FRISCO, Texas – As crazy as it was in real time, that Cowboys win over Pittsburgh becomes even more remarkable when you break down the tape.
I don't need to set the scene if you watched the game. The Cowboys and Steelers threw haymakers at each other all evening long, and the Cowboys dug deep and found the resiliency to come out on top in the end.
After a late night with the film, I came out with some of my personal highlights of the afternoon – the moments that helped the Cowboys climb to 8-1. Along with that, I've got a few more notes worth sharing. So here we go:
- Nice heads up play by Orlando Scandrick on the Steelers second two-point play in the way that he bumped his coverage outside to carry Antonio Brown into the flat. It was going to be a tough run for Brandon Carr to come all the way across the formation to take Brown. Scandrick realized the situation and was able to switch off easily. It was clear that Roethlisberger's first option was to hit Brown in the flat, but Scandrick took that away. Roethlisberger tried to come back inside to Jesse James, but Sean Lee was in perfect position to make sure the ball was wide.
- I counted five quality blocks on the 83-yard screen pass to Ezekiel Elliott. The kick out by Zack Martin on Sean Davis got the play started. Then Travis Fredrick drove Ross Cockrell into the Steelers' bench. Ronald Leary alertly peeled back and got just enough of Mike Mitchell to get Elliott further up the field. There, Elliott picked up a block from Terrance Williams on Robert Golden that broke him into the clear. With four defenders chasing him, Elliott begin to pull away, but he needed Williams to throw one more block -- which he was able to get on William Gay, allowing Elliott to finish the run.
- Here's a coaching point from Dave Campo, while watching the game with him, regarding the fumble caused by DeMarcus Lawrence that Byron Jones was unable to secure. When the ball is on the ground near the sideline – always fall on it. The margin of error is very small when the defender tries to pick it up and run. The majority of the time, it is going to be mishandled and knocked out of bounds. Jones goes down to get the ball, but his momentum carries him past the ball. When he turns his body to adjust, he is carrying the ball toward the sideline and there is no room for him to get the handle on it. If Jones just falls on the ball, the offense sets up shop in great position on the Steelers' 28-yard line.
- There weren't many poor decisions by Dak Prescott, but his deep pass to Dez Bryant on 3rd-and-2 was not one of his better ones. Prescott took a quick look to Jason Witten in the flat, which would have been his easiest throw for the first down. His next best option was to Cole Beasley with separation on the slant against Ross Cockrell, who was beaten off the snap. If Prescott had made that decision – Beasley might still be running. I can understand him trying to make a play, but of the options presented to Prescott, Bryant was the option the Steelers covered best.
- Huge hit by Anthony Hitchens on Eric Rodgers in the third quarter with the Steelers on the Cowboys 7-yard line. Defensively, they were playing man coverage with Hitchens as a free player in the middle of the field. Rodgers was slot left and exploded inside with Orlando Scandrick in tow. Ben Roethlisberger decided to try and fit the ball inside to Rodgers despite Hitchens standing right in his path. Just as the ball hit Rodgers' hands, Hitchens was right there with his shoulder in Rodgers' back to separate him from the ball. The next play, Byron Jones kept Antonio Brown from the ball and the Steelers were forced to kick a field goal, thus winning on a four-point play.
- There were two elements to the Dez Bryant 50-yard touchdown that should not go unnoticed. The route by Terrance Williams opposite Bryant to hold Sean Davis in the middle of the field and the blitz pickup by Lance Dunbar on Ryan Shazier. It has now been back-to-back games where Williams has executed his route in a full sprint in order to give a teammate the opportunity to get the space necessary to score. In the pocket, Shazier tried to run over Dunbar, but to his credit, he was able to maintain his balance to push him wide and give Prescott the time to make a perfect throw to Bryant.
- On DeMarcus Lawrence's first sack of the season, if Brandon Carr doesn't completely take Antonio Brown out of the play – Lawrence doesn't get a sack. Ben Roethlisberger wanted to throw the ball to Brown, but Carr jammed him with his left hand, which totally threw off the timing of the play. The more Brown tried to fight, the longer Roethlisberger had to wait in the pocket, giving Lawrence the chance to win off the edge against Marcus Gilbert.
- Gutsy call by Scott Linehan to put the ball in the air with the offense in field goal range and 2:50 left in the game. Prescott had two options. He could have thrown the slant to Dez Bryant, who had Artie Burns off balance, or he could have thrown the ball to Jason Witten against Ryan Shazier – which he did. He took the more difficult of the two throws considering the coverage, but he was able to pull it off for a 14-yard gain. It is also worth mentioning that it was a heck of a block by Tyron Smith on James Harrison that allowed Prescott that extra second to stand in the pocket and deliver the ball.
- Mike Tomlin after the game said that he did not order his defensive coaches to let the Cowboys score with 1:55, and after watching the play on tape – I am convinced they tried to keep them out of the end zone. Of all the running plays, I thought this one was blocked the best, which made it look like the Steelers were not trying. Across the board, there was not a Steelers defender that wasn't hooked up on a block. Travis Frederick drove Javon Hargrave completely out of the play. Ronald Leary pancaked Ryan Shazier, and Tyron Smith was able to cut off the backside, which allowed Elliott the alley to finish the run.
- If Zack Martin didn't slip while blocking Stephon Tuitt -- Dak Prescott would have thrown a touchdown pass up the seam to Jason Witten. Prescott's eyes were looking to Terrance Williams on his left first, as he tries to come back to Witten. Tuitt was right in his lap, and from that position it was unlikely that he would have been able to get enough on the ball to get it to Witten. It would have been a dangerous throw, especially since they were already in field goal range. Prescott eating the ball was the right decision.
- There are advantages to having Dez Bryant on the field even when he doesn't get the ball. On the final touchdown run by Ezekiel Elliott, the Steelers decided to walk safety Sean Davis over the top of Bryant with Artie Burns in coverage behind. Davis would have been the extra guy in the box because the other safety, William Gay, was lined up over Jason Witten. Without that extra guy there, blocks by Travis Frederick, Ronald Leary, Tyron Smith and Gavin Escobar blew the hole wide open for Elliott to score the game winner.
- Just a gut feeling but that Dan Bailey's 53-yard field at Heinz Field is going to stand up for a few years. There is no stadium in the league that kickers dread more than kicking at that place. Cold conditions, chopped up grass and swirling wind from the open end of the stadium keep special teams coaches and kickers up at night.