The NFL is back. The Pittsburgh Steelers and Dallas Cowboys will kick off the league’s exhibition slate on Thursday at 8 p.m. ET when they face off in the Hall of Fame Game in Canton, Ohio.
Both teams have legitimate playoff aspirations when the regular season commences, but the stars on each side are expected to be absent from this affair. Every coach has to weigh the risk-reward of play-time vs. possible injury in the preseason, and it’s just not worth it in this one.
The teams are playing an extra exhibition contest because of their involvement in the Hall of Fame Game, and will take it cautiously. The playing time for the starters is expected to ramp up in subsequent weeks.
Even though the matchup will lack star power, it’s nice having preseason football again after it was canceled in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The youngsters on each side will get their chance to shine, and plenty of players have turned standout exhibition moments into regular season roles in past years.
The Steelers are listed as 1-point favorites to win this game, and are -130 on the moneyline, per DraftKings on August 4. The Cowboys are +110 on the moneyline, and the scoring total is listed at 33.
We’ve finally made it: there is now a pro or college football game every week all the way through the Super Bowl.
You love to see it 🏈🏈
— Field Yates (@FieldYates) August 2, 2021
The over/under may look low, but the Hall of Fame Game has lacked scoring over the past decade. The Broncos beat the Falcons, 14-10, in the 2019 affair, and the total has only surpassed 33 points twice since 2010.
Here is a look at each team heading into the first preseason game of the year.
The Steelers will not play starting quarterback Ben Roethlisberger in the Hall of Fame Game, coach Mike Tomlin told the Pittsburgh media on Tuesday. The 39-year-old has much to prove this season after struggling down the stretch in 2020, but his first foray into live action will be delayed a bit longer.
Health is a big thing for Roethlisberger, and the Steelers certainly don’t want to jeopardize that so early in the preseason. He will likely play sparingly before the regular season.
The starting reins for the Hall of Fame Game will be handed over to backup Mason Rudolph. He is a decent second-string quarterback, with a career passer rating of 82.7 in 15 games. Rudolph has been on the team since 2018 and has built up some rapport with the offensive players, which should help Pittsburgh.
Coach Tomlin has named Mason Rudolph the starting quarterback for the Hall of Fame Game against Dallas. pic.twitter.com/1T7gU37aOU
— Pittsburgh Steelers (@steelers) August 3, 2021
Backup quarterbacks Dwayne Haskins and Josh Dobbs will also get playing time. Haskins was a 2019 first-round pick of the Washington Football Team, and is trying to reignite his career after a tumultuous stint with Washington. He has more upside than a typical third-string quarterback.
The quality of the Pittsburgh quarterbacks is the main reason the Steelers have been instituted as slight favorites. If Rudolph or Haskins can lead Pittsburgh to an early touchdown, it would be a massive step toward covering the spread.
The Steelers are not expected to use cornerback Joe Haden, defensive tackle Cameron Heyward nor a host of other veterans in this one. However, first-round pick Najee Harris will likely get some extended run. The powerful running back out of the University of Alabama could have a big game against a bunch of Cowboys backups.
“It’s not the real thing, but it’s a good way to get your feet wet and let the game slow down for me,” Harris told Pittsburgh reporters. “I’m trying to play as much as I can that game. I want to take as many game reps as possible — good, bad, whatever, and do what I can to learn (from) the mistakes.”
Star quarterback Dak Prescott likely would have sat anyway, but he will miss the game with a shoulder strain. It should be healed in time for the regular season, but is certainly something to monitor after a broken ankle limited him to only five games in 2020.
The Cowboys need to iron out their backup quarterback situation. Veteran Andy Dalton took over for Prescott last season but has moved on to the Chicago Bears, so this is a big game for the three candidates.
Garrett Gilbert is the leader in the clubhouse to secure the second-string spot. He showed potential in one start a season ago, completing 21-of-38 passes for 243 yards with a touchdown and an interception in a 19-14 loss to the Steelers. Gilbert has been getting the first-team snaps with Prescott on the shelf, and can further cement his status with a good showing.
Cowboys QB Dak Prescott has “taken a step back” in his return from shoulder strain, coach Mike McCarthy said. “We’re being more conservative with his timetable.” Prescott won’t throw today. Won’t play in Hall of Fame Game. Team trying to avoid it becoming “something bigger.”
— Michael Gehlken (@GehlkenNFL) August 3, 2021
Ben DiNucci was a seventh-round pick of the Cowboys in last year’s draft. He struggled in his lone 2020 regular season start, which wasn’t a surprise considering his inexperience. DiNucci will need to play well to bring some more tension to the competition.
DiNucci is more likely battling Cooper Rush for the No. 3 quarterback role. Rush has been with the Cowboys since 2017 but has only completed one NFL pass. If the Dallas quarterbacks underwhelm the next few weeks, the front office may look to bring in a more experienced quarterback behind Prescott.
The Cowboys have one of the most lethal offenses in the NFL when everybody is playing, but it would be a surprise if running back Ezekiel Elliott, wide receiver Amari Cooper, wide receiver CeeDee Lamb or the talented offensive line takes the field.
The Hall of Fame Game is a time for backups, and it’s fair to expect another low-scoring affair as the coaching staffs worry more about teaching points than emerging victorious.