By Jeremy Hritz
Incredible that game #2 of the Steelers preseason is now in the books, and what a fun, and revealing contest, it was. Despite the oppressive heat, some players elevated their games and continued to make their case for the 53-man roster. Disappointingly, others took a step back. Here is a look at those players whose performances earned themselves a spot on the Steel Study Honor Roll, and those who find themselves on the Needs Improvement list. As the Steelers move to 2-0 with their 24-16 win, below is an overview of who helped/hurt themselves against the Philadelphia Eagles.
Even though he didn’t record a sack, Alex Highsmith generated a great deal of pressure in a short period of time. His relentless pressure and sustenance of his rushing lane on his 2nd pressure of the game on Jalen Hurts was impressive, and I cannot wait to see him during the regular season opposite TJ Watt. Not only does his motor run hot, but he is showing this preseason his ability to be technically sound in rushing the passer.
Diontae Johnson caught 3 balls for 41 yards, including a long of 33 yards, and he looked confident, comfortable, and explosive. No sign of the dropsies, and I am optimistic about his prospects in the upcoming season.
The Running Game/Run Blocking
It seemed no matter who was carrying the football this evening, the running game was effective. The team finished the night with x carries for x yards and 2 touchdowns. Much of this is a credit to the run blocking of the offensive line, and hopefully, it is a sign of things to come.
Man, Najee Harris was the victim of some unnecessary holding penalties this evening on two beautiful runs, one for 13 yards and one for 8 yards. He seemed adamant on showcasing his leaping ability where it appeared unnecessary, though it was fun to see him sky over defender (though I admit, I was nervous of a potential injury). Harris also caught a pass for 9 yards, but most impressive was his ability to make something out of nothing, carrying multiple defenders while generating positive yardage. The regular season cannot get here soon enough to see what this young man can do in a full game.
While Pressley Harvin was a beast in the HOF game, Jordan Berry was solid and consistent against the Eagles. While not as splashy with his punts as Harvin, Berry was still highly effective in pinning the Eagles deep. Not sure it is enough to maintain his starting spot, but possibly, Berry could become trade-worthy for a team in need for a punter.
Rico Bussey was quiet against the Cowboys, but he made a solid appearance Thursday night, catching 4 balls for 45 yards. Whatever was thrown Bussey’s way, he caught it, even though he did not get an opportunity to make a tremendously-deep reception downfield. He would have caught a touchdown pass had he not been interfered with, and he showed good concentration and toughness in catching a pass in which he was hit helmet-to-helmet, drawing a personal foul on the defense. While it was not an explosive performance, it was steady, and it may open the door for him to the practice squad.
It wasn’t perfect, but it wasn’t average. It was good. Dwayne Haskins game was promising, completing 16/22 passes for 161 yards and a touchdown. Haskins converted multiple 3rd downs, including his touchdown pass to Anthony Johnson on a 3rd and 11. While his night did not begin well, with an overthrow in which he was scrambling on a third down, he recovered nicely to lead the offense to 2 touchdowns and a field goal. His biggest hiccup this contest was his confusion on a running play in which he went the wrong direction. This is unacceptable, and he must show a better mastery of the playbook.
Anthony McFarland had a nice night scoring a touchdown, and rushing for 34 yards on 9 carries. McFarland showcased his burst and was consistent, though it still looks like he has difficulty controlling his body when accelerating to full speed, as if he has not yet adapted to the professional game. I am encouraged to see he got the work that he did, because if he is to be featured in the Matt Canada offense, he needs all the reps he can get to adjust.
For the second week in a row, Jamir Jones finds himself on the Honor Roll, as he recorded another sack and a pressure. The young edge rusher out of Notre Dame, recorded 2 tackles, and continued to show he can get after the quarterback. If Jones can continue to make noise as such in the remaining preseason contests, the Steelers may have to find a space for him, as he has shone throughout practices during training camp.
Even though I don’t believe he will make the team, Jaylen Samuels had a good evening, with 10 rushes for 45 yards. While he is an experienced back who was running against youngsters, he was effective in his performance tonight. Though it may not mean anything in terms of his fate with the team, he deserves props for his output.
Anthony Johnson, the 2nd year player from the University at Buffalo, had a eventful showing, with 2 receptions for 38 yards, including a 22-yard touchdown reception from Haskins. While Johnson probably does not have a shot to make the team, but maybe an outside shot at the practice squad, he performed admirably tonight.
All of the running backs played well this evening, including Tony Brooks-James who carried the ball 9 times for 51 yards. He may have entered his name in consideration for an opportunity on the practice squad, showing vision and burst.
The Inside Linebackers were simply not good. At all. I mean, not whatsoever, and that includes Devin Bush. Time after time, the Eagles tight ends continued to maneuver their way open when covered by an ILB, and many times it resulted in a big gain. Bush, Robert Spillane, and Ulysses Gilbert, III were continually exploited, and it was reminiscent of the 2017 season following the injury to Ryan Shazier. While it is only preseason, the Steelers have to improve their coverage from the inside backers, and it seems they have taken a concrete step to do so by trading for Jacksonville Jaguars ILB, Joe Schobert, whose strength is coverage. I think tonight spells the end for Gilbert, III.
Cameron Sutton was out of position on many occasions tonight, in addition to missing multiple tackles. Sutton also allowed himself to get swallowed up by a block on a 79-yard touchdown to Eagles receiver Quez Watkins. While only one game, the Steelers hope this is not a sign of things to come, as Sutton was below average in tonight’s contest. While we have seen much better play from Sutton in previous seasons, and this is more than likely an anomaly, hopefully this is not the typical outcome with him now manning the starting role opposite Joe Haden.
Inconsistent. And with an opportunity in front of him to battle for the 3rd TE spot, Zach Gentry could not string together a complete game. While he did have a reception for 7 yards, he also had a big drop on a throw from Haskins, something that just cannot happen from a player on the 53-man roster. Kevin Rader on the other hand, made a big catch for 15-yards, and has taken another step to beat out Gentry for the 3rd spot in the tight end room.
Gave up a big reception to a tight end and also allowed himself to be engulfed by a block on the 79-yard touchdown reception by Watkins. Not what you would expect from a starter in the secondary, and to say his performance was disappointing would be an understatement to say the least. To his credit, he is coming back from offseason surgery, so hopefully, this is just a part of the recovery process.
I am a Joshua Dobbs fan, but his interception, especially in light of the performance of Haskins and Mason Rudolph, more than likely spells the end of his career in Pittsburgh.
I was expecting a bit more from Pat Freiermuth, but it is only his first contest. One catch for 6 yards.
Nothing in the receiving game, and a pedestrian punt return.
While he was held on a play in which he could have had a sack, the recently signed free agent was otherwise quiet.