By Jeremy Hritz
The Steelers wrapped up their first preseason contest of the season, defeating the Dallas Cowboys, 16-3, and several players took positive steps towards making the 53-man roster, while others went the opposite direction. This is the first-ever Steelers Honor Roll/Needs Improvement evaluation based on the Hall of Fame Game against the Dallas Cowboys. Those on the Honor Roll list made their case for sticking on the 53-man roster, while those on the Needs Improvement list are in need of bettering their performances in order to have a chance to stick with the team.
Alex Highsmith looked strong, but I’ll stop short of unstoppable. Highsmith had multiple pressures, in addition to a sack for a 4-yard loss, and he showcased his effective spin move. In terms of what should be expected from a second year player, Highsmith transcended those expectations. Highsmith looked powerful, finishing the night with 2 tackles, 1 assist, with his 2 tackles being for losses, in addition to his sack. Should his development continue, and it should be noted he is way ahead of where Bud Dupree was in his second season, the defense will be in good shape in 2021.
Write it down. Jordan Berry‘s tenure with the Steelers is over. Pressley Harvin started the game and also served as the primary holder on field goals. Harvin nailed a beauty in the second quarter that was downed at the one yard line. Harvin has elite talent, and he showcased that tonight, and if it continues, a new era will begin on special teams, on that may have Pro Bowl and All Pro potential.
Don’t know why he got as many snaps as he did, but Chase Claypool was excellent this evening, catching 3 balls for 62 yards, including a 45-yarder from Mason Rudolph that resulted in some discomfort for Claypool that had the Steelers’ collective holding their breath. On the long reception from Rudolph, Claypool showed focus, body control, and calm in chaos as he pulled the ball in for the reception. If he can consistently make receptions like that during the season, the Steelers passing game will elevate in 2021.
Najee Harris had 7 carries for 22 yards behind a piecemeal offensive line, and while those numbers may not look notable, Harris looked strong and showed the contact balance he has been touted for throughout camp. In many instances this evening when it appeared there were no running lanes, Harris turned nothing into something. More importantly, Harris finished the game healthy, and lives to fight another day to be a part of starting offense come the season opener against the Buffalo Bills.
Kalen Ballage scored a touchdown and finished the night with 5 carries for 19 yards. While not tremendously elusive, Ballage was physical and decisive, and he has moved ahead of Benny Snell on the depth chart. Bennie better get healthy in a hurry, or his time with the Steelers will be short lived.
Antoine Brooks had a fumble recovery showing ball awareness, and ending a drive for the Cowboys. It was a nice play for the 2nd-year player, and a solid statement for him in terms of being involved in some way with the defense in 2021.
In his first action as a rookie, Roche had a sack for a 4-yard loss. Nice debut for the 1st year player out of Miami/Temple, and provides optimism about the depth at OLB. Roche will be a player to monitor as the preseason progresses.
The undrafted rookie out of Florida, Donovan Stiner, had an interception in the 3rd quarter, showcasing his nose for the football. Mike Tomlin loves his splash plays, and if Stiner can continue to produce as such, Stiner may have a chance to sneak onto either the 53, or the practice squad.
Mark Gilbert showed good ball awareness and closing speed on a two nice pass breakups in the 4th quarter. While he didn’t get many snaps, this was a nice play that certainly earned the attention of the coaching staff.
While Mason Rudolph’s stat line is decent, 6/9 for 84 yards, he still showed hesitancy pushing the ball down the field, outside of the 45-yard bomb to Claypool. He showed poor awareness on his fumble that turned the ball over to the Cowboys, and his throw on 3rd down that was behind James Washington, did not give confidence that Rudolph is the guy to take over for Ben Roethlisberger, let alone serve as the #2 QB.
Justin Layne simply was ineffective Thursday night, and his days in Pittsburgh seemed to be numbered. He gave up completions on several occasions, including a 4th and long, which is simply inexcusable. Additionally, he was called for pass interference, compounding his negative output for the game. While he was an early draft pick, this experiment is close to being over, and short of a miraculous turn of events, Layne will not make the 53-man roster.
No push whatsoever, and while there are many injuries that are holding this unit back, not a lot of confidence in this group until some cohesion and consistency is established. The team needs their lineman to get healthy, but additionally, there is a need to make a move for greater quality depth. The team has the necessary cap space to make a move, and they should be seriously considering all options.
In general, the rushing and passing defense for the Steelers overall was just not good. While there were some players who made some nice individual plays, collectively, it was a poor showing. Missed tackles, loose coverage, the Steelers have a lot of work to do when it comes to their defensive depth.
Mathew Sexton had a decent punt return and showed sure hands. While not a big sample size, his output was encouraging.
Jamir Jones had a TFL and a pressure that almost resulted in a sack, bolstering his strong performances in training camp.