The Pittsburgh Steelers game Sunday against the Dallas Cowboys is an opportunity to get both the offense and defense on track prior to their big game next week against the Cincinatti Bengals that figures to decide which team goes to the playoffs and which team stays home. Should the Baltimore Ravens lose early in the day to the Denver Broncos the AFC North crown will remain up for grabs only if the Steelers can beat Dallas on the road. The performance last week against the San Diego Chargers must be forgotten quickly as it was not a true reflection of the way this team can play. Below are 7 things to watch for specifically in this game along with my prediction at the end of it. In case you missed it, here is the Wednesday podcast preview of the game that features a great interview with Cowboys beat writer Calvin Watkins from the ESPNDallas.com.
Golden Opportunities - With cornerbacks Ike Taylor and Cortez Allen out for this game the Steelers will have not only big shoes to feel at the outside cornerback position opposite Keenan Lewis, but the nickel spot as well. Youngsters Curtis Brown and Josh Victorian both figure to get playing time outside and the early speculation is that rookie undrafted safety Robert Golden could very well be the nickel back in the Steelers sub package if Brown doesn\'t get the nod there instead. Regardless of who plays where, the secondary must do a better job at defending the sticks on third downs after failing to do so last week against the Chargers. Lewis more than likely will follow around the dangerous Dez Bryant in this game, however, he will be handicapped in this game by a fractured left index finger that he suffered last week. Lewis need to be as physical as he can with Cowboys best receiver. Miles Austin most likely will play in the slot when the Cowboys go three-wide, so Brown or Golden must be up to the test in defending against him. There will be plenty of opportunities for the young guys to make plays in this game and the Steelers will lose if they don\'t.
Give Me Three Steps - The Steelers will field a new offensive line combination on Sunday as rookie guard David DeCastro will see his first regular season action by starting at right guard which means Ramon Foster will now flip over to left guard to take over for Willie Colon, who has likely been lost for the rest of the season with a knee injury. Last week against the San Diego Chargers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was under heavy pressure for most of the game which resulted in him having to scramble five times. Against the Cowboys it would be wise for the Steelers offense to utilize more three step drops and quick passes by Roethlisberger until they get a feel for how the newly constructed offensive line will hold up.
All The Right Stuff - The Cowboys defense has been dreadful against runs to right guard and right tackle this season as they are ranked 29th (6.08 ypc) and 30th (5.00 ypc) respectively in defending runs that direction. I probably don\'t need to tell you that the Steelers are a right handed running team. Center Maurkice Pouncey shouldn\'t have any problems with the Cowboys third string nose tackle Sean Lissemore which should allow DeCastro to get off the ball and to the second level with ease. At times DeCastro will be asked to double-team with Kelvin Beachum on defensive end Marcus Spears, who has been less than solid this season at holding the point of attack. This should open up some holes for Jonathan Dwyer and Isaac Redman. The Steelers will still likely pull left guard Ramon Foster occasionally on trap plays, but will limit those counter plays due to Foster not being a great move guard. Look for Will Johnson to be utilized more as a lead blocker in lieu of pulling Foster with hopes that he can have a clean path to either Dan Conner or Ernie Simms trying to fill the gap.
Moore Is Good - The Cowboys could be without starting rookie cornerback Morris Claiborne in this game due to the concussion that he suffered last week. As of Friday Claiborne still hadn\'t passed his final concussion test in order to be cleared to play. Should Claiborne wind up sitting, Mike Jenkins would start in his place Jenkins would most likely stay in his slot position when the Cowboys utilize their sub package with Sterling Moore coming in to play outside. Moore has only been on the Cowboys roster a few weeks after being signed off of the New England Patriots practice squad so he would be a prime candidate to be picked on whenever he is in the game. Should Claiborne wind up starting it would behoove Roethlisberger to try and test him early and often to see just how clear his head really is.
Get Your Free Passes - Cowboys right tackle Doug Free has been downright awful this season in pass protection as he has allowed 6 sacks and over 40 quarterback pressures. Steelers linebacker LaMarr Woodley will make his return to the lineup on Sunday after missing the last two games with an ankle injury and he couldn\'t ask for a better welcome back gift than to go against Free. There is a chance that Woodley might platoon some with Jason Worilds in an effort to ease him back into action, but even Worilds shouldn\'t have a problem getting through the Dallas turnstile. The Steelers young cornerbacks need help from the front via pressure on Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo and it will make for a long day for them should Free come out of this game looking like a Pro Bowler.
Don\'t Get Witten Too Bad - The Steelers defense is not going to shut down Cowboys tight end Jason Witten, but they must limit make sure to tackle him quickly after the catch and not allow him to get vertical down the seem. Witten is an every down threat as 70 of the 92 catches that he has so far this season have come on first or second down. Romo uses his all-everything tight end to stay ahead of the chains via option routes on early downs and the Steelers defense will have their hands full defending him in their usual base zone defense. It might be wise to man him up as often as possible, especially if the front five is unable to get pressure on Romo. Holding Witten to less than his 7 catch, 68 yard average would go a long way towards winning this game.
Flip It, Flip Good - The Steelers have had 67 possessions in their last 5 games and only 4 of those have started in the opponents territory. That simply will not cut it. The defense either needs to start forcing a few turnovers or Antonio Brown is going to have to have a huge day returning punts sans any penalties. The Steelers special teams units have been down-right abysmal this season and once again they have an opportunity to have a huge impact in what could be a pretty close game. If the field can stay flipped in their favor for most of the game they should win it.
Prediction - The Steelers have a huge test Sunday but thankfully Bryant will not have full use of one of his hands. Last week against the Chargers the Steelers young cornerbacks learned a costly lesson and I think they will be better for it. The pass rush also must improve this week as Romo is not one to be patient and play the short passing game that Philip Rivers did last week. He will make mistakes and the Steelers must take advantage of them when he does. Turnovers, sacks and field position are key in every game and that is something the Steelers defense has been poor at providing this season on a consistent basis. It has to get better and I think it will against the Cowboys. I also like the chances that the offense will be able to run the ball better this week against a Cowboys defense that has had problems stopping it at times. As long as the offense does not turn the ball over more than once, I think the Steelers will win this game.
Final Score - Steelers 24 Cowboys 21