Steelers football is back! Well, sort of. The Hall of Fame Game is no regular season or playoff matchup, but it still marks the beginning of football season. And besides, it’s infinitely more exciting than the practice reports and endless speculation that fill up most of the offseason.
The Steelers pulled off a 16-3 win over the Dallas Cowboys in Canton Thursday night, and although the victory ultimately means nothing when it comes to standings, there’s still plenty of takeaways to be had from the Steelers’ first game of the season.
1. It was just the Hall of Fame Game
Take this as a giant disclaimer for the rest of this article. The Hall of Fame Game had plenty of things worth noting in it, some of which could be indicative of what happens in the regular season — but overall it’s just a preseason game, and the first game of the preseason no less.
Just because a player had a bad game doesn’t mean the rest of their season will be terrible, and vice versa. Additionally, the lack of starters playing makes it impossible to truly see what the Steelers will look like in Week 1. Simply put, don’t read into the results of the game too much, as tempting as it might be.
2. Don’t forget about expanded practice squads
There always seems to be a few preseason darlings on the Steelers’ 90-man roster who end up missing both the final roster and the practice squad during cutdowns. While these bottom-of-the-roster players wouldn’t have made much of an impact in the regular season anyway, it still hurts to see them go.
But with the NFL allowing 16-man practice squads once again in 2021, there will be six additional spots for players to stick with the team. These additional spots aren’t just for players with under two accrued seasons either, meaning that players like Josh Dobbs or Cassius Marsh could still make the practice squad despite their veteran status. It’s also a good sign for Hall of Fame Game standout Abdullah Anderson, who is near the bottom of the depth chart of a stacked defensive line.
3. Pressley Harvin is as advertised
Longtime Steeler Jordan Berry might finally be unseated as the team’s starting punter after rookie Pressley Harvin’s impressive night. All of Harvin’s punts displayed good power and accuracy, especially his highlight of the game: a 48-yard beauty that pinned the Cowboys back on their own 1-yard line. Perhaps more important was how well Harvin played as a holder during field goal attempts, the one aspect of his game where it seemed Berry had the upper hand. Harvin wasn’t exactly spectacular in that area, but he didn’t need to be. Instead, he proved he could handle all of the aspects of being an NFL punter, and definitely pulled ahead in the Steelers’ punter competition.
4. Quarterback controversy?
Mason Rudolph wasn’t bad Thursday night, but his fellow quarterbacks Dwayne Haskins and Josh Dobbs certainly looked better. Haskins didn’t have the greatest accuracy, but showed off his arm talent, while Dobbs flashed some playmaking ability. Ultimately neither of the three quarterbacks had a fantastic game, but Rudolph’s status as an unquestioned #2 on the depth chart is looking weaker and weaker. It’s still far too early to tell which of them will make the final roster behind Ben Roethlisberger, but it looks like cutdowns in the quarterback room may be very tough decisions.
5. The wide receiver room has a high ceiling
JuJu Smith-Schuster didn’t play on Thursday, but two other starting wide receivers did in Chase Claypool and Diontae Johnson. And although they were playing against backups, both looked impressive in their limited time on the field. Johnson showed his athleticism with some nice yards after the catch, while Claypool made a spectacular 45-yard grab on a vertical route. Both receivers are still young and inconsistent, but watching them in the Hall of Fame Game was a reminder of how great they could become. It’s also worth noting that roster hopeful Matt Sexton had an explosive punt return he nearly took to the house. Pittsburgh should have no issues putting together a strong wide receiver room in 2021.
6. Good depth at EDGE
T.J. Watt is an unquestioned star, but Bud Dupree’s offseason departure left many wondering if the Steelers’ edge rushers could continue their success into 2021. And while Watt and newcomer Melvin Ingram didn’t play on Thursday, Alex Highsmith, Cassius Marsh, and Quincy Roche all did — and all three recorded a sack. Once again, it’s too early to make regular season predictions, but it does seem like the Steelers’ EDGE room answered some major questions Thursday night.
7. New faces at running back
First round rookie Najee Harris started at running back for the Steelers on Thursday night, and for the most part he looked as-advertised. He didn’t have any big runs, but showcased a combination of speed and power the Steelers haven’t had for the past few seasons. It wasn’t a spectacular showing, but was more than enough to show his immense potential.
Additionally, free agent Kalen Ballage showed more burst than expected from a veteran power back, and may have the inside track to be Harris’ backup in the regular season. And while not a newcomer, Anthony McFarland Jr. certainly looks like he’s improved from his uninspiring rookie year in 2020, and may provide a legitimate speed threat in Pittsburgh’s backfield.
Benny Snell, Jaylen Samuels, and Trey Edmunds are all still very much in the conversation of backing up Harris, but as of right now it looks like the Steelers may have some fresh faces leading their rushing attack in 2021.
8. The Canada effect
New Steelers offensive coordinator Matt Canada made his debut on Thursday night, and it was easy to see his effect on the offense. Canada treated us to plenty of motion and even some play-action, and even though Mason Rudolph botched an attempted jet sweep to Chase Claypool, it was still nice to see the play call. This early in the preseason it seems fair to say that Canada was running a vanilla version of what the team’s Week 1 playbook will look like, but it was still great to see something different than Randy Fichtner’s 2020 offense.
9. Spotty coverage
Not to harp on one player, but watching potential starter Robert Spillane in coverage Thursday night was incredibly rough. It wasn’t a good sign for a defense that has all too often had issues with linebackers in coverage. However, the Steelers’ defensive backs didn’t do much better. James Pierre had a few decent plays but overall both he and Justin Layne didn’t do much to bolster the confidence in the Steelers’ cornerback depth. Here’s hoping they’ll look like a much stronger unit by the time they play the Bills on September 12th.
10. The offensive line was... good?
And now for the elephant in the room. Pittsburgh’s offensive line made its first showing of the year in the Hall of Fame Game — and they looked pretty solid overall. With so many backups playing it was hardly indicative of what the line will look like Week 1, but it was still good to see the team generating more push than usual during running situations. Rookies Kendrick Green and Dan Moore especially stood out, which is a good sign for the Steelers’ future. However, it’s still hard to tell how good this squad will be with all of its starters against a real NFL defensive line.
Although just a preseason game, it was good to get a sneak peak of the 2021 Steelers in the Hall of Fame Game. Make sure to share your takeaways below in the comment section, as well as if you agreed or disagreed with the ones above.
Also, don’t forget to stay tuned to Behind the Steel Curtain for all things Pittsburgh Steelers as we get closer to the 2021 regular season.