand out Aaron Boone, or rookie free agent Efrem Hill, who scored the winning touchdown against the Browns last week.

The largest battle on defense is at the corner position. Chris Gamble and Ken Lucas have nailed down the starting jobs with Ricky Manning coming in as the nickel back. The battle for the dime package will be between long time Panther and special teams player Dante Wesley and Will Hampton, who was injured last year. Eddie Jackson and Marcus Floyd will also be battling for rosters spots.

When watching the game on Thursday night be on the look out for young guys trying to prove themselves. This game will not be so much about what the final score is but how certain players fight for a job. The Panthers are a team that should contend for a league title this year and the depth at positions will go a long way to helping that goal come true. There will be 76 talented players standing on the sidelines for the game on Thursday night. John Fox and his coaching staff have a tough job ahead of them in cutting that number down to the 53 that the NFL mandates.

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