Canton, OH—There is a since of normalcy around the National Football League. The Pittsburgh Steelers and Dallas Cowboys started off the 2021 preseason in which most of the starters were in street clothes, the Black and Gold played with a lot of intensity beating the Cowboys 16-3 in the Pro Football Hall of Fame Game Thursday night in the first NFL preseason game in two years.
Last season’s exhibition games were canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The enthusiastic crowd was an indication that even for a match between teams using few regulars, the hunger for pro football has not dissipated.
“Just being in a stadium full of fans, the energy they provided,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. “We were without that for the good part of a year.”
Matthew Sexton’s 36-yard punt return early in the third quarter got the Steelers going, and the Cowboys never put much of a fight after that.
All three Steelers’ quarterbacks got some reps in, Mason Rudolph, Dwayne Haskins, and Joshua Dobbs played well. None of them really stood out but all three played with confidence and had a solid understanding of the new offense installation. This will be a good competition to watch all camp long.
Rookie running back Najee Harris started and played three offensive series, finishing with 22 rushing yards on seven carries. Overall the running backs were average looking, largely because they played behind all reserve offensive linemen.
The player of the night was Pittsburgh’s punter Pressley Harvin III. The rookie punter is looking to beat out veteran Jordan Berry for the starting job and after four booming punts, it looks like he may accomplish that feat.
The Steelers blocked a field goal attempt by Hunter Niswander, and placekicker Sam Sloman missed from 49 yards, as well a missing an extra point. Niswander also missed from 52 yards and the opening half finished 3-0 thanks to Niswander’s 29-yarder.
Sexton’s runback led to a 4-yard scoring run running back Kalen Ballage, now starting out the preseason with his fourth team in as many years. Sloman kicked a 48-yard field goal after a 26-yard interception return by Donovan Stiner.
Dallas left 16 key players at its training base in California, yet in the opening half still looked more polished than the Steelers. After halftime it was a total different story.
“This is more about building with what we accomplished,” Cowboys coach Mike McCarthy said. “There’s definitely a lot of work to do. We need to play better complementary football.
“The (defensive) operation for the first time out, I felt good about it. We’ve got a lot more to offer.”
With Steelers RB Najee Harris and Dallas LB Micah Parsons showing glimpses of what they can do this early, it should be real exciting to see who can keep it up for the whole season.
Pittsburgh briefly used such regulars as receivers Chase Claypool and Diontae Johnson, linebacker Highsmith and cornerback Cameron Sutton. Linebacker Parsons, the Cowboys’ first-round draft pick, saw limited time on the field, as did right tackle La’el Collins.
“It felt great,” said Collins, who missed last season with a hip injury. “It’s been over a year and it’s been a long process to get here. It felt good to be out there on that field with my team today.”
Dallas plays at Arizona next Friday night.
Pittsburgh takes on the Eagles at Philadelphia next Thursday night.