Big preseason game for Panthers QBs Cantwell, Pike

Carolina’s starters will barely break a sweat Thursday night in

Pittsburgh. Some may not play at all to avoid injury.

But while the final week of the NFL preseason has been called

everything from a sham to a snoozer as fans pay full price to watch

the stars stand on the sidelines wearing baseball caps, it could

define several players’ careers.

It could end some, too.

”It’s a big game,” Panthers rookie quarterback Tony Pike said.

”For me, it’s like going into a Super Bowl or something.”

Long after starter Matt Moore plays part of the first quarter

against the Steelers and backup Jimmy Clausen perhaps makes a brief

appearance, Pike and Hunter Cantwell will take the reigns of

Carolina’s struggling offense. The guy who plays better could end

up with the No. 3 job. The other could be unemployed on Saturday

when the Panthers trim 22 players from the roster.

”You don’t really know what the coaches are thinking and the

decisions they’ve already made,” said the undrafted Cantwell, who

spent most of last season on Carolina’s practice squad and hasn’t

played in a regular-season game. ”You just know that every rep is

important, not only for the Carolina Panthers in evaluation, but

other teams around the league.”

Cantwell entered training camp as Moore’s backup, but was

quickly overtaken by Clausen, Carolina’s second round pick.

Cantwell’s work in practice then reduced significantly. While the

second-year player out of Louisville has a strong arm, the Panthers

didn’t use a draft pick on him like they did Pike, a sixth-round

choice from Cincinnati.

Neither has had much of a chance to do anything in the first

three preseason games in which Carolina has yet to score an

offensive touchdown. Cantwell is 6 of 17 for 68 yards. Pike has

thrown one pass, an incompletion.

Offensive coordinator Jeff Davidson said, ”I wouldn’t know what

to tell you right now,” when asked last week who will be the No. 3

QB.

”Both of those guys have gotten minimal reps,” coach John Fox

said. ”This will probably be the most significant playing time

they’ll both get. We’ll evaluate that during the game, after the

game, and go from there.

”I think for a lot of guys, especially the bottom half of the

roster, this is a big weekend.”

There are other crowded races. Kenny Moore, David Gettis, Trent

Guy and Charly Martin are likely fighting for the final one or two

receiver spots on the 53-man roster. There may only be room for one

of Carolina’s seventh-round picks at cornerback, R.J. Stanford or

Robert McClain. There’s uncertainty with backups on both lines.

But quarterback will be one of the toughest calls. The 6-foot-4

Cantwell may have the best arm on the team. The 6-6 Pike is even

bigger, but fell behind in his transformation from a spread offense

QB when wasn’t allowed to participate in June’s organized team

activities because classes were still in session at Cincinnati.

”It was kind of hard because the first day I got here we were

installing 2-minute and no-huddle,” Pike said. ”You’re just

playing catch-up. But once OTAs broke and you got the chance to go

back and look at everything and then start fresh at camp, you

really get back up to the level you want to be at.”

Yet Pike has appeared in just one preseason game. Cantwell

played briefly in the first two, but sat out Saturday’s win over

Tennessee.

Fox on Wednesday said Moore and the starters will play up to a

quarter against the Steelers before the reserves take over.

Cantwell said it’s important not to press when he finally gets

significant playing time.

”You can’t try to go out and create something out of nothing.

That’s when you get yourself in trouble,” he said. ”The coaches

don’t want to see that, they just want to see you run the offense,

that you’re efficient with the ball and you can move the offense up

and down the field. That’s what they’re looking for.”

It’s possible the Panthers may try to stash the quarterback they

cut on the practice squad. But that player could also sign with

another team. Getting some good tape from Thursday night would

help.

”Your last test is Thursday’s game,” Pike said. ”For a

third-string quarterback, that might be the last action you see for

the year.”

Notes: Fox said WR Steve Smith (arm) and RB Jonathan Stewart

(heel) will be ”game-time decisions” against the Steelers. … DE

Tyler Brayton (ankle), CB Richard Marshall (knee), CB Captain

Munnerlyn (calf), RT Jeff Otah (knee), RB Tyrell Sutton (shoulder),

G C.J. Davis (head), S Aaron Francisco (hamstring), WR Trent Guy

(hamstring) and DB C.J. Wilson (concussion) didn’t practice

Wednesday and weren’t scheduled to travel to Pittsburgh.