The Cowboys have a chance to finish their games in the AFC North owning a record of 3-1 with a victory over the Steelers on Sunday. It's back-to-back games against a non-common opponent, which is never easy to prepare for. There are challenges on both sides of the ball that the Cowboys will have to deal with in facing Pittsburgh.
Offensively, the Steelers have big-play capability with their wide receivers, which tends to be the focus of their attack. On defense, longtime coordinator Dick LeBeau continues to scheme a defense that presents problems with how they break offenses down with pressure.
The Steelers were handled last week at home by a San Diego Chargers squad that came into the game reeling. Defensive end Brent Keisel went as far as to say that the Steelers were not ready to play the game, which head coach Mike Tomlin agreed was true. The Steelers, like the Cowboys, are still fighting to stay in the playoff race and a loss by either side really puts them in a poor situation.
On offense, the Steelers are led by quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who has missed some games this season with rib and shoulder injuries but came back last week against the Chargers only to see his squad go down in defeat. Where this offense has struggled the most is in protecting Roethlisberger and running the ball successfully. There have been times when Roethlisberger has taken some tremendous shots, but was able to bounce back and continue to make plays.
I have always respected his ability to hang in there and deliver the ball under the most fiercest of pass rushes. When you watch this Steelers offense, how he goes is usually how it goes. Roethlisberger is not the prettiest nor most technically sound quarterback, but the bottom line is, he wins. His mobility will not remind you of Michael Vick, but he can be effective in the way he moves in the pocket to buy a second or third chance. His size makes him difficult to bring down in the pocket and he'll still throw the ball with men wrapped around his legs. He also shows the ability to throw the ball at all arm angles, and has the ability to make bad plays into backbreaking ones for the defense.
On the outside, is where the Steelers offense makes it living. Mike Wallace, Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders are a dynamic group because of their ability to make explosive plays at any point on the field. Wallace gives the Steelers a vertical player who can also make plays in the middle of the field and on the move. He's very similar speed-wise to what the Cowboys saw last week against the Bengals with A.J. Green.
Brown missed three games this season, but when you look at the number of double-digit targets he's seen, he is Roethlisberger's guy. Brown is extremely quick but his best trait is his hands. He can make plays on the move and he is hard to deal with one-on-one. He's a good little route runner who puts a lot of pressure on the defense.
Sanders is similar to Brown in his ability to catch the ball on the move and make something happen. Sanders doesn't get as many opportunities, but when he does catch the ball, the result is usually pretty good. The Steelers like to use Sanders on screens and reverses to try and get him in the open field, although this is something they try with all of their receivers.
Throughout their history of their organization, the Steelers have always had a tight end that was a productive player. In this era of Steelers football, that guy is Heath Miller. Offensive coordinator Todd Haley loves to move Miller all over the formation in this offense. You will see him in line at "Y," flexed or outside wide as a receiver. It's rare to see Miller not come down with the ball if it's thrown in his direction. He has an incredible ability to get up the field and gain separation very much like Jason Witten. He can make plays in traffic and is very good in the red zone, ranking second on the club with seven touchdown catches this season. When things get tough and tight, Miller can make those crazy plays when Roethlisberger is on the move.
The Steelers have struggled to run the ball this season, but did do a nice job against the Giants when they needed to finish the game. Rashard Mendenhall will miss this matchup with the Cowboys, his 10th time sitting out, but this one is not because of injury. He was suspended for one game due to conduct detrimental to the club.
Without Mendenhall in the lineup, the Steelers have gone with Jonathan Dwyer, Isaac Redman and Chris Rainey. Between Dwyer and Redman, the Steelers have averaged 3.9 yards per carry. Both are physical backs that don't show much elusiveness or wiggle with the ball in their hands. Rainey is the quickest of the group, but he hasn't received many opportunities, and in the Giants game, he put the ball on the ground, which is why he hasn't had those chances.
Over the last several weeks, the Cowboys have faced offensive lines that are better than what they will play against Pittsburgh on Sunday. This is a line that has an outstanding center in Maurkice Pouncy, although he has had to play some left guard this season while Willie Colon has been out. The way the Steelers might play against the Cowboys will be to put rookie David DeCastro at right guard and move the normal right guard, Ramon Foster, to the left side. Kelvin Beachum has been playing right tackle for Mike Adams, who has been injured but is ready to go now.
While Pouncy was playing guard, Doug Legursky had been playing center. The last time that Legursky was in Cowboys Stadium, he was starting in the Super Bowl against the Packers. If the Cowboys have a matchup that could work in their favor, it would be DeMarcus Ware against left tackle Max Starks. Really don't like the way that Starks moves and how he handles rushers up the field. Keep an eye on that when the game starts.
Despite their 7-6 record, this is still a Steelers defense that is near the top of the league in most rankings. When you study LeBeau's squad, the first thing you notice is how well they run to the ball. Pittsburgh does a wonderful job of breaking down your scheme in both the rushing and passing game. The Steelers have always been an attacking, aggressive front seven, and when they can get you behind the chains, they are even tougher.
On the defensive line, they play a base 3-4 front with Casey Hampton and Steve McLendon at the nose. Hampton is a veteran that has seen it all during his time with the Steelers. He been much better against the run than he has versus the pass, and is a hard guy to move off the ball one-on-one. Ziggy Hood and Brett Keisel are the ends and both are very active. These guys just don't sit in one spot and play the run. They are always on the move, whether it's on a stunt or a game with a linebacker.
The strength of this defense, in my view, is the linebackers. As good as James Harrison, Lawrence Timmons and Jason Worilds have been, my favorite member of this group is Barry Foote. Foote is always around the ball, run or pass. He is a fierce tackler and competitor. Worilds has stepped in for Lamarr Woodley, who has missed some time with an ankle injury but could be ready this week. Worilds has been very good at the point of attack, playing the run. He is one of those guys that can set the edge with power and strength, plus give you some pass rush.
A powerful veteran that plays on the weak side on the outside, Harrison is really good at is chasing the ball from the backside. He is a blur at times when he sees the ball go away. There might be some opportunities there to take advantage of how aggressive all these linebackers are. This group loves to attack the line of scrimmage and cause problems in your blocking scheme. They are always running through gaps.
In the secondary, Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clark are the safeties with Keenan Lewis and Ike Taylor at the corners, but this has been a problem area for the Steelers in that Lewis has struggled with a hip injury and Taylor has a serious ankle problem that will most likely cause him to miss this game. Second-year pro Cortez Allen was nice to study on tape when it came to quickness and his ability to cover. Really liked his movement skill and burst, but he, too, is injured with a groin problem.
Curtis Brown has also got some work this season, but he doesn't look as polished as the other corners and might be considered a liability in coverage. Safety Will Allen has helped some and will play in the slot.
With Polamalu having returned to the lineup, he is again working in and out of the box. There are times when he comes sprinting from the back to the front, trying to guess or time the snap count. Where he has had his struggles, though, is when teams find ways to get him in coverage.
These corners play off and give receivers some access in routes with the safeties playing very deep, unless it's Polamalu when he charges forward. Taylor was their best corner in my views, and with him out of the lineup, that could be a big blow to a secondary that really benefits from an aggressive front seven. They might not have the sack numbers, but the pressure is there.