PITTSBURGH -- As Carolina's starters left the field following pregame warmups, coach John Fox was waiting with a surprise: They were getting the night off.
It's merely an illusion that, except for Jeff Reed and Rashard Mendenhall, the Pittsburgh Steelers' offense has been resting for a couple of weeks.
Reed kicked his fourth field goal of the game and his eighth in less than a week, a 43-yarder on the last play, and the Steelers beat the Panthers' backups 19-16 on Thursday night in the final exhibition game for both teams.
Carolina, holding out 25 players, didn't do much offensively except for three field goals by John Kasay until No. 3 quarterback Brett Basanez threw a 29-yard touchdown pass to Chris Hannon with 1:54 remaining. Fox opted to kick the extra point and try for overtime, something most coaches look to avoid in games that don't count.
"If it there was a little less time I probably would have (gone for a 2-point conversion) but, either way, we were going to have to stop a two-minute drive," Fox said.
Steelers rookie Dennis Dixon went 4-for-4 for 32 yards and ran 11 yards for a first down on the 47-yard drive that ended with Reed's final field goal.
The Steelers (3-1) scored only one touchdown while winning their final two games, Carey Davis' 6-yard run in the first quarter. They beat Minnesota 12-10 on Saturday as Reed kicked four field goals, and he made four more of 41, 49, 41 and 43 yards against Carolina.
The Steelers' offensive starters insist they're ready to go against Houston on Sept. 7, even if Reed's right leg offers the only tangible evidence.
"Right now, we feel ready," said Willie Parker, who ran four times for 34 yards. "I know that I feel good, and I can speak for the team. It's time to put what we've been practicing to work."
Davis' touchdown came two plays after a 37-yard pass interference penalty on Richard Marshall at the Carolina 7 during the second and final series for Pittsburgh's starters.
Maybe the Panthers' starters felt they didn't need any more work -- in the previous two games, Carolina (2-2) outscored its opponents 58-3, including a 47-3 victory against Washington on Saturday.
"We didn't know until after we warmed up," quarterback Jake Delhomme said of not playing. "We came ready to play but we were going to play only one series, most likely. I think the good thing is that we played a ton of football last week. It was Coach's decision, so good, bad or indifferent, we just have to be ready for San Diego."
Of his players' reaction to the unexpected night off, Fox said, "They didn't jump for joy."
DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart, both of whom gained 100 yards-plus against Washington, did not get off the Panthers' bench, and none of their replacements gained even 40 yards.
"I would have liked for the running game to be better, but the Steelers are a good defense so it was a good test," tackle Jordan Gross said.
Matt Moore played the first three quarters for Delhomme, going 15-for-27 for 164 yards, no touchdowns and two interceptions, before safety Anthony Smith rolled into his left leg as he was throwing a pass late in the third quarter. Moore was assisted to the sideline, but Fox said X-rays showed no fracture.
Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger played long enough to test a no-huddle offense, and it wasn't exactly a success. Justin Hartwig, the former Carolina center who has won the starting job in Pittsburgh, snapped prematurely on a third-and-5 play from the Pittsburgh 25 and Roethlisberger retreated to the 4 to recover the ball.
"It wasn't good, that's why I wanted to practice it in the preseason," Roethlisberger said.
Hartwig said, "I'm pretty upset, actually, because I snapped it too early. I shut down a drive."
He shouldn't worry -- the Steelers' other offensive players took turns shutting down quite a few others.
Roethlisberger did not attempt any passes. Byron Leftwich came on to go 6-for-14 for 82 yards.
Mendenhall, Pittsburgh's first-round draft pick, gained 79 yards on 21 carries but lost his third fumble in two games. After he fumbled twice against Minnesota, he was forced to carry a football at the Steelers' practice complex, and any teammate knocking it from him got $100.
"I think he's improving every week," coach Mike Tomlin said.