2021 Hall of Fame Game: The good, the not so good and the ugly during Steelers’ 16-3 win over Cowboys

CANTON, Ohio — Many questions hovered over the 2021 Steelers as they took the field for Thursday night’s Hall of Fame game against the Dallas Cowboys. While winning is always a priority, Pittsburgh’s 16-3 win was of minimal significance. The Steelers came into the night looking to answer some of those pressing questions. 

The Steelers managed to find some answers in front of thousands of their fans inside Tom Benson Stadium as well as a national TV audience. Those watching saw several positive debuts from players the Steelers acquired the summer. They also saw the emergence of a particular defender who is looking to hold off a three-time Pro Bowler. To the chagrin of their fans, the Steelers also showed some of the flaws that plagued them during the final six games of 2020. 

With their first preseason game in the books, let’s take a look at what was the good, the bad and the ugly regarding the Steelers’ performance in the 2021 Hall of Fame Game. 

The good

Najee Harris: The first-round pick was solid in his preseason debut. He ran seven times for 22 yards that included a 6-yard run on his first carry. His 3-yard catch on the ensuing play gave Pittsburgh its first first down. Harris, running primarily through the interior of the Steelers offensive line, had consecutive runs of 5 and 6 yards on Pittsburgh’s second possession. Harris’ one negative run was a reminder of some of the growing pains the young running back will experience while playing behind a young offensive line. 

The offensive line: This unit faced the most question marks entering this game. It was just one game, but the group showed considerable promise against the Cowboys. Playing with four new starters that included rookie Kendrick Green at center and fellow rookie Dan Moore Jr. seeing time at left tackle, Pittsburgh’s offensive line didn’t allow a sack of starting quarterback Mason Rudolph. For the most part, the unit cleared clean running lanes for Harris, Anthony McFarland and Kalen Ballage, whose 4-yard touchdown run gave the Steelers a 6-3 lead just over four minutes into the second half. 

Alex Highsmith: Bud Dupree’s departure has opened the door for Highsmith, who picked up where he left off last season. His first-quarter sack of Garrett Gilbert forced the Cowboys to settle for a field goal. He and teammate Isaiah Buggs combined to stuff Rico Dowdle for a 2-yard loss on the Cowboys’ next offensive possession. Also recording sacks Thursday night was defensive end Cassius Marsh and rookie Quincy Roche. The collective play of this group should have answered any questions about Pittsburgh’s outside pass rush. 

Dwayne Haskins: He didn’t make a significant statement in his quest to supplant Mason Rudolph as the No. 2 quarterback, but Haskins didn’t hurt his case, either. The former first-round pick was an efficient 8 of 13 for 54 yards while leading the Steelers on their first two scoring drives. Haskins also took care of the ball, a significant milestone after he threw more interceptions than touchdowns during his two years in Washington. 

Speaking of quarterbacks, Josh Dobbs, who came into the game at the start of the fourth quarter, threw an impressive 5-yard touchdown strike to Tyler Simmons. Dobbs has the most at stake this preseason, as the Steelers will have to shelf one of their quarterbacks on the practice squad when the regular season begins. 

Diontae Johnson: In limited work, the Steelers’ leading receiver last season caught both of his targets for 19 yards. While he is part of one of the NFL’s deepest receiving corps, Johnson showed why he is primed to have his first 1,000-yard season in 2021.  

Pressley Harvin III: Pittsburgh’s seventh-round pick certainly made his case to win his position battle against Jordan Berry. He had a 48-yard punt downed on the Cowboys’ 1-yard-line near the end of the first half. The reigning Ray Guy Award recipient followed that up with a 51-yard punt three minutes into the fourth quarter. 

The not so good

“Popcorn”: It may be a popular movie theatre snack, but popcorn has a negative connotation in Pittsburgh’s locker room. Mike Tomlin refers to popcorn as big plays allowed by his defense. And while they didn’t allow many points, the Steelers defense gave up their share of popcorn on Thursday night. Among the big plays allowed was a 25-yard run, a 36-yard completion and two other completions of more than 20 yards. The Cowboys specifically took advantage of linebacker Robert Spillane on a key third-down completion (a 12-yard completion to Dowdle) that set up the game’s first score. The Steelers will certainly look to fill those leaks prior to their next preseason game against the Eagles

Pass defense: There were shades of the 2015 Steelers defense, a bend-but-not-break unit that tried to mask its lapses in pass coverage with pass rush and turnovers. Like the offensive line, the Steelers secondary has question marks after losing Mike Hilton and Steven Nelson this offseason. Playing without Joe Haden, the unit allowed Gilbert and Cooper Rush to complete 17 of their 26 attempts for 174 yards. They also yielded 13 first-half first downs while allowing the Cowboys to convert on more than half of their first-half third-down conversions. 

Pittsburgh’s secondary bent but ultimately did not break. It also came up with the Steelers’ first two turnovers: a fumble recovery by Antoine Brooks (that was forced by Justin Layne) and a pick by Donovan Stiner. Shakur Brown, an undrafted rookie who is in the mix to replace Hilton at nickleback, had a notable night as a special teams gunner. 

The ugly 

Rudolph’s blunder: Rudolph’s lost fumble on Pittsburgh’s first possession muddied an otherwise solid performance from the fourth-year veteran. The fumble, which occurred as Rudolph was trying to hand the ball to Chase Claypool, abruptly ended a promising opening drive. His best play was his 45-yard completion to Claypool two possessions later. Rudolph eschewed an easy underneath throw to James Washington for his deep completion to Claypool, who got hit hard after dropping a pass earlier in the half. 

More drops: Drops were one of the biggest reasons why the Steelers’ 2020 season went south after an 11-0 start. That issue reared its ugly head on a few occasions on Thursday night. Claypool’s drop ended the Steelers’ second drive of the night. Washington also dropped a pass on the Steelers’ final drive of the first half. It was just a preseason game, but the sight of more drops was surely unnerving for Pittsburgh fans. 

Kicking woes: It was a rough night for kicker Sam Sloman, who missed a 49-yard attempt in the first half and a point-after in the third quarter. He rebounded with a 48-yard field goal that extended Pittsburgh’s lead to 9-3 with less than five minutes left in the third quarter.