By Jeremy Hritz
The Hall of Fame Game is almost here.
Thursday night at 8:00 PM, Steelers fans will get their first opportunity to see their team take the field in competition against the Dallas Cowboys. While none of the starters are likely to play, that is an attractive element of this contest, as the Steelers will be able to get a quality look at their rookies and untested depth for 4 quarters in the preseason opener for the entire National Football League.
The youngsters and unproven vets for the Steelers understand the opportunity Thursday evening, as it is a chance to reinforce the positives they have put on display in training camp, or, to atone for any inconsistencies or poor practices in the first few weeks of preparation. As the Steelers prepare for the final day of practice before an off day prior to the game, here’s a look at the 10 Steelers who I am looking forward to seeing most in the HOF Game (Note: I am leaving Najee Harris off of this list because it goes without saying everyone wants to see him in action, but I am doubtful he will get many carries, if any, to avoid unnecessary injury). Limiting it to 10 is difficult due to the number of new faces on the 90 man rosters, but these are the players with the most upside and with the greatest opportunity this week.
Not a rookie, not inexperienced, Kalen Ballage has received somewhat positive reviews so far in camp, enough so that initial discussions amongst some Steelers writers have begin that possibly he could overtake Benny Snell, who at the time of my writing this, is injured. While not fast, Ballage has been powerful in camp, serving as a short-yardage back, and you’d have to think the Steelers will give him multiple carries on Thursday. I am interested in seeing how he functions in the new Steelers offense, and what type of unique running element he can bring to the team in contrast to the other running backs on the roster. If he is going to be the #3, Thursday’s game can provide a pretty good indication of his role on the offense.
The irony in this article is that I am writing about Calvin Bundage immediately after Ballage, because they have shown a penchant for taking their aggression out on each other in camp. Bundage is a versatile undrafted rookie free agent out of Oklahoma State who played safety in high school, and both inside and outside linebacker in college. He has been playing interior linebacker in camp, but has been moved all around the field. He has caught the attention of the coaching staff (and Ballage) for some monster hits, and I am looking to see if that manifests itself against the Cowboys. While probably a stretch for him to make the 53, if he can put up in the preseason contests, he could earn a spot on the practice squad.
The camp darling. The undrafted rookie wide receiver out of Hawaii, Rico Bussey, has been electric on the field, pulling in several deep passes, and even making a one-handed grab on Monday. Bussey has even caught the attention of the big media, and despite the attention, he has continued to produce in practice. Thursday will be his first opportunity to show what he can do in a game setting. As I wrote about over the weekend, if Bussey can continue to develop his game in camp and emerge as a legitimate option as the 5th wide receiver, he can offer value beyond the field in terms of personnel decisions.
An undrafted rookie free agent out of Duke, Mark Gilbert is a fast corner (maybe the fastest on the team) who is supremely talented but was hampered by injuries in college. He has made a little bit of noise in camp, but otherwise has been unnoticable, other than not playing the run well. There is opportunity at the cornerback position, and Thursday will be a chance for Gilbert to show the coaching staff what he can do in a game setting. If he is going to have a chance with the Steelers, he will need a solid showing in his work against the Cowboys.
3rd year tight end out of Michigan Zach Gentry has the chance to be the team’s 3rd tight end, and early reports in camp have been positive, especially in terms of his receiving abilities. Gerry Dulac of Pittsburgh Post-Gazette wrote that the next pass Gentry drops would be his first; however, he still has much growth ahead of him in terms of blocking, as recent as yesterday, he was manhandled by Melvin Ingram (not something to be ashamed of, though). Gentry not only needs to show up in the passing game Thursday night, but the running game as well as a blocker. If the Gentry experiment does not work out, the Steelers could be searching for a #3 TE via waiver wire or trade.
It’s hard to evaluate punters and kickers in training camp practices, and Pressley Harvin is a player who has a chance to become an immediate starter for the Steelers in 2021. Thursday night, he will have the opportunity to establish some consistency in his game, and show that he can string together multiple quality punts and distinguish himself from Jordan Berry. Maybe we will even see him pull off some trickeration?
This one is obvious. One of the most intriguing players on the roster, all eyes will be on Dwayne Haskins on Thursday night to show he can carry over his training camp performances to a live game. Should he play well and outshine Mason Rudolph, expect the discussion around his candidacy for the QB2 spot to intensify.
Buddy Johnson has been described as a thumper with an instinct to always be around the play, and he has impressed in his work in camp so far. As a buck linebacker, Johnson will more than likely be the next man up in the event of an injury to Robert Spillane this year, so snaps in the preseason contests will be valuable for his development starting this Thursday night. I am looking forward to seeing what his brand of football looks like, and if his physicality is as impressive as it has been purported to be.
Tre Norwood was a 7th round selection out of Oklahoma who demonstrated ball skills in college and has been battling at the safety position, in addition to some slot corner in camp for the Steelers. He has made some noise in practice, intercepting a few passes, and showing that the game is not too big for him. Again, like the others on this list, Thursday night is an opportunity for him to carry over his positive practices to a game environment. If the Steelers can even score depth with Norwood this year as a 7th round selection, this is a huge win for the team.
While we had the opportunity to see James Pierre play at the end of the season in 2020, he will be getting a bigger opportunity in 2021. No other player in the secondary in training camp has made a bigger impact up to this point than Pierre, and it seems the Steelers have big plans for him this season. It will be interesting to see how he is used on Thursday, and whether or not his big-play ability from camp comes through in the game.