ARLINGTON, Texas – For all the criticism he has taken this season, it feels unfair to pile on Jaylon Smith for things he didn't do.
Nobody likes to complain about officiating in a sport with so many moving parts, but that's what Sunday had to have felt like for Smith.
In a frantic fourth quarter that saw the Steelers rally from a 10-point deficit to a 24-19 win, there's no denying Pittsburgh benefited from some timely penalties. As fate would have it, both happened to come against the Cowboys' star linebacker.
"Few questionable calls in the game, but for us we've got to control what we can control," Smith said afterward.
The first call was the more egregious of the two, and quite literally could have swung the result of the game.
Trailing, 19-15, midway through the fourth quarter, Ben Roethlisberger had driven the Steelers out of the shadow of their own goal post to midfield. On a 1st-and-10 from his own 47-yard line, he was hit during the throw and the loose ball was popped into the air, where it was grabbed by Aldon Smith.
It would have been the Cowboys' first takeaway of the game and set the offense up on Pittsburgh's 21-yard line with a chance to lengthen the league.
Instead, it was wiped away by a flag on Smith for illegal contact after he appeared to knock Chase Claypool to the ground – an assessment he disagreed with, politely.
"They thought that I, like, I hit him and was just crazy over the top holding," Smith said. "Really, he just ran into me. That's really what it was."
DeMarcus Lawrence, true to his brand, was a bit more blunt.
"I don't know where that came from, but that's very unacceptable – especially in a close game like that," Lawrence said.
The possession would only end in a field goal, as the Cowboys buckled down and forced a 43-yard attempt from Chris Boswell. But the potential swing in scoring opportunities is hard to deny.
It's understandable if Smith is upset by the second penalty, though it's a bit more understandable.
Pittsburgh's eventual go-ahead drive was poised to end after just three plays, as the Cowboys initially forced a three-and-out on three-straight incompletions. The problems arose on third down, though, as Smith plowed into the pocket and hit Roethlisberger in the facemask while trying to bat the pass.
"I was trying to rush the quarterback, press the pocket and put my hands up when the ball was coming out," Smith said. "That's what it was. Questionable call, like I said – but I've just got to keep fighting."
Four snaps later, Roethlisberger found Eric Ebron for the eventual game-winner. The foul might have been correct according to the letter of the law, but it was an awfully dramatic penalty given the severity of the infraction.
Once again, Lawrence put it in far better terms:
"The frustrating part is that it wasn't in our control. I'm not the one to complain, but that was total BS on that last call," he said.
It doesn't do much to ease the sting of the loss, or the 2-7 record sitting next to the Cowboys' name, but it's worth mentioning.
As for Smith, he did his best to be diplomatic, focusing instead on the progress that's been made.
"For us, it's just about continuing to grind. We're headed in the right direction," he said. "It's a tough loss, like we said, but there's a lot of things that we can build off of. For us, we feel like we're never out of the fight. We've just got to keep digging."