CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- There was no celebrating after the Carolina Panthers closed the preseason a perfect 4-0. Assistant coach Sam Mills learned Friday he has cancer, a shocking blow right before their game against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Mills, Carolina's linebackers coach, found out hours before the Friday night preseason finale that he has cancer of the small intestine. He still sat in the coaches' box during the Panthers' 21-14 victory over Pittsburgh, a game in which his defensive players admittedly struggled with their emotions.
Earlier this month, linebacker Mark Fields was diagnosed with Hodgkin's disease.
"We were really flat and the news from Sam was a curveball for us," linebacker Will Witherspoon said. "It's really tough to swallow. First Mark, now Sam, it's sort of like, `What's next?"'
Mills did not address the team - coach John Fox said Mills said he didn't want to be a distraction -- but his illness definitely affected Carolina's focus.
Pittsburgh scored two touchdowns against the Panthers' highly respected first-team defense. Amos Zereoue scored on a 19-yard run and backup quarterback Charlie Batch threw a 3-yard TD pass to Matt Cushing.
"Sam's one of the greatest men in the locker room," safety Mike Minter said. "I can only speak for myself in that it definitely affected me. I didn't play well because of it and I was flat."
Linebacker Dan Morgan, who broke his hand in the first quarter but played on, said the Panthers defense was horrible.
"We really embarrassed ourselves out there, and that has nothing to do with Sam," Morgan said.
The Steelers were still pretty pleased with their early play, regardless of what excuses Carolina had.
Playing behind an offensive line it considers to be one of the best in the league, the Steelers (1-3) reached the end zone on Zereoue's 19-yard touchdown run on their second possession.
"The offensive line really played well," quarterback Tommy Maddox said. "They looked like they were really in sync with each other. The backs ran hard, the receivers played well and it was good to get off to a fast start like that."
The Steelers also got a TD from their second team, when Batch led a 99-yard drive that ended with his touchdown pass to Cushing for a 14-0 lead. The drive was highlighted with a 49-yard pass from Batch to Chris Doering on a flea flicker.
Zereoue ran for 33 yards on five carries, Batch went 8-for-11 for 104 yards, Maddox, the starter, was 4-for-5 for 65 yards on two possessions and Doering had three catches for 59 yards.
Clark Haggans had two sacks for the Steelers.
"I really liked the play of both of the first teams," coach Bill Cowher said. "I really like the mindset of the team right now."
The Panthers liked the play of all three of their quarterbacks after finally giving the backups a good hard look.
Chris Weinke was decent in his first shot against a legitimate defense, and Jake Delhomme directed all three of Carolina's scoring drives. Either way, Rodney Peete is probably still the opening-day starter.
"I don't think Rodney did anything to lose the job," Delhomme said. "You have to have more than one quarterback in the league to finish the season."
Delhomme, an offseason free agent addition, threw two touchdown passes to lead Carolina to a perfect 4-0 preseason record for the first time in the franchise's nine-year history.
Delhomme also was at the helm when Rod Smart scored on a 5-yard run that gave Carolina a 21-7 lead early in the fourth quarter. He finished a perfect 11-for-11 for 123 yards.
Peete, who played just the one possession, hooked up with Muhsin Muhammad for three passes for 31 yards before the drive stalled out. He finished 4-for-5 for 31 yards.
Then Weinke, the third-string quarterback all preseason, took over. Playing against a first-team defense for the first time, he wasn't able to effectively move the offense and was sacked by Kendrell Bell for a 7-yard loss that ended Carolina's possession.
He fared better against the Steelers' second- and third-team defenses, and ended the night 11-for-16 for 120 yards.
The Associated Press News Service
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