Well, that was some semblance of professional football between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Dallas Cowboys Thursday night at Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium in Canton.
The Steelers somehow emerged victorious 16-3 over the rival Cowboys as rookie punter Pressley Harvin III stole the show, Dwayne Haskins looks passable in his Steelers’ debut, and rookie running back Najee Harris was as advertised in limited action.
It’s so hard to get a great read on things in the preseason through the first watch of a game, so bear with me here as I try and work through my first version of positional grades for the 2021 season.
QB — C+
Nothing spectacular, nothing egregious from the Steelers’ quarterbacks on the night.
Though Mason Rudolph continues to get unnecessary hate at this point, I thought he was the best of the bunch Thursday night. His throws were accurate, he stood tall in the pocket in the face of pressure and threw the football well, taking some shots down the field in the process.
His 45-yard strike to Chase Claypool was a great ball from the fourth-year quarterback, though he needs to clean up the ball handling.
As for Haskins, I thought he showed off his mobility and appeared comfortable in the system overall, knowing where he safety valves were in certain situations. He struggled with some touch at times — especially on the crossing route to James Washington — and was a hair late throwing to Zach Gentry on third down, resulting in an incompletion.
Joshua Dobbs came on in relief and does what he does every preseason: move the football down the field on scoring drives. His touchdown pass to wide receiver Tyler Simmons was outstanding, as far as standing in against a free rusher and throwing a dart on the timing out route for the score.
RB — B+
It was awesome to see Harris debut Thursday night in arguably the best jersey matchup in the NFL. Harris was as advertised, ripping off a nice 6-yard run on his first carry, dragging defenders with him. He was a tough guy to bring down on the night even though he didn’t have a ton of running room, finishing with 22 yards on seven carries.
He looks like the real deal though.
Behind Harris, Kalen Ballage stole the show in the backfield. He reminds me so much of former Packers running back James Starks with his combination of power and speed to go along with athleticism and awareness. Ballage ran hard Thursday night and bowled his way into the end zone from a yard out to give the Steelers the lead. He really solidified his job on the roster with his performance.
As for Jaylen Samuels, that clock is about to strike midnight for the North Carolina State product. He was dreadful Thursday and really struggled to create much of anything on his 12 total touches, racking up 25 yards.
Anthony McFarland looks rocked up in his pads and uniform, but the game still feels like it’s moving a bit too fast for him. He had a chance to bowl over defensive back on a check down from Haskins in the third quarter, and instead of lowering his shoulder to pick up the first down, McFarland danced and tried to run around him, resulting in him getting tackled short of the sticks. He’s thinking too much and it’s really hindering him.
WR — B-
Claypool stood out in a big way, thanks to his 45-yard catch down the left sideline in the first half. He gave everyone a scare though as he remained down after the catch with what could have been the wind knocked out of him, or some sort of shoulder ailment since he came down hard on his right shoulder.
Behind Claypool, Diontae Johnson flashed a couple of times in limited action, hauling in two passes for 19 yards, while Ray-Ray McCloud flashed out of the slot with some YAC ability.
I was pretty impressed with the route and the timing Simmons showed on his touchdown catch from Dobbs. He’s played well on special teams throughout camp, and finding the end zone as a receiver will only help his chances of sticking in Pittsburgh this season.
As for James Washington, the drop over the middle was a concern. Par for the course though with the Steelers’ wide receiver room as Claypool dropped an easy one too from Rudolph on third down, showing some alligator arms early in the game.
TE — C+
Kevin Rader had an awesome block on Ballage’s touchdown, burying his defender into the turf as Ballage ran right behind him. He’s in the driver’s seat as the No. 3 tight end for me. He also hauled in one pass for 15 yards, which puts him ahead of Gentry and Marcus Baugh (who dropped a pass) after the first preseason game.
It’s tough to get a read on the tight ends overall coming out of preseason games, unless they made plays in the passing game. With no All-22 to watch after preseason games too, it gets even harder.
OL — C+
This group really struggled to open lanes for Harris when he was on the field, but they did a decent job protecting the trio of quarterbacks as they allowed just one sack (Dobbs) and three quarterback hits on 28 drop backs.
I thought the group in the second half did a really good job getting downhill in short-yardage situations to move the chains though. That Adrian Klemm mentality was on display throughout the game, which is a huge positive.
It was hard to see how Kendrick Green did inside, but I thought fellow rookie Dan Moore Jr. flashed in space and threw a key block on Diontae Johnson’s tunnel screen in the first quarter.
DL — C
It wasn’t fun seeing the Cowboys ripping off chunk runs throughout the night and the defensive line struggling to get push in the run game overall, but this group got after the quarterback all night and created a ton of pressure.
I was pleased with what I saw throughout the game from rookie Isaiahh Loudermilk, who finished with three stops in the win, and I liked seeing Carlos Davis continue to flash his absurd athleticism for his body type.
Isaiah Buggs and Abdullah Anderson, two guys fighting for roster spots, had strong showings on the night with Buggs in the backfield quite often and Anderson recording a sack.
Much like the offensive line evaluation though, it’s so hard to tell in the preseason with no real, true replays or All-22 to lean on after the game.
LB — C+
This group had a decent night overall as Alex Highsmith started with a bang, recording a sack on a beautiful spin move to the inside to get Garrett Gilbert. His second season is going to be a massive one, which is great news for the Steelers.
Inside, I liked what I saw from a healthy Robert Spillane, and it was great to see rookie Buddy Johnson flashing at times. He feels like a guy that’s going to really come on strong late in the season.
Marcus Allen left me feeling like I was wanting more from a veteran guy who’s been in the system a long time and should be more comfortable at linebacker entering his second season at the spot. He was rather rough at times though, which was discouraging, as was Ulysees Gilbert III, who missed a huge open-field tackle to allow the Cowboys to convert.
It was great to see Cassius Marsh carry over his strong play in camp into the first preseason game. He clearly looks like the No. 4 OLB on this roster, which could spell doom for Quincy Roche, though Roche flashed in a big way on Thursday with a sack.
DB — B+
Yes, the Cowboys had some significant splash plays in the passing game with some guys running wide open through the secondary, but I was so impressed with the young guys in this rebuilt secondary. They made plays on the football all night long and forced turnovers, which will go a long, long way.
Justin Layne built upon his strong last few days in training camp by forcing a fumble downfield. He struggled on some crossing routes overall on the night, but has a forced fumble to put in his back pocket.
The star at cornerback was Mark Gilbert, who had an insane speed turn to break up a throw, and added another pass defensed in the second half. Shakur Brown flashed in coverage and on special teams too, which is key for him trying to win a job.
UDFA safety Donovan Stiner was seemingly everywhere on the night, picking off a pass as a true centerfield safety and really brought some thump downhill as a tackler. He had a great night.
Miles Killebrew may play like a linebacker but he’s still listed as a safety and was arguably the best defender on the night for the Steelers. He was consistently around the football and was a sound tackler. He’s clearly the box safety to back up Terrell Edmunds, and will be a key special teams player.
Special Teams — A-
If Sam Sloman wasn’t so atrocious kicking the football, this is probably an A+.
Well done, Danny Smith! I certainly can’t wait to hear Alex Kozora wax poetic about Smith on the next episode of The Terrible Podcast. Smith’s unit blocked a field goal, had a 34-yard punt return, and saw its rookie punter steal the show in a massive way, just like his leg.
Harvin III was nothing short of incredible Thursday, booming the football and downing three of his four punts inside the Cowboys’ 20-yard line, averaging a whopping 45.8 yards per punt on the night.
The Steelers’ special teams also had great kick coverage throughout the night, including a fumble recovery of a muffed punt by Anthony Johnson. Shoutout to Calvin Bundage too, who was always around the football on special teams. He continues to pop in camp.