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What to watch for in Hall of Fame Game: Cowboys-Steelers

Not since the summer of 2019 has an NFL preseason game taken place.

That hiatus concludes on Thursday night.

Two of the most storied franchises in NFL chronicle will kick off the NFL preseason, as the Dallas Cowboys face the Pittsburgh Steelers in the Hall of Fame Game at 8 p.m. ET from Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium in Canton, Ohio on FOX.

Though there's still much of training camp and the preseason to play out, this will signify the start of pivotal seasons for the Steelers and head coach Mike Tomlin and the Cowboys and head coach Mike McCarthy.

McCarthy's first season taking the Cowboys' reins was a forgettable one, as the loss of quarterback Dak Prescott and a porous defense were two keys to Dallas finishing 6-10. Thursday will mark the start of McCarthy's first full preseason with the 'Boys as he looks to begin the process of wrangling the franchise's first winning season and playoff berth since 2018.

Tomlin's Steelers produced the franchise's finest start of all time when Pittsburgh went 11-0, but it floundered down the stretch of a 12-4 campaign and was one and done in the postseason after a stunning loss to the rival Cleveland Browns. With Ben Roethlisberger back for perhaps his last season, the Steelers might well be at the starting point of a pivotal year in club history.

Here are five things to watch for on Thursday night:

Preseason football returns

The 2020 NFL preseason slate was canceled in full due to the COVID-19 pandemic. And preseason football officially returns on Thursday. Preseason or not, it's a moment of meaning as the NFL world and the world in general continue to trek forward in our ongoing journey back to normalcy. It's likewise the return of the Hall of Fame Game, which opens the Hall of Fame Weekend, one in which Cowboys and Steelers greats will be enshrined. A game that helps to spotlight the legends of yesteryear will have added historical significance in its 2021 rendition as it symbolizes the NFL's step-by-step approach back to what was before all of our lives were so drastically altered.

Big Ben and Dak are back

Ben Roethlisberger won't see any snaps on Thursday as he heads into his 18th season. And, as the everyone's favorite for AP NFL Comeback Player of the Year continues on his comeback trail, Dak Prescott is dealing with a shoulder strain that's also going to keep him from action. Nonetheless, Prescott and Roethlisberger will be focal points on Thursday as they've each provided prevailing storylines this offseason and will continue to do so. There's also interest behind them on the depth chart. Cooper Rush , Garrett Gilbert and Ben DiNucci are vying for QB2 behind Prescott. And in Pittsburgh, Mason Rudolph would seem to be the QB2 favorite, but can he flash enough to lend confidence that he could succeed Roethlisberger? And beyond that, the most enticing appearance could be that of Dwayne Haskins. The 2019 first-round selection of Washington has received a second chance with Tomlin and the Steelers after he was cut by the Football Team, and Thursday should provide a first look at what could lie ahead or what could not.

Top back taken takes off

For all the scrutiny and doubt that followed Roethlisberger into an uncertain offseason, it was the Steelers' rushing game that finished 2020 dead last in the NFL. Pittsburgh addressed that concern by plucking Alabama's Najee Harris with the 24th overall pick of the 2020 NFL Draft. Harris was the first back off the board and a selection that many saw coming long before his name was called. It seemed like a perfect fit. James Conner is gone and Le'Veon Bell's long gone. Is Harris a dual-threat back who can reinvigorate the Steelers' offense? A first glimpse of just how well Harris fits into Matt Canada's offense should be had on Thursday. Who knows, Harris might even have a couple run-ins with another ballyhooed rookie first-rounder …

Putting the D back in Big D

There are plenty of preseason tropes regarding how game-changing this rookie will be and how much of an impact that first-year player will have. It's become increasingly difficult to think the chatter surrounding the Cowboys' Micah Parsons is just hype though. "He needs to play opening day," McCarthy told NBC Sports' Peter King. "You have to trust what your eyes are telling you. And when I watch him, I see a fluid and explosive player. This game's not too big for him. Some guys run 4.3. Some guys play 4.3. He's the kind of guy who plays fast. He looks like he's done this at this level before." Dallas' defensive stumbles were a hot-button issue in 2020 and former Falcons head coach Dan Quinn is on the scene as the new DC looking to remedy those ills. But the Cowboys' selection of Penn State's Parsons at No. 12 could well provide a boost in a hurry. So far in camp, he's raised eyebrows. Perhaps that continues in Canton -- on Thursday, let's not get that far ahead of ourselves.

Top-flight wideouts poised for big years

CeeDee Lamb had a phenomenal rookie campaign to the tune of 74 catches for 935 yards and five touchdowns and yet many believe there's far more in store. Considering Prescott was sidelined for most of the season, that could be a safe prognostication. Lamb has become the king of Oxnard, California to start camp, and the hype locomotive is running full speed ahead this preseason. While Lamb found the end zone five times in his rookie year, Pittsburgh's Chase Claypool turned in nine TD catches along with 62 grabs and 873 yards. Claypool is predicting an even bigger sophomore campaign. The 2020 wide receiver class is off to a scintillating start and Claypool and Lamb are a large reason why. Could we catch a preview of what's to come this season on Thursday?

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