NFL football is back! More importantly, Steelers football is back! Not a moment too soon for this Steelers fanatic. While the final score of preseason games are unimportant and often anticlimactic, the individuals performing on the field are fighting for their NFL lives.
That's the only reason to write a stock report article after a meaningless game where the majority of the starters for both teams didn't even suit up. This stock report article is to shine a spotlight on the guys who did see live game action; whether the results were good, bad, or something in between.
Stock trending up: Alex Highsmith & the Steelers EDGE depth
This was actually a tough decision, which is always a great problem to have. There were multiple players at various positions across the roster that stood out for their above the line performances. While a single article wouldn't be enough to adequately cover them all, I will attempt to mention a few of those that shined the brightest in front of the national television audience hungry for some football.
With established starters at high risk positions having the night off for both franchises, the game had the feel of a glorified scrimmage at a local high school football field in front of the two largest fanbases in the NFL. In what became the battle of the backups, the Steelers proved to have the greater depth. The Steelers have a lot of young, talented depth.
While it was true that the Steelers endured numerous roster changes in the off season due to free agency losses and retirements, they did a masterful job of replenishing their ranks with young, albeit unproven talent. Back to back superior draft classes, with a few undrafted free agent gems thrown in for good measure, will do that for a franchise.
First round stud RB Najee Harris was as advertised. He was powerful and decisive, refusing to go down on first contact. He continued to fight and fall forward for those extra yard or two. He even stepped up effectively to engage a pass rusher at one point. I am excited to see the myriad of ways he will be utilized by Matt Canada, especially with the Steelers starting offensive line, whenever they figure out just whom that will be. Change of pace RB Anthony McFarland Jr. made a couple of nice runs, showcasing his speed and burst, but he still appears to be trying too hard. Hopefully the game will slow down for him with more experience. RB Kalen Ballage could be Najee Harris doppelganger. They are similar in size, physique, and running style. Ballage scored a rushing touchdown by following his blockers and powering into the end zone. His performance more than likely catapulted him up a couple spots in the depth chart.
TE Kevin Rader threw a devastating block on the aforementioned Ballage touchdown run, and also had a nice catch and run on a QB roll out earlier in the drive. Rader played more than expected due to numerous minor injuries at the position, and he made the most of the opportunity.
Multiple defensive players had strong games. Guys like CB James Pierre, CB Mark Gilbert, safeties Tre Norwood and Miles Killebrew, and CB Shakur Brown on special teams; to name a few. But it was OLB Alex Highsmith and his fellow edge players who stole the show.
Alex Highsmith has taken a giant step forward going into his sophomore NFL season. He identified his weaknesses after last season and turned them into strengths through hard work and dedication in the off season. He somehow looks both stronger and leaner at the same time, as if through some Harry Potter wizardry or something, but his father assures me it was not magical, just work ethic and diet. He is more explosive off the snap and better prepared to set the edge against the run. He dominated the Cowboys second sting guys, generating consistent pressure on the QBs, eventually picking up a sack on a beautiful spin move.
With superstar T.J. Watt and established veteran Melvin Ingram sitting out, the duties to assist Highsmith in his efforts fell to Cassius Marsh, Quincy Roche, and Jamir Jones. All three played well and had their moments, upholding their end of the standard.
Marsh looked far more comfortable in the Steelers scheme after being a late season addition last year. He even picked up a sack on a continuous effort, hustle play. Rookie Roche needs to add functional strength to set the edge effectively, but he displayed his well deserved reputation as a pass rush specialist, also picking up a sack in the game. The biggest surprise on the edge depth chart would have to be Jones, who was strong and disruptive throughout the contest. The Steelers again have a good problem on their hands; too many talented edge players, but not enough positions on the depth chart. Situations like these have a tendency to work themselves out in the long run thankfully.
Stock trending down: Too early to tell
Taking into consideration that this was only the first preseason game for the Steelers, I feel it only fair to give the one or two lonely individuals who may have earned consideration for this dubious distinction another week of preparation and game action to turn things around. I guess I am too thrilled to have Steelers football back to focus on the early negatives.
Stock making a positive first impression: Offensive line aggressiveness
What a difference from last season. All new faces in new places along the offensive line, new OL Coach, and a new mission statement. The directive coming into training camp has been both clear and precise. Bring your aggressive mindset, coupled with continuous effort through the whistle, or don't bother showing up. Survival of the fittest, where only those willing to fight to be successful will see the field. One preseason game in, mission accomplished.
The first couple of running plays revealed the new approach being demanded by Adrian Klemm. After Najee Harris' initial surge and momentum had been stifled; the offensive line made up of career journeymen and a couple of rookie draft picks, continued to pump their feet and push the runner forward for extra yards. I could count on one hand how many times I saw that happen last season. That was both encouraging and refreshing to see.
Older linemen often lack the conditioning and energy level to do the same consistently. This Steelers offensive line is filled with youthful exuberance and journeymen hungry for NFL success. They consistently went to the ground to finish their blocks on Thursday night, something many veteran linemen loathe to do.
Kendrick Green looked powerful and explosive, although his technique needs to catch up to his enthusiasm. He is extremely talented, and already looks like a starter for the Steelers.
Dan Moore Jr. displayed a level of competency and athleticism that few outside the organization even knew he possessed. There is work to be done, but he never appeared to be overmatched going up against second string defenders. His daily battles going up against Alex Highsmith have been brutal at times, but apparently are paying dividends.
If nothing else, Rashaad Coward showed he is a powerful and tenacious run blocker. He is soaking up all the reps in Kevin Dotson's absence, accelerating his learning curve and familiarity with the system. The Steelers may very well reap the benefits.
Joe Haeg looked more like the reliable player he was during his time with the Indianapolis Colts than the underwhelming version witnessed last season in Tampa Bay. His versatile experience could prove extremely valuable if he has a return to form this season. Even B.J. Finney played like he always has for the Steelers in the past. Solid interior depth, who is far better at guard than center.
Outside of Green, who appears destined to be the starting center, the rest of Thursday's offensive line were competing for depth spots on the final roster. Every great journey starts with a single step. The Steelers revamped line took a step in the right direction.