By ALAN ROBINSON|AP Sports Writer
PITTSBURGH (AP)—Maybe Carolina Panthers coach John Fox had the right idea: Rest your starters in the final exhibition game.
Steelers quarterback Byron Leftwich, expected to replace Ben Roethlisberger during his suspension, sprained his left knee in the second quarter as Pittsburgh beat the starter-less Panthers 19-3 on Thursday night.
Carolina's offense ended the preseason the way it began with no touchdowns as No. 3 quarterback Hunter Cantwell and No. 4 Tony Pike took all the snaps in a game both teams played with the intent of not getting any key player hurt. Only Carolina accomplished it.
Leftwich was examined by team doctors on a stretcher behind the Steelers' bench, then limped into a nearby tunnel that leads to the locker room. After the game, the Steelers (3-1) said Leftwich would undergo an MRI for the ligament injury. As Leftwich was being helped off, coach Mike Tomlin immediately lifted No. 3 quarterback Dennis Dixon.
Wide receiver Hines Ward, interviewed before the game was over, hinted the Steelers expect to go into the season with Dixon as their starter.
Dixon, who has started only one NFL game, stayed in long enough to finish the drive Leftwich started, throwing a 23-yard pass to rookie Emmanuel Sanders for the game's only touchdown—and on his lone pass attempt. Jeff Reed kicked field goals of 33, 43, 31 and 32 yards.
While Carolina's starters never saw the field, most of Pittsburgh's regulars played into the second quarter, and there were starters on the field when Leftwich was hurt.
Leftwich, whose only playing time during a 34-17 loss Sunday to Denver came with second-line players on the field, came in after Roethlisberger played two series, going 4 of 6 for 39 yards. Charlie Batch, the longtime backup who looked to be in danger of not making the roster, played the final 2 1/2 quarters and handed off on nearly every play. Batch attempted only four passes.
Despite opposing Carolina backups, Pittsburgh's starters went three-and-out and Roethlisberger was knocked off his feet twice during the opening series. Reed kicked a 33-yard field goal on the second possession after Roethlisberger completed passes of 16 yards to Arnaz Battle and 13 to Heath Miller before spending the rest of the game wearing a ballcap turned backward and a towel around his neck.
On Friday, Roethlisberger travels to New York for a meeting with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell to determine if his six-game suspension for violating the league's personal conduct policy will be reduced to four games.
Nearly six months ago, there was considerable speculation how Roethlisberger would be received by Steelers fans upset with his behavior. As it turned out, there were merely shrugs the first time he took the field in Pittsburgh.
With Heinz Field barely half-filled on a 93-degree evening—though the announced crowd was 52,130—there was no reaction when Roethlisberger led the offense onto the field. Just as during training camp, where Roethlisberger was warmly received, fans appear to be focusing on the upcoming season rather than the quarterback's off-field behavior.
Apparently, they're saving their boos for the Ravens and Bengals. Just as Carolina saved its starters for the Sept. 12 opener against the Giants. Starting quarterback Matt Moore and backup Jimmy Clausen spent the night on the bench as Cantwell (6 of 9, 36 yards) played the first half and Pike (10 of 18, 44 yards) the second.
The next touchdown Carolina's offense scores will be its first since training camp began. The Panthers' only scoring while losing three of four preseason games came from their defense and special teams.
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