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Big Picture: 5 Storylines for Cowboys & Steelers

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For the first time in close to a month, the Dallas Cowboys had some positives to build on despite a Sunday Night Football loss to Philadelphia in Week 8. Dallas forced four turnovers and had better defensive play than they have seen all year while the offense seemingly found success running the football consistently.

However, they'll have a tough time expanding on those positives as the Pittsburgh Steelers (7-0) make their way to AT&T Stadium. While it's a matchup between the two winningest organizations in the Super Bowl era, the two teams could not be headed in more different directions.

Here are five more important storylines for each team heading into Sunday's matchup with the Steelers.

Steelers

  • Pittsburgh comes to town as the only remaining undefeated team in the NFL following their come-from-behind win over the Ravens last week. Behind the most dominant defense in football, the Steelers have rematerialized the physical brand of football they're known for in the AFC North. Defensively, Pittsburgh averages a sack on over 13% of passing plays, by far the most in the league ahead of Washington and Tampa Bay. A top-five defense in the league has so far covered up the 25th-ranked offense and their inability to move the football from at times. Either way, they shape up to be the toughest matchup that Dallas has faced this season.
  • Sunday marks the first meeting since 2016 in a matchup that has some of the richest series history of any AFC-NFC battle. The two sides have met in the Super Bowl a total of three times where the Cowboys have won one (XXX) and the Steelers have taken two (X and XIII). Dallas has taken the most recent two battles and surprisingly six of the last eight including the 35-30 win in Pittsburgh in 2016. These two teams were originally slated to play in this preseason's 'Hall of Fame Game' in Canton, Ohio before the league offices cancelled it in August.
  • Mike Tomlin returns to AT&T Stadium for the second time since losing Super Bowl XLV in 2011, and for the first time he'll see the coach that defeated him on the other sideline in Mike McCarthy. The two had met a total of four times during McCarthy's tenure in Green Bay and Tomlin was victorious in each of the matchups outside the Super Bowl. Every game was decided by a single possession and three of the four by less than a touchdown. Both coaches are a part of the elite fraternity of coaches that have a Super Bowl title on their resume but have been going in very different directions recently. Last week, Tomlin also surpassed Tony Dungy to become the winningest black coach in NFL history with win number 140.
  • One of the more notable 'what ifs' that the Cowboys have experienced in the NFL Draft recently surrounds Steelers edge rusher T.J. Watt. Watt was thought to be a mid-to-late first round pick in the 2017 draft after he tallied 11.5 sacks his final year at the University of Wisconsin. Dallas held the 28th pick of the draft and was looking to add an impact edge rusher themselves but instead of going with T.J. Watt when he was still on the board, they instead selected Taco Charlton out of Michigan. Watt was selected by Pittsburgh two slots later and has seen back-to-back Pro Bowl appearances and at least 13 sacks in each of the last two seasons. Sunday will be the first time that the Cowboys have seen Watt with the Steelers as he enters the weekend firmly in the Defensive Player of the Year discussion with 6.5 sacks through seven games.
  • Despite the success that Pittsburgh has enjoyed defensively, they could be without second-year linebacker Ulysees Gilbert III, safety Jordan Dangerfield and defensive tackle Cameron Heyward on Sunday. They did add another key piece in the middle of the defense with Avery Williamson prior to Tuesday's trade deadline, but he will not be available for Sunday's showdown. The Steelers enter Sunday ranked fifth in rushing yards per game and eighth in rushing yards per play as they aim to slow down Ezekiel Elliott who had 114 yards and 2 scores against them in 2016.

Cowboys

  • The Cowboys will not be getting Andy Dalton back for the showdown with Pittsburgh. Dalton was planning to replace Ben DiNucci as the starting quarterback prior to being placed on the COVID-19 list Tuesday. Despite the unfortunate circumstances, Dallas does have a new option at quarterback as Cooper Rush has now passed through the necessary protocols. Rush who served as the backup to Dak Prescott since the start of his career was added off waivers last week following the concussion to Dalton against Washington. With Rush's prior knowledge of the Dallas offense, there is a decision to be made on whether to go with him or back to DiNucci to account for the missing Dalton this Sunday.
  • After falling to 2-6 on the season following the loss to Philadelphia, it was a question on whether or not the Cowboys would stay put during trade deadline or continue to pursue a division title still within reach. Jerry and Steven Jones addressed the different options on where the season could go this week. Steven initially mentioned that they are still in it to win the division and it would have to take the perfect deal to move some of the key pieces. Jerry then echoed that Tuesday morning on 105.3 The Fan by saying he is "not in the mood" to make any rash decisions that could negatively affect the future of the roster. It's a mindset that ultimately kept the Cowboys quiet through the trade deadline and shows the intent to keep the core together heading into 2021.
  • Mike McCarthy has had little success against his hometown and childhood team in the Steelers throughout his career. Born in Pittsburgh, McCarthy grew up a Steelers fan and saw his love of the game grow in the shadow of the ultra-successful franchise. While McCarthy's first coaching gig came as a graduate assistant at Kansas' Fort Hays State, his big break later came in his hometown as the graduate assistant and receivers coach for the University of Pittsburgh in 1989. His father was a firefighter and police officer in the area for years and his family was deeply rooted and proud Pittsburgh natives. With a 1-3 record against the Steelers, McCarthy has had a rougher time conquering his hometown team than any other NFL franchise throughout his career.
  • When asked this week about the play-calling duties, Mike McCarthy said that it is a "non-topic" about Kellen Moore losing that responsibility. McCarthy who was known for his offensive genius during his time in Green Bay was excited about the prospect of Moore calling plays when he joined the organization. He continued to back up his coordinator this week after multiple questionable calls in the 23-9 loss to Philadelphia. McCarthy also went on to state the obvious that they are a different offense than they were two months ago but mentioned he will stay firm in the belief of Terrence Steele at the right tackle spot and not transition into a 'best five' mentality on the offensive line.
  • Sean Lee made his much-anticipated debut and played a total of four snaps in Sunday night's loss. Regardless of the workload, the return was a welcome sight to have him suited up and available to play, much like they hope Chidobe Awuzie should be this week. Awuzie was expected to return last week prior to the Eagles game but was a late scratch from the lineup. This would mark the third week of the 21-day acclimation period following his stint on IR for a hamstring injury. With weapons like JuJu Smith-Schuster and Chase Claypool coming to Arlington… the healthier the Cowboys secondary is, the better.

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