By WILL GRAVES
AP Sports Writer
8:37 PM EDT, September 2, 2011
PITTSBURGH (AP) — Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin made it a point to shake hands with each player as the team entered the locker room Thursday after beating the Carolina Panthers 33-17 in the preseason finale.
The gesture was Tomlin’s way of saying thanks for a month of hard work. For some, it served as the last thing they’d hear from Tomlin before he said goodbye.
The defending AFC champions cruised through four exhibition games, winning three of them handily while emerging relatively healthy. It means there were very few roster spots up for grabs as the Steelers pared down from 80 players on Friday.
“We had an opportunity to evaluate a number of men, and I believe they represented themselves relatively well,” Tomlin said. “Now, it’s on to the regular season ... I really appreciate the efforts of a lot of men, and I was really impressed by that, not only (against Carolina), but throughout the entire (preseason).”
Several players assured themselves of staying employed next week.
Running back Jonathan Dwyer rushed for 88 yards, including a 50-yard burst for a touchdown. He ended the preseason as Pittsburgh’s leading rusher and distanced himself from former Wisconsin star John Clay. After posting just 30 yards on seven carries Thursday, Clay was released on Friday.
“All I can do is control what I can control (and) go out there and play, and everything else is up to the organization,” Dwyer said. “That’s the part of leaving a lasting impression and making them decide. I just tried to go out there and make some plays.”
Punters Jeremy Kapinos and Daniel Sepulveda had kicked to a virtual dead heat during training camp, but Kapinos averaged a whopping 63 yards on two kicks against the Panthers while Sepulveda averaged 40.5 yards his two punts.
The only other true position battle is at backup quarterback, where Charlie Batch and Dennis Dixon are vying for the No. 2 job behind Ben Roethlisberger after Byron Leftwich broke his left arm against Atlanta a week ago. He was officially placed on the injured list Friday.
Batch was efficient while completing 6 of 8 passes for 59 yards vs. Carolina. Dixon wasn’t quite as sharp but did a solid job of getting the ball downfield, he threw for 157 yards and a touchdown to reserve tight end Wesyle Saunders.
The Steelers scored on Batch’s first drive when David Johnson fell on Mike Wallace’s fumble in the end zone. Batch was hardly concerned about how the ball got there so long as it did.
“I wanted to do was go out there and put the team in the end zone,” Batch said. “That was something we were able to do from the start, and that’s how you want to open up a game.”
Wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders, sidelined with a foot injury during camp, had four catches for 60 yards. The somewhat jumbled secondary allowed the Panthers to throw for more than 300 yards, though cornerback Will Allen did come up with an interception.
The numbers are hardly cause for alarm considering the Steelers sat nearly the entire starting defense. Roethlisberger sat too, meaning Pittsburgh should be a full strength when it opens the season on Sept. 11 against the Ravens.
It’s a game wide receiver Hines Ward has been pointing to since the day camp opened, while Roethlisberger admitted to peeking at film of Baltimore’s defense earlier this week.
The two are the heavy favorites in the AFC North, as usual.
“It’s like a (Floyd) Mayweather (Jr.)-(Manny) Pacquiao fight,” Pittsburgh defensive lineman Ziggy Hood said. “It’s going to be a slugfest, and we’re geeked up. This is what you work for, and this is the way to rumble.”
It’s a game more than a year in the making for offensive lineman Willie Colon, who missed the entire 2010 season with a torn Achilles. He re-signed with Pittsburgh in late July, and is eager to make his miserable Sundays from a year ago a distant memory.
“Last year, I was a couple of kegs of beer in every Sunday, because I was so depressed,” he said. “At this point, I’m ready to roll, and I’m excited about the running game. We have an explosive offense.
“If we can be consistent, we can be a good team, and that’s the key.”
Notes: The Steelers need to release five more players before Saturday’s 6 p.m. deadline after cutting 21 on Friday. They were: linebackers Baraka Atkins, Mario Harvey, Chris McCoy and Mortty Ivy, defensive lineman Corbin Bryant, defensive backs Brett Greenwood, Macho Harris, Donovan Warren and Da’Mon Cromartie-Smith, running backs James Johnson and Clay, offensive linemen Colin Miller, Kyle Jolly, John Malecki, Trevis Turner and Keith Williams, wide receivers Armand Robinson, Wes Lyons and Tyler Grisham, tight end Jamie McCoy and kicker Swayze Waters. ... The Steelers finished fourth in preseason scoring (98 points).