Steelers drop ball, fall short

<b>PITTSBURGH - </b> Willie Parker wanted to impress his family, friends and ex-coaches back in North Carolina, and he wanted the Pittsburgh Steelers to win, and he wanted to clinch a spot with the team before Sunday's final cuts. <br><br>Parker did none of the above after his fumble at the Carolina five-yard line sealed a 16-13 Panthers win last night at Heinz Field.

With 33 seconds remaining, the Steelers had second-and-goal from the six-yard line, but Parker had the ball jarred loose and the Panthers recovered.

The Steelers' rookie surprise of training camp, Parker accepted his first dark moment this summer.

"It really disappoints me, but you know how it is," he said. "You have plays like that sometimes. It's part of the ball game. You just live on."

With the loss, the Steelers concluded their preseason with a 2-2 record. The Panthers finished 4-0 for the second consecutive season.

"I was really not pleased with the effort of our first units on both sides of the ball," said Steelers Coach Bill Cowher. "I thought we were sloppy. We missed some opportunities on defense. I thought, overall, it was not up to the standards we had set the previous two weeks."

The Steelers came into the game as the NFL's runaway preseason rushing leaders with an average of 187 rushing yards per game. Last night they were held to 140 yards on the ground. Dante Brown was the leader with 34 yards on seven carries. Verron Haynes (5-30), Parker (13-28) and Jerome Bettis (5-17) followed. Duce Staley was held out of the game as a precautionary measure.

"Obviously, they're a tough defense," said quarterback Tommy Maddox, who completed five of seven passes for 56 yards. "We knew it was going to be one of those games where you had to play four quarters."

The difference in the game was a pass by Carolina rookie Rod Rutherford. The former Pitt quarterback threw a 57-yard strike to Monroeville's Eugene Baker that gave the Panthers a first down at the Steelers' eight-yard line. The Panthers settled for a 24-yard John Kasay field goal -- his third of the game -- that was the game's deciding points.

"It was a pretty pass, man," said Rutherford. "Eugene helped me out."

Did Rutherford feel like the winning quarterback, even though he was his team's third passer in the game?

"I was a part of it but it was a team effort," he said.

With both groups of starters on the field, Carolina dominated the first quarter, yet only had a 3-0 lead.

The Panthers drove 80 yards in 18 plays and Kasay kicked a 29-yard field goal to cap the 9-minute, 33-second drive. It was the only drive of the quarter for Carolina and Coach John Fox pulled quarterback Jake Delhomme after the possession.

Maddox remained at quarterback for the Steelers early in the second quarter to work with the first-team line and the second-team skill players, and the combination worked.

Carolina, with its second-team defense, was no match for Maddox, who drove the Steelers 69 yards for the second-quarter touchdown. Haynes ran through a gaping hole up the middle for a six-yard touchdown run and a 7-3 lead.

The key plays of the Steelers drive were a 20-yard pass from Maddox to tight end Jay Riemersma and a 19-yard pass to Antwaan Randle El.

The Steelers added to their lead in the middle of the third quarter when Rob Bironas kicked a 20-yard field goal.

The Steelers had a first-and-goal at the four-yard line after Lee Mays took a pass from Ben Roethlisberger, broke a tackle and was the beneficiary of a late hit from a Carolina defender. The 38-yard reception, however, didn't pay off with a touchdown as Cowher opted for the short field goal on fourth-and-goal from the two-yard line.

The seven-point margin was wiped away in a minute and 15 seconds. Rookie wide receiver Keary Colbert atoned for allowing an earlier Russ Stuvaints interception by streaking past Stuvaints and cornerback Willie Williams for an 87-yard touchdown pass from Weinke with 6:54 left in the third quarter.

The teams traded field goals - a 48-yarder by Bironas and a 34-yarder by Kasay - before Rutherford's pass put the Panthers up for good.

The Steelers rallied behind quarterback Brian St. Pierre but Parker's fumble ended it.

"I'm not too down," Parker said. "If we'd have had another series, I'd have made up for it."

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