FRISCO, Texas – Another week, another test.
We know how unpredictable the Pittsburgh Steelers have been throughout the season. But the Cowboys are still traveling to one of the toughest road venues in the entire NFL to face some of the most proven playmakers in the league.
I'm starting to sound like a broken record, but we'll learn a lot about this team by how they respond to the challenge. They've passed every test to this point with flying colors. But in the NFL there is always another test just around the corner.
Here are my final thoughts on this Cowboys-Steelers matchup in Pittsburgh:
- Keep an eye on Orlando Scandrick against Antonio Brown to see if he has his quickness back. In six of eight games this season, Brown has been targeted double-digit times. Look for the Steelers to continue that trend, which will test Scandrick on the outside as well as in the slot. Brown will carry Scandrick all over the field in various routes, and how Scandrick responds to this assignment likely will make or break the Cowboys' defensive success.
- Look for Tyron Smith and Ronald Leary to start this week against the Steelers. Both missed practice time this week but were able to make it through practice Friday without any further issues.
- The Steelers are not afraid to keep their tight ends in to block if they feel like there is a defensive threat off the edge. Dallas defensively has yet to show they have that type of player, since the majority of their pressure has come from inside at the tackle spot. If there is a game for DeMarcus Lawrence and the edge rushers to do some damage – this is the one. Alejandro Villanueva is a tall left tackle that tends to play with straight legs and a lack of power. There have been several games this season where opponents have taken advantage of Villanueva and his lack of blocking traits for pressure. After three weeks of Joe Thomas, Jason Peters and David Bakhtiari – Villanueva will be a welcome sight for these Dallas rushers.
- Dallas defensively has only given up four runs of 20-plus yards and no touchdowns this season. They've also been just as impressive defending the pass, where opponents have 21 completions of 20-plus yards – but have managed to score only one touchdown. These numbers are good enough to put them in a fourth-place tie with Seattle, Baltimore and Denver in the total number of big plays allowed with 25.
- How efficient has this offense been on first down? Dallas has run 249 first down plays and on 132 of them they've managed a gain of 4 or more yards. That is 53 percent of their snaps, which ranks them fifth in the league. On the other side of the field, Pittsburgh has allowed opponents 4 or more yards on 49 percent of their first down snaps. That would put the Steelers 24th in the league. Staying ahead of the chains has been the way that this offense has successfully operated during this winning streak.
- Jason Garrett told the media this week that the backup quarterback takes one set of snaps with the first offense on Fridays as his preparation for the game. I believe that Mark Sanchez took those reps, which means that he will be the backup quarterback in Pittsburgh with Tony Romo on the inactive list for another week.
- Dallas leads the league in rushing offense while Pittsburgh ranks a surprising 25th. What is even more interesting is that the Cowboys are running the ball an average of 12 more times a game with a net gain of 79 yards. Both clubs have outstanding backs in Ezekiel Elliott and Le'Veon Bell, but the biggest difference is that Elliott's line has done a much better job of creating space. The Steelers have really struggled as a unit to get any type of movement up front. They tend to catch defenders and try to steer them out of the play. If the Steelers continue to play this way, look for these Cowboys linebackers to have big games because of the Steelers' inability to get blockers up on the second levels.
- My guess at the Cowboys inactives: QB Tony Romo, CB Morris Claiborne, RB Darius Jackson, S Barry Church, LB Mark Nzeocha, OT Chaz Green, DE Benson Mayowa.