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Carolina Panthers handle Pittsburgh in meaningless yet entertaining exhibition

By Tom Sorensen
tsorensen@charlotteobserver.com

On Thursday’s second play from scrimmage Carolina quarterback Derek Anderson hit Ted Ginn Jr. for 13 yards. On the third he hit Brandon LaFell for 12 yards. On the fifth he hit Domenik Hixon for 16 yards. On the sixth he hit Ginn for 35 yards and a touchdown.

In other words, at least in the final practice game, the Panthers had an offense, the line gave the quarterback time to pass, the quarterback hit receivers, and receivers hung onto the ball. Ginn, especially, made a nice fingertip catch for the touchdown.

So after the Panthers opened the game at Bank of America Stadium by driving 80 yards against Pittsburgh for a touchdown, did fans regret getting on I-77 and driving south from Charlotte to Williams-Brice Stadium to watch South Carolina beat North Carolina?

Hundreds of Tar Heel fans did, I suspect.

The NFL game was the fourth of four exhibitions for Pittsburgh and Carolina, and the least of them.

The first exhibition, fans are thrilled because they get to see football again.

The second exhibition fans are still curious.

The third exhibition is as close to a regular-season game as an exhibition can get. Starters play. Game plans are a little less unsophisticated.

The fourth exhibition is the game that the first three exhibitions mock. By now, the preseason is as overblown as Jadeveon Clowney. All you want is for players to stay healthy, for underdogs you favor to play well enough to make the team and for tickets to be half-price.

You want moments. The Panthers provided several.

Start with Ginn, who in the first half caught five passes for 149 yards and two touchdowns. Ginn’s second touchdown was 87 yards. The man takes off fast and becomes faster. Like many superior runners, he appears to expend no effort. He glides.

Anderson laid the ball up for the second touchdown, giving Ginn, who caught only two passes for San Francisco, an opportunity to run beneath it. The pass initially looked so long that Carolina safety Haruki Nakamura might be back there defending it. But Ginn is so fast that he caught up to it.

“I don’t think you can actually overthrow him,” Anderson says.

Cornerback Josh Norman made two nice plays, breaking up a long first-quarter pass to Markus Wheaton and, as the Steelers were driving, threatening to score, picking off a pass and returning it 70 yards.

A fifth-round pick out of Coastal Carolina last season, Norman forced his way onto the field, starting the first 12 games. Then he was grounded. Didn’t Josh Norman once have a locker here?

Dues have been paid. The interception was Norman’s fourth of the preseason. Last season, in the real season, no Panther intercepted more than two passes.

Down at Williams-Brice Thursday there was lightning. There was lightning in Charlotte, too – No. 7, Jimmy Clausen. Lightning is bad, right? Clausen had a rough game. But I won’t be surprised if he sticks.

The Panthers beat the Steelers 25-10. They finish the preseason 3-1 for the first time in franchise history. The record is Carolina’s best since 2006, when they went 4-0.

In ’06 they lost their first two regular-season games and finished 8-8.

So what’s it all mean?

It means the preseason has come to a merciful end. It’s time to play.

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