Can Put a Finger On It
One position on this team that has grown before our eyes is the wide receivers. All the questions in training camp were about Dez Bryant and Miles Austin. Whether it was off the field stuff or health concerns, we covered them all. I have written and said this plenty that I really believed that Bryant turned the corner during the spring when the team was going through OTAs and minicamps. There was a real sense of purpose in his game and it showed.
The talent and the skill were always there, but you were never sure what you were going to get from the mental side of the game. There are times when Bryant has struggled, but you don't see the player that would get frustrated during the game and disappear. Against the Steelers, despite his busted finger, Pittsburgh defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau did not want him to be the one to beat him with big plays. LeBeau used his safeties and linebackers to handle Bryant in this game, whether it was to walk a linebacker in front of him or buzz them in the flat to prevent the slant. The old Bryant would not have handled this well, but with his quarterback going the other way, he still ran his routes hard to try and work himself free and when given the chance, he was able to deliver.
On the other side, Austin took advantage of the situation. With the Steelers playing in off coverage, Austin ate them up with his route running, and once the pressure could not get there, then Romo knew where he needed to go with the ball. The combination of Dwayne Harris, Cole Beasley and Kevin Ogletree were 7-for-7 in targets and catches. When you study the tape, you can see the confidence that Romo has in Harris and Beasley. They run solid routes, beat coverage and secure the ball. On the final drive, I was surprised that Romo didn't throw the ball to Beasley on that play when he went in the direction of Witten.
Again, once when Garrett knew his protection would hold up, he went hammer down on this battered Steelers secondary with receivers who have become his most reliable position. This group puts a ton of pressure on defensive backs because they play with a quarterback that is not afraid to use them all to move the ball.
Hold Your Line
There are several factors that go into winning a game in the NFL on a weekly basis, but maybe the one that is the most important is how your team plays along the offensive and defensive lines. My eyes told me that playing against this Steelers front seven was not going to be easy at all. I didn't like the matchups of Ryan Cook against Casey Hampton or Doug Free battling LaMarr Woodley and James Harrison.
For the last two weeks, Free has been splitting series with Jermey Parnell in an effort to try and provide more consistency at right tackle. Early in the game, Garrett and the staff went with some max protections to try and help get the ball off, but as the game wore on, it became more evident that Free and Parnell could hold up on the outside. Both Free and Parnell set and punched well. What I was worried about with Free and Parnell both was getting overpowered by Ziggy Hood and the Pittsburgh linebackers. Free was able to extend his hands, but also sit down on his man, which provided the width to the pocket. Free also showed some nice techniques in run blocking on the backside, allowing Murray to get open on some runs.
Both Free and Mackenzy Bernadeau held up well playing physical at the point of attack. When it turns into a power game from a rushing standpoint, Bernadeau is much better when a defender tries to overpower him instead of using pass-rush moves. If Bernadeau can get you to rush him down the middle, he tends to do a better job of sitting down on his man. Nate Livings wasn't perfect, but when Garrett needed to get a big body at the point on a pull, he went with Livings, which surprises me because usually in space, he tends to struggle with that side of the game. Where Livings also helped was when he was uncovered and Tyron Smith was secure with his man. You saw him crossing the pocket taking shots at Hampton's ribs to try and slow him up.
I mentioned Cook earlier and the job he was able to do inside. One-on-one, he was better than expected. Like Free, I was worried about Cook getting walked into Romo's lap, but the front of the pocket was clean except one time when he and Livings misplayed a delayed blitz by Larry Foote that caused problems for Romo.
Going into this game, I wasn't as concerned about Smith just because athletically I knew that he could stay with these linebackers, plus be able to match their power. What was unusual was that Smith did have some trouble with some late pressure, but overall, he was very steady. Romo faced some normal in-game pressure, but the majority of his 70 plays were clean, which allowed him to attack this Steelers secondary the way he did.