CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The Carolina Panthers' starters will barely break a sweat Thursday night in Pittsburgh. Some might 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.
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It could end some, too.
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 Saturday when the Panthers trim 22 players from their 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 he was quickly overtaken by Clausen, the Panthers' second-round draft pick. Cantwell's work in practice then reduced significantly. While the second-year pro 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 Cantwell nor Pike has had much of a chance to do anything in the first three preseason games, during which the Panthers' offense has yet to score a touchdown. Cantwell is 6-of-17 passing 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 quarterback.
"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 might 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 might have the best arm on the team. The 6-6 Pike is even bigger, but he fell behind in his transformation from a spread offense quarterback when he 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 h sat out Saturday's victory over the Tennessee Titans.
Fox said Wednesday that 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 might try to stash the quarterback they cut on the practice squad. But that player also could 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.
Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press