For the first time since 2019, the NFL will hold a preseason game as the Dallas Cowboys and Pittsburgh Steelers take centerstage in Canton, Ohio. Two of the league's most decorated franchises will kick off the new season from Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium in the annual Hall of Fame Game at 7 p.m. CT. Each organization has a lot to prove this season after ending their 2020 campaigns on a disappointing note. Head coaches Mike McCarthy and Mike Tomlin have each made notable changes to their staffs and rosters entering the preseason and have an extra preseason game to make the new pieces fit together. Here are five of the most important storylines for each team heading into Thursday night's preseason opener.
- Veteran quarterback and two-time Super Bowl Champion Ben Roethlisberger will not participate in the Hall of Fame game, which is no surprise. However, along with getting a preview of where he will receive his gold jacket, Steelers fans may be seeing who would take over at quarterback if this is, in fact, Roethlisberger's final ride. He'll be entering his 18th NFL season at 39 years old, and Pittsburgh has three backups fighting to be the heir to the throne. Mason Rudolph will start Thursday's matchup and see most of the preseason snaps with the first team. But Mike Tomlin said both Josh Dobbs and the newly acquired, former Washington quarterback, Dwayne Haskins will see a significant number of snaps before the regular season as well. Reports out of Steelers camp say that Haskins has found a groove in learning the offense and could be in competition for the backup spot by the end of the preseason.
- One of the more explosive selections in the first round of April's NFL Draft, Najee Harris will see his first taste of NFL action Thursday night. "He's a rookie, he needs the process of game preparation, and then ultimately play," Tomlin said. "We've got four opportunities for him to do that, and we're going to make sure he participates in all four of those processes." Harris was selected with the 24th overall pick after winning a national championship in 2021 and finishing as Alabama's all-time leading rusher (3,843 yards), and touchdowns (57).
- There has been a complete overhaul of the Steelers offensive line this offseason. Longtime center Maurkice Pouncey retired from football and his potential replacement is third-round rookie Kendrick Green out of Illinois. Left guard Matt Feiler also left in the offseason leaving a couple inexperienced veterans to fill the void. With the shift in thinking on offense to protect a 39-year-old Roethlisberger and a rookie running back in Harris, the front five needs to find some sort of rhythm before the season gets underway.
- Arguably the biggest change for the Steelers this season centers around Mike Tomlin's coaching staff itself. With no postseason success in four seasons and three straight late-season meltdowns, Tomlin shook things up this past offseason. Pittsburgh ranked dead last in 2020 for rushing yards per game (84.4), so it was no surprise the changes came on the offensive side of the ball. Matt Canada was promoted to offensive coordinator and Adrian Klemm was placed in the offensive line coach role. Tomlin will co-handle the play calling duties on defense with coordinator Keith Butler much like he did down the stretch last season.
- Year in, year out, Pittsburgh has produced a quality pass rush and challenges for opposing offenses. Since 2014, the Steelers have recorded a total of 337 sacks, most in the NFL, and 33 more than the second-place team. 2021 looks to be no different as they return an extremely talented front seven and some young depth at those positions that will provide and early benchmark for Dallas' offensive line. It is yet to be known if returning NFL sack leader T.J. Watt will see the field Thursday, but he was not named by Tomlin as one of the few that will not see the field.
- The Cowboys make their return to Hall of Fame Game for the first time since 2017 when they faced the Arizona Cardinals. Thursday will mark the seventh time Dallas has participated in the event after their first appearance came in 1968. It's also the fourth time they've started the preseason in Canton since the 2010 campaign. In their previous six games, the Cowboys have put together an all-time record of 3-3 after losing their first three appearances and taking their most recent three, including a 20-18 win over the Cardinals in the forementioned 2017 game.
- With the offseason departure of Andy Dalton, who started nine games in 2020 due to the absence of Dak Prescott, there are multiple questions at backup quarterback. Through training camp, Mike McCarthy's staff has enjoyed extra looks at Garrett Gilbert, Cooper Rush, and Ben DiNucci as Prescott rehabs a shoulder injury. And all three will see playing time according to McCarthy with Gilbert leading the way as the starter. However, the practices in Oxnard have not given ease of mind for those around the position and it has left the door open for outside consideration if the preseason does not go well. So not only are the current trio competing against each other, but they also have a lot to prove against the rest of the league if they want to find a regular season roster spot.
- Dallas tied for the most selections made on NFL Draft Day this offseason with 11 total picks. Most of the early round selections have already made headlines through camp like Micah Parsons, Kelvin Joseph, and Osa Odighizuwa. But Thursday's matchup with Pittsburgh will give the coaching staff their best look at the crop of rookies yet, through competition and live action. There are several late-round picks and rookie free agents currently fighting for spots on the active roster that need big preseasons to prove their worth to the front office. Israel Mukuamu, Tyler Coyle, Matt Farniok, Osirus Mitchell, and Quinton Bohanna are all a part of that list that need to take advantage of the added reps of an extra preseason game.
- One of the most encouraging stories of this offseason is the return of the starters on the Cowboys offensive line. La'el Collins, Tyron Smith, and Zack Martin have all rehabbed their 2020 injuries and made a return to practices. Martin and Smith have been dealing with a couple of minor ailments in Oxnard and did not make the trip to Canton, but Collins is expected to see a bit of playing time. Additionally, there has been some position shifting as Connor Williams has added the backup center role along with his starting left guard responsibilities. McCarthy has not specified how long Williams will play at each position, but it would be surprising not to see him in both roles for a series or two.
- With a remade defensive front and the lack of run defense in 2020, new defensive coordinator Dan Quinn will get a pretty good idea of how that unit has improved this offseason. Pittsburgh will be trying to break in a new combination of their offensive line and establish the run with Najee Harris early. So the Cowboys run defense will be put to the test around guys like Randy Gregory, Carlos Watkins, Brent Urban, and the linebackers behind them.