The Steelers’ victory over the Cowboys in Canton on Thursday night does not matter much. However, the minutiae of their play certainly do. With the Steelers essentially going full-on second-stringers from the start, aside from a few exceptions, it was a day to evaluate the promising potential contributors and those who may be vying for future starting roles on the team.
Who stuck out in a good way for the Black and Gold as they honored the five Steelers heading into the Hall of Fame?
Winner: Alex Highsmith
The biggest winner of the game on defense was easily Alex Highsmith. Facing a solid, legitimate swing tackle in Ty Nsekhe, Highsmith was unblockable. In the game alone he had four pressures and a gorgeous sack on a spin move to halt a promising Dallas drive in the redzone. Really, when guys put it all together and can beat tackles with speed, finesse, power, or strategy, they have officially arrived.
The only thing left for Highsmith to prove is that he can do this against higher competition. He has done it all of training camp, against rookie tackle Dan Moore Jr., and is now in the first preseason game, too. To look like one of those starters against a guy who could probably spot start whenever needed like Nsekhe can is a head-turner. He continues to prove this may be his breakout season.
Loser: Justin Layne
Yes, he forced a fumble. That was a great play by Justin Layne where he played with a high motor and did the textbook thing to punch a vulnerable out. However, keeping it honest, Layne was beaten too many times on Thursday. His inability to fluidly flip his hips in either direction in man coverage is a serious deterrent to his physical and playmaking upside.
Even on the fumble play itself, Layne was cooked to the inside. That occurred multiple times on Thursday. For him to have another step down after two solid camp practices is pretty discouraging. Layne will make this team because he’s an exceptional gunner, but he’s far behind as a true cornerback.
Winner: James Pierre
It was a rough open to the night for James Pierre, after he let up a first down thanks to playing with just a little bit too much cushion and then got burnt on a post route shortly thereafter. However, while the Cowboys tried to target Pierre all night, he seemingly rose to the occasion.
Pierre had an impressive pair of pass breakups shortly after that to get back on the good side of the graces. For the rest of the night, every time the Cowboys tested Pierre, he passed it with flying colors. He seems to not be too over his head and the game is rather slow for him. Pierre looks like he belongs. That’s his biggest victory from last night.
Loser: Sam Sloman
It was never much of a kicking competition, with how steady Chris Boswell has been for the Steelers over the years, but Sloman at least had a platform to try out for a job elsewhere in the league. But Sloman really fell flat on his face. Some of the kicks were not just missed, but they were not even close. They were closer to the pylon than they were to the uprights.
Sloman will keep Boswell’s leg fresh for when it is his time to go in the regular season. However, the open audition that Sloman put on for the rest of the league was a poor one.
Winner: Pressley Harvin III
The biggest winner of last night may have been Pressley Harvin III. No one quite looked as sharp as he did in all phases of his position. Harvin boomed one and it was placed down literally at the one. The powerful leg that he was known to have shown up all night. The punts not only had the distance but consistent hang time, too.
The only question through the first parts of camp was Harvin’s consistency. He could not have been more consistent on Thursday night. Jordan Berry has a serious upward climb if he wants to make this a legitimate competition because Harvin looks especially impressive.
Losers: Starting Inside Linebackers
Robert Spillane and Ulysees GIlbert III drew the starting nods last night and both struggled in coverage. While Spillane was playing as the Mack linebacker and Gilbert as the Buck linebacker, both players had their miscues in man coverage against tight ends and running backs.
Spillane was burned by Rico Dowdle on one reception. His inability to work in man coverage has to be a key cog in the Steelers’ defensive gameplan come the regular season. Devin Bush can mask him, but they have to hide Spillane and not allow him to be exploited in coverage. As far as Gilbert, his issues were not as much sticking with the receivers. His missed tackle allowed an easy first down, and that is just an infuriating thing to see as a coach. It is not something to get crazy panicked over, but the struggles are noted when Marcus Allen and Buddy Johnson both played well.
Winner: Dan Moore Jr.
It’s easy to be critical of guys in practice when they are struggling, but the other side has to be acknowledged as well. Moore has struggled a bit in training camp up to this point. Highsmith and Melvin Ingram have given the young tackle out of Texas A&M a lot to be worried about in practices. However, he played his tail off against the Cowboys.
Moore seemingly held up quite well. Both through his pass blocking and even opening up some holes in the running and screen game. The play where he got out in front of Diontae Johnson to open a much clearer lane showed off his athleticism. Dallas threw a lot of different fronts and twists at him, too. Moore picked up those blitzes and did well for himself. Overall, it was easy to say it was a quality day for the rookie.