By Jeremy Hritz
The third Steelers preseason game is complete, and the team has moved to a 3-0 record, downing the Detroit Lions 26 – 20. There were many standouts in this exhibition, and much confidence has emerged as a result of the performances of several Steelers. Here is a look at those Steelers who played well, who did not, and those who were missing in action.
*Note: Mason Rudolph would have made the Honor Roll had he not floundered in the red zone. He has to be able to finish the job, and this has been an ongoing issue for him.
Wow. Just wow. Could it have been any better? Ben completed 8/10 passes for 137 yards and 2 touchdowns, with a perfect passer rating of 158.3, and showed mobility and shiftiness, something that was absent in the 2020 season. Ben capitalized on two of his new targets with big plays to both Najee Harris and Pat Freiermuth, and he also found Diontae Johnson for 43 yards on third down. Disappointingly, on a 3rd down play on his first drive, Roethlisberger looked like the Big Ben of the old days, and scrambled away from pressure, only to have Eric Ebron drop a big pass for what would have been a clutch 3rd down conversion. The Elder Statesman showed he is ready to go. Look out NFL.
Look out, Ebron, Patty F is coming. Freiermuth showed his value in the red zone with 2 touchdown catches from Roethlisberger, both on third down. While I’m not trying to get ahead of myself, both plays showcased Freiermuth’s sure-handedness, and surely instilled confidence in Roethlisberger as to what the rookie tight end can provide when inside the 20. So much growth ahead for this young player, but how can you not be encouraged by his performance. Outstanding.
Najee is the real deal, no question about it. And following his 46-yard reception from Roethlisberger, he was pulled from the game, and indication that the Steelers coaching staff knows what they have in the young running back. He continued to show power, vision, and the ability to acquire yards when nothing seemed to be available. Harris finished the night with 4 carries for 10 yards and 2 receptions for 53 yards. Can’t wait to see him get a full game’s worth of carries.
Highsmith continued to get pressure on the quarterback, now showing that he can not only get after the QB in practice, but also the 3 Steelers preseason games. On one pressure, Highsmith forced the Lions into an intentional grounding penalty, on what should have been a sack. And just think, he hasn’t even been paired with TJ Watt yet. This guy is primed for a big year.
Whether it was Pressley Harvin punting, Mathew Sexton returning punts, Chris Boswell nailing field goal, or sure-tackling on kickoffs, the special teams were effective from top to bottom. While nothing was elite, the entire unit was consistent and steady, and this could pay big dividends during the season. Sure, they gave up an onsides kick in the 4th quarter, but when it mattered, the special teams were solid.
Ballage was excellent tonight, and while not exceptional, he showed he can be a nice reliever for Harris in the regular season. Ballage has shown an ability to get positive yardage on seemingly every carry and push the pile forward, in addition to catching the football out of the backfield. From my observation, Ballage was a more effective substitute than Anthony McFarland, and I don’t see any was now that he does not make the team. I am excited about his inclusion on the roster, and I believe he will provide a nice compliment to Harris. Good signing by the Steelers this offense, and a great fit with the team.
Dan Moore, Jr.
Moore jumped into the starting lineup in the first quarter, and performed well at right tackle. His athleticism and ability to anchor against the pass rush was on full display, and you have to wonder if he has a legitimate opportunity to start. Even if he doesn’t, Moore is a promising prospect who has a bright future with the team.
Allen was all over the field tonight, applying pressure, contributing .5 of a sack, and defending a pass. With his versatility, his performance tonight may have solidified his spot on the 53-man roster.
Sure, he finished the night with 4 catches for 59 yards, but a false start penalty, and an absolutely egregious drop on a third down after some Roethlisberger scrambling magic put him on the needs improvement list. It’s great he played well against the Lions’ depth, but the team expects and needs more from him in order for the offense to be highly effective. Don’t look now, Ebron, but a rookie from PSU is creeping on you.
Ray-Ray McCloud (as a punt returner)
Not decisive enough returning punts, and too apprehensive, calling for fair catches instead of trying to make a play on a punt return. Average at best, and the team may want to give Sexton an extended look (Yes, I know he had a big gain on a reception from Dwayne Haskins in the 4th quarter).
McFarland finished the night with 6 carries for 11 yards, with a 1.8 yard per carry average. He also had 2 catches for 21 yards, with a long of 12. McFarland, to me, looks hesitant to commit to a hole when getting a carry, and dances too much, sacrificing positive yardage by waiting for something more to develop. McFarland has to become more decisive to be a solid contributor to the team, and in terms of pecking order, Ballage may have jumped him on the depth chart.
Keeping Starters In Too Long
I understand knocking off the rust, but why risk your starters to injury. Prime examples Juju Smith-Schuster and Alex Highsmith playing into the 3rd quarter. Makes no sense in a preseason game. Hopefully, Smith-Schuster’s hand injury is nothing serious.
4th Quarter Defense
Sure, it’s not the starters, but giving up 3 touchdowns in the 4th quarter is abhorrent, and some of the inexperienced players getting reps onn defense may have hurt their prospects with the team based on their performance. Not a good look.
Not one carry tonight. Thought he was healthy?
Why was he pulled in favor of Moore? Was he injured? Did he not perform up to standard?
Another contribution with a .5 of a sack.
Great 43-yard reception from Ben.
Great 47-yard punt return.