The Pittsburgh Steelers were back on the field Thursday night when they traveled to play the Dallas Cowboys in the annual Hall of Fame game in NFL preseason action. The Steelers were winners in the contest, but that doesn’t mean every player had a good performance.
With it being the preseason, many of the players who are being criticized are not even going to be employed by the Steelers organization come September, but the judgement process must go on. Players who play well can be considered ‘Winners’, while those who left a lot to be desired can be called ‘Losers’. It may sound harsh, but it is the crux of this exercise.
Let’s check in to see who fell on which side of the ledger after the first game of the preseason...
Stat Line: 3 total tackles, 2 solo, 1 sack, 2 TFL, 1 QB Hit
When the Steelers signed Melvin Ingram prior to training camp, some fans thought it was a shot at Alex Highsmith. Whether it was or wasn’t is up to up for debate, but Highsmith’s first action of his sophomore season was impressive. Highsmith might have been going against second and/or third string players, but he looked like a starter going against lesser players. Not everyone can say that. Nonetheless, if this is just the beginning for Highsmith’s second year, the Steelers’ pass rush will be just fine.
Alex Highsmith rushing the passer in the HoF game:— PFF (@PFF) August 6, 2021
- 15 pass rush snaps
- 3 pressures
- 1 sack
Year 2 breakout incoming?
Stat Line: 4 punts, 45.8 yard average, 3 inside the 20, 51 yard long
Yes, I was excited for Pressley Harvin’s debut, but I will try to curb by excitement for this article. The Steelers have been looking for a long term punter, and Harvin did a tremendous job. I mean, just look at the replay of his punt which was downed at the Dallas one-yard line:
To be completely honest, my main concern with Harvin entering the preseason was his holding ability. He wasn’t the full-time holder in college, and some had suggested he lacked in this area. Harvin looked like he did a solid job at holding, on top of big-time kicks.
Stat Line: 7 carries, 22 yards, 3.1 average, 6 yard long
Najee Harris’ stat line wasn’t anything to write home about, but what I saw was a player who belonged. A player who was noticeable every time he touched the football. All of this behind an offensive line which was anything but who will likely be starting in Week 1. This was a good start for Harris, and hopefully a springboard for future success.
Stat Line: 3 receptions, 62 yards, 4 targets, 45 yard long
Claypool did gator arm a pass on third down, but more than made up for it with his other receptions. Mainly his 45 yard catch where he had to dive to haul in the Mason Rudolph pass. If Highsmith looked like a more polished, complete player in Year 2, so did Claypool. He had the look of a dominant receiver, and that is tremendous news for the Steelers’ offense in 2021.
Stat Line: 1 sack surrendered, 76 yards rushing, 175 yards passing
Some might look at the offensive line on the winners list and say, “What?! Really?” However, I believe the offensive line, which consisted of Dan Moore Jr., B.J. Finney, Kendrick Green, Rashaad Coward and Joe Haeg, did an ‘above the line’ job of both creating running lanes and protecting the quarterback. What was obvious was not just a commitment to the run, but the line getting some push. For once you saw the offensive line firing off the ball and moving defenders backwards. A nice change in philosophy from last season. The aggressive nature of the line was on display, and it was glorious.
Stat Line: 5 carries, 19 yards, 3.8 average, 1 TD
Ballage had been receiving a lot of positive talk throughout training camp. He is a hard runner, and with Benny Snell out of the lineup Ballage has taken full advantage. Ballage isn’t a burner, but he showed the ability to get the tough yards Thursday night. If Snell is injured for the long term, I am confident Ballage can provide the same production for the Steelers’ offense in limited carries.
Stat Line: 1 total tackle, 1 solo
On a night when the inside linebacker play left a lot to be desired, the rookie from Texas A&M was one of the few defenders who jumped off the screen. Johnson’s stat line doesn’t scream ‘Winner’, but it was great to see him flying all over the field and constantly being around the football. At worst, Johnson showed he has the potential to be quality depth, but his play showed a lot of promise for the future.
Stat Line: Avoided major injury
Following the game Mike Tomlin spoke about the Steelers’ injuries, and the list was short. Ballage suffered a lower body injury, and other than that Pittsburgh had nothing more than the “bumps and bruises associated with the game of football”, as Tomlin would say it. Avoiding injuries in these meaningless games is a big win for the black and gold.
Stat Line: 2 total tackles, 2 solo, 1 pass defense
Allen might have had a decent stat line, but was also very underwhelming on the field in this exhibition game. He looked like a rookie, taking bad angles and missing opportunities, not a veteran. Allen might be considered a linebacker, not a safety, but right now he doesn’t look like either. That is a problem for the former Penn State Nittany Lion, and something which he will need to fix throughout the remaining games of the preseason if he wants to make the roster.
Stat Line: Just bad
The two starting inside linebackers, Ulysees Gilbert III and Robert Spillane, certainly didn’t put their best foot forward. Maybe it was a lack of game planning. Maybe it was the fact there were few starters on the field. Whatever the reason, the Steelers inside linebacker depth doesn’t look as great as it once did...at least for now.
Lack of Aggressiveness on Offense
Stat Line: Where are the passes over the middle?
I get it. Matt Canada doesn’t want to show too much in a meaningless preseason game, but does that mean the Steelers can’t attack the middle of the field in the passing game? A lot of the passes on Thursday night were just check downs or the Randy Fichtner style quick hitting passes. It is early, but I would love to see the offense start being more aggressive down the middle of the field, especially in the preseason.