Finally, we have actual football. When the Cowboys played the Steelers in the Hall of Fame game, preseason game #1 was in the books and these two teams could start to get some answers about the changes that both teams made this offseason. With the exception of these two teams other NFL franchises will get 3 dress rehearsals. NFL decision makers can finally use real game film to help determine their rosters. This was missing last year and it was somewhat scary for team builders. Rosters were constructed without any full speed football being played in 2020 due to the covid-19 outbreak. Here are a few notes from what I saw in the HOF game.
The #2 QB job in Pittsburgh is up for grabs. Mason Rudolph, the presumed winner in this battle, has a fight on his hands, IMO. Rudolph started the game and played the majority of the first half followed by exiled former Washington Football Teams first round pick Dewayne Haskins. I will skip the numbers review because the current narrative should be focused on two things. Rudolph’s ability to make decisions in a timely fashion and avoid the rush enough to make an off-platform delivery compared to Haskins inconsistency in all areas of play are how this battle will be determined. I saw Rudolph, who has plenty of arm and throws a deep ball with touch, still struggles to anticipate open receivers thus waiting for people to open before he throws medium range and longer. Haskins showed he can move better than people think, alter his release point with a variety of deliveries and, in general, not have to have his feet under him to make most NFL throws as opposed to Rudolph who is best when set and has his feet planted to get the ball from point A to point B. Haskins is still inconsistent with his fundamentals and technique, especially when throwing on the run. It’s going to be a good battle all of camp.
A couple of other quick notes on the Steelers. First round pick, RB Najee Harris showed vision and run skills as we all anticipated but what jumped out at me was his willingness in stepping up to strike a blitzing LB in pass protection. This is not a given with young running backs- see Giants back Saquon Barkley. Harris is big and strong enough to be very effective at creating impact that stops blitzes in their tracks. This should assure Steeler fans that their investment in Harris will be even more valued as a 3-down back.
No group has been talked about more than the Steeler offensive line this past offseason. Depth is the most referred to issue. I thought a couple down the line guys jumped out in what is sure to be the most scrutinized group of the preseason. Guard Rashaad Coward, a third-year player waived by the Chicago Bears showed power and strength to get movement up front that is often identified with the Steeler way. He knocked back defenders on double teams enough to grab my attention as a possible backup to watch throughout preseason. The other surprise for me was tackle, Chaz Green. Green is on team number seven in his short career. Maybe 7 is a charm, because he looked like a veteran who was confident and showed lateral range vs outside rushers, balance to recover when off balance and he was effective in the run game with hand placement and keeping his feet active. It’s early and this was the equivalent of a first mid-term exam so let's follow how next week goes. This group had a passing grade overall in this exposure, IMO.
The Cowboys may have taken a step to fix their defense but it’s not all about a new defensive coordinator in Dan Quinn. Sure, the scheme helps but my first review of their secondary came up aces when watching 2nd round pick, corner Kelvin Joseph. He showed excellent feet, very good transitions in his turns and a sudden ability to close on the targeted receiver. Not to mention flat out play speed (which is different from timed speed) to run with people all over the field. Needless to say, I was impressed with his skill set. This is the kind of athletic ability that combined with instincts and good reactions can give this defense a big lift.
It’s only one game, but we also got an idea of how the Cowboys plan to deploy first round pick LB Micah Parsons. Parsons was aligned both on the line of scrimmage and off the ball behind the line in college. Sure, he will need to improve on his reaction time, at the point of attack (seeing thru blocks and not getting hooked in the run game), but he will be running and closing from sideline to sideline, much like he did in college. That type of athletic ability is hard to find. He mainly lined up on the edges of their 3-4 alignment for the Cowboys. I like this because it gives him less to think about (blockers not coming from both sides as an inside backer does) and less schemes to read and diagnose. His role was one dilemma I had when looking at his college film. Used on the edge, you might see the makings of another LB similar to former Charger Shawn Merriman from a size and skill set standpoint.