By Christopher DiMarino
I guess Dr. Jekyll had a short lived appearance as Mr. Hyde reared his ugly head just one week later. After an inspirational and important win against the Baltimore Ravens without Ben Roethlisberger, the Steelers followed it up by losing to the San Diego Chargers. It’s hard to call it much more than an off week. The world is aware that the Steelers can compete with the NFL’s elite, but they showed they can also easily fall victim to the NFL’s D list. Credit the Chargers for playing great ball, and credit the Steelers for running on an empty tank after an tenuous past week preparing for the Ravens.
The Steelers offense was abysmal early as the running game failed to get going and the passing game was very apprehensive. Roethlisberger was returning from an injury that many thought would take longer to recover from. All in all, the offense showed promise and Ben quieted some concerns, but it took too long to get going. The run game would get ditched after an explosive 3rd quarter for the Chargers and Roethlisberger opened up the offense. The Steelers defense stopped the run well and San Diego kept the play calling pretty vanilla. Third down was the killer in this one as the Chargers converted 12 times. The Steelers just could not get to Philip Rivers in time and the lone sack on the day is evidence.
The Steelers were given a break when the Dallas Cowboys came from behind and defeated the Cincinnati Bengals. This is a make or break week for the Steelers. While the week 16 matchup against the Bengals will more than likely decide the division, Cincinnati does have another game against the Ravens remaining. The easy ending would be to defeat the Bengals next week, but even then, Cincinnati can steal the playoff spot if the Steelers drop this game and the finale to the Browns.
The Cowboys are still fighting for a playoff spot in the crowded NFC wildcard race. They have an important matchup against the Washington Redskins on the final week of the regular season that could determine if they make the playoffs. To have a decent chance of that game mattering, they will need to beat the Steelers this week and the New Orleans Saints next week. Dallas has been strong lately and this is a different look for a team that usually starts strong and fizzles at the finish. There is no home field advantage for the Cowboys who have lost equal games at home and on the road while holding a slight edge in road wins over wins at home. No matter the statistics, this game might not be do or die yet, but it is as close as you can get for these two playoff hungry teams.
The Steelers 11th ranked passing offense has most of its weapons back. Roethlisberger looks ready and the receivers are getting healthy. They will need to fire on all cylinders to get into the playoffs, let alone succeed if they make it. The Cowboys rank 8th against the pass but are a little banged up in the secondary. This secondary has not fared well lately against the likes of Andy Dalton, Nick Foles and Robert Griffin III. The Cowboys can get pressure and their 29 sacks are top 10 quantity. DeMarcus Ware has compiled 11 sacks while Anthony Spencer has 8.5 of his own. The Cowboys 6 interceptions is the league minimum and Brandon Carr is the only Cowboy with multiple interceptions (but he has taken one back for 6).
I think the Steelers will have their hands full against this pass rush with the offensive line still recovering from injury. The Steelers will try to sting the Cowboys deep because their safety play has been their weakness. The Cowboys aggressive coverage style will limit screen plays, but open up the door for big gains. I think Roethlisberger will show some rust, but there will be equal successes to accompany his failures in this one. While sacks should ruin drives, I think Roethlisberger will reinstate his strong play on 3rd down to prolong some drives and turn field goals into touchdowns.
The outmatched Steelers running games holds a rank of 25th in the NFL. It squares off against the 16th best run stopping defense. The Steelers have had an on and off switch this season that mysteriously triggers regardless of the opponent so it wouldn’t be crazy for me to guess that Jonathan Dwyer might have a big game. The odds are that he will struggle as his offensive line continues to get man handled, but his aggressive style of running could be lethal if he gets to the second level. Spencer leads the Cowboys in tackles with 76, but all of the other linebackers are above 50 a piece. Bruce Carter is one tackle for a loss short of double digits and he has been a very effective run stopper.
If the Cowboys are able to run up the score quickly, then I would not be surprised to see the running game get discarded again. But I think the odds are that the Steelers will keep this one close and push the running game even if it doesn’t experience success. The Steelers offensive line should get a boost with the debut of David DeCastro but let’s not forget that he doesn’t have any regular season experience yet. Jay Ratliff who is a huge part of the Cowboys defense is not going to play. Both of these personnel changes tip in the Steelers favor and it might be the difference in a very even matchup.
The Steelers maintain the 1st ranked pass defense and the Tony Romo lead Cowboys passing offense is ranked 8th. Romo is just shy of 4000 yards already and his 20 touchdowns are only marred by his 16 interceptions. The key to stopping Romo has been making him pay for his mistakes. If he puts it all together, he can be as lethal as Aaron Rodgers with his short area agility and down field accuracy. Someone in this injured secondary will need to step up and make him pay if he throws a poorly chosen pass.
Dez Bryant is banged up but vows to play. Miles Austin has had several nagging injuries but is starting to return to form. Tight end Jason Witten is only 8 receptions away from his 1st career 100+ reception season. Long story short, all of Dallas’ weapons should be at their disposal to take on the Steelers. Ike Taylor is out, Cortez Allen is doubtful and Keenan Lewis should play but has missed some practice. The Steelers will need to be strong against this offensive unit because they do a lot of things well. They have a strong screen game but extend it with power slants. Bryant and Austin are physical receivers that are not easy to bump and can bully the line of scrimmage. Both also have the range to stretch the defense and the Cowboys have a few other deep threats. And just when you think that’s enough, Witten tears apart the middle of the defense for multiple drive prolonging catches.
The easiest path would be to get into Romo’s head. If he gets flustered and hit, he can make mistakes. Keeping him on the move is not enough and Rivers proved that last week. The Steelers need to get bodies on the quarterback and get him to the turf. Let’s not forget that the Steelers are fantastic at covering and preventing yards with safe but tight coverage. While Taylor contributed a lot in that category, the Steelers still have the potential for it with this trio of young corners.
The rush defense has been superb of late and the Cowboys have struggled all season to run the ball. A major player in that trend was the absence of DeMarco Murray to injury and though he’s averaging well under 4 yards per carry since returning, he has a touchdown in each game. The Cowboys offensive line has been suspect all season and the Steelers front 7 need to dominate. Murray has a great combination of power and speed, but his speed has suffered a bit since his foot injury. The linebackers need to continue their great tackling and limit 2nd chances. The safeties have also contributed a lot to the run defense and it has been a strength of Troy Polamalu since returning from injury.
This is a very even matchup. The Cowboys parallel the Steelers in many ways. They have a powerful passing attack and their running game hasn’t excelled this season. They have a strong pass defense that struggles to generate takeaways. The concerning difference is that the Cowboys are getting more production out of their pass rushers and their running backs are more dynamic. The Steelers have the benefit of having better safeties and a quarterback that strives in close game opportunities. I don’t have any doubt that this game will come down to the wire. Romo has been great in these situations lately, but fans have long term memories. They remember the multiple close games in which Romo failed to close whether by turnover or inability to score.
This game has huge playoff implications for both teams that are fighting with a division rival for a wild card spot. The Steelers have a grudge match against the Bengals next week and the Cowboys will match up against the Redskins in the final week. This game won’t sink either team, but it will be heavily detrimental to their playoff hopes if they leave with a loss. The Steelers are in a slightly better position, but they need to make a statement by defeating the playoff caliber Cowboys. Every game is a playoff game from here on out for the Steelers and the only guarantee I can make is one more showing like they had against the Chargers will destroy this season.