We finally made it to the start of the 2021 season —well preseason— but the Steelers are victors regardless! For the first time since early January we are able to grade the performances of the players on the field. Below are the grades for each of the Steelers three units as well as an overall grade. Enjoy!
We can break the offense into three distinct groups, the Rudolph package, Haskins package, and the Dobbs package. When Mason Rudolph was on the field for the Pittsburgh Steelers, so were Najee Harris and Chase Claypool. Harris immediately jumped off the screen as a guy that will push the pile and fall forward for positive gains. Claypool made a business decision by short arming a pass and dropping a third down target to avoid a big shot from the safety, but more than made up for it on a diving 45 yard gain. Rudolph was fine when he was on the field. His opening drive fumble was ugly, but he made good decisions with the football in his hands.
The Dwayne Haskins shift was highlighted by Haskins himself. His arm strength was very noticeable, and Haskins didn't force any throws. Problem is, Haskins didn't take any shots down field. I would love to see him try to stretch the defense in the next game, but that’s the most minor of complaints. Kalen Ballage also looked good. His running is clunky, but he runs down hill and pushes the pile, which was made obvious on his 5-yard touchdown run.
Finally, Josh Dobbs’ time on the field was highlighted by a touchdown strike. Dobbs may have been the best quarterback on the field Thursday. He was accurate, made smart decisions, and looked comfortable on the field. Dobbs isn't out on this completion, not by a long shot.
All in all the Steelers didn't score much, but churned out first downs and looked good in short yardage scenarios, something they struggled with mightily in 2020. This was a decent outing and something to grow on.
What a day for Alex Highsmith, in about a quarter of work Highsmith continued his dominant start to the year. The second year pro has been the Steelers’ best player at camp and applied crazy amounts of pressure against the Cowboys. Highsmith looks like he is going to break out in 2021. Quincy Roche and Jamir Jones also looked good in the pass rushing game and Cassius Marsh fluked his way to a sack. But the inside linebackers were awful. Ulysses Gilbert III and Robert Spillane were made fools of in coverage, and Marcus Allen took some horrendous angles on tackles and flat out missed them. Buddy Johnson was probably the Steelers’ best inside linebacker and as time goes on could push for a ton of playing time in 2021.
The defensive line looked pretty good despite the big three not playing. I liked what I saw from Isaiahh Loudermilk and Carlos Davis, but was not as hot on Isaiah Buggs and Henry Mondeaux. However, they stuffed the run and applied pressure. It was a decent day at the office for the guys up front.
The secondary was all over the place, so I'll try to keep it simple. Justin Layne forced a fumble but looked terrible otherwise, Cam Sutton was solid, as was James Pierre who got beat a couple times but those were great plays by the receivers. Stephen Denmark wasn't noticeable, neither was Arthur Maulet. Antoine Brooks and Mark Gilbert were the Steelers best defensive backs on this day, but I also liked Tre Norwood blocking a kick and Donovan Stiner coming down with a pick.
But how could you be mad at the Steelers defense only allowing three points? You take a three point game every night of the week. But they could do more. Let’s also not forget there were only three potential starters who played in this game, Highsmith, Spillane and Sutton.
I’m separating this category into two sections: Sam Sloman, and everything else. Sloman wasn't good, at all. At least he was able to make a 48 yarder but he missed another field goal and an extra point. That isn’t good enough for an NFL player and Sloman might not even make it to the Steelers’ next preseason game.
As for everyone else, my goodness what a punting performance by rookie Pressley Harvin III. The triple bounce at the one, two other coffin corners and blasted a punt that was muffed by the returner and eventually recovered by the Steelers. The Steelers might finally have an elite punter and boy does it feel good. Also, Matthew Sexton was noticeable on his lone punt return. Mike Tomlin pointed at him in his post game press conference as a guy who ignited the offense with his big return. He will push Ray-Ray McCloud for kick return duties, which was a spot not once thought of to be up for grabs.
Shakur Brown was also elite at hating kick returners. Brown stacked blockers and wrapped up three consecutive tackles, while also forcing a holding penalty when his blocker got fed up with getting burnt. He is someone to watch on special teams moving forward.
Grade (Sloman): F+
Grade (Everyone else): A
This was a great start for the Steelers 2021 preseason. They overcame a slow start to dominate the game in the second half, and they still have a ton of things to grow on as a unit. It’s impossible to complain about a preseason win, so this was a feel good day all around.
Game balls go out to:
Pressley Harvin III.
The poor-performance, deflated game balls go to:
Ulysees Gilbert III