Here are 10 quick observations after watching Sunday's game against the Steelers:
The Cowboys might've discovered a winning blueprint.
Despite the 24-19 loss, the Cowboys might've found a winning recipe to utilize going forward. The offense leaned on a ball-control approach that featured a heavy mix of runs and short passes to control the game. In addition, the Cowboys played an effective "bend but don't break" defense that forced the Steelers to dink and dunk the ball down the field. Although the game plans weren't flashy, they were effective against one of the NFL's top teams, and that should encourage the team heading into the bye week.
Garrett Gilbert flashes playmaking skills as a QB1.
The Cowboys' substitute QB1 put on a solid showing in his debut as a starter. Gilbert completed 21 of 38 passes for 243 yards with one touchdown and one interception. Most importantly, he played under control for most of the game and exhibited sound judgment with the ball in his hands. That said, Gilbert had a costly red-zone interception that kept the Cowboys from adding to their lead in the fourth quarter.
Cowboys utilize the "Bear" front to contain the Steelers' running game.
Mike Nolan is a proponent of the 3-4 scheme due to its versatility. The wily defensive coordinator broke out the "Bear" front against the Steelers to contain the running game. By reducing the front with the defensive ends aligned on the outside shoulder of each offensive guard and the nose tackle lined up opposite the center, the Cowboys were able to clog the middle, forcing the Steelers' ball carriers to bounce inside runs to the edges and into the awaiting arms of defenders. This tactic enabled the Cowboys to stuff Benny Snell on a fourth-and-short, as Nolan utilized it sparingly to keep the Steelers' running game under wraps for most of the day.
Special teams trickery pays off.
Credit John Fassel for digging into his bag of tricks to produce an explosive play in the kicking game. The Cowboys flipped the field with a throwback pass on a punt return that produced a 73-yard gain from C.J. Goodwin. The bold move put the Cowboys in scoring position and alleviated some of the pressure on an offense relying on a rookie quarterback. Moreover, it was part of a complementary game plan that put the Cowboys in a perfect position to knock off one of the NFL's top teams.
The Cowboys get the running game on track.
Since the beginning of the season, Mike McCarthy has repeatedly discussed the importance of getting the running game going. The offense finally heeded his message with a strong effort against the Steelers. The Cowboys rushed for 144 yards on 31 rush attempts with Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard taking turns plunging between the tackles on an assortment of tough, inside runs. The combination of hard-nosed running from the backs and the collective push from the offensive line produced solid results for a team that desperately needed to run the ball with a young quarterback at the helm.
Tony Pollard thrives in an expanded role.
The second-year running back continues to impress as a change-of-pace player in the backfield. Pollard has a diverse set of skills that enables him to produce explosive plays as a runner or receiver. The Cowboys utilized him prominently against the Steelers as part of a ball-control game plan that featured runs and short passes. Pollard finished the night with 58 scrimmage yards on 10 touches while displaying toughness and pop as a runner. His ability to pick up the tough yards between the tackles from spread and tight formations enabled the Cowboys to control the game for most of the night. With Pollard beginning to stack solid efforts over the past month, the Cowboys' RB2 will continue to play a prominent role in the game plan.
Randy Gregory and Neville Gallimore add juice to the defense.
The insertion of Gregory and Gallimore into the starting lineup has energized the Cowboys defense. The high-motor defenders play with reckless abandon and their relentlessness has been infectious. The defense is not only playing with more energy and effort, but the overall intensity has increased over the past few weeks. The stat sheet might not show their impact, but it is not a coincidence that the Cowboys defense has played much better with Nos. 94 and 96 on the field.
The defense is finally coming together for Mike Nolan.
After a slow start to the season, the Cowboys defense finally looks like a solid unit. The defenders appear to be on the same page and the cohesion has resulted in better play. Against the Steelers, the Cowboys were more coordinated with their pass rush and coverage, particularly with their zone calls. The safeties, cornerbacks and linebackers sorted out route combinations and attacked Steelers' pass catchers immediately after each catch. The combination of awareness, effort and solid tackling limited the Steelers' big plays and kept the Cowboys in the game against a top team. If the defense can continue to build upon this effort, the Cowboys have a chance to chalk up more wins down the stretch and reemerge as contenders in the NFC East.
Big Ben picks on Saivion Smith with the game on the line.
Veteran quarterbacks have a way of identifying and exploiting vulnerable players with the game on the line. Ben Roethlisberger made the Cowboys pay for inserting Saivion Smith into the game in the fourth quarter. The backup cornerback played with too much cushion on a speed out by Diontae Johnson that resulted in a 42-yard gain following a missed tackle. Smith then followed up his error with another missed tackle at the goal line on Eric Ebron's touchdown. The Cowboys were forced to put the backup cornerback in with the game on the line and "Big Ben" made them pay for their decision.
Penalties prove costly for the Cowboys.
The Cowboys played a solid game, but costly errors from Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch hurt the team in the fourth quarter. Smith's illegal contact and roughing the passer penalties extended Steelers' drives after the Cowboys appeared to get a turnover and a critical stop on third down, respectively. LVE's personal foul gifted the Steelers 15 yards on a drive that culminated in a field goal that brought the score to 19-18. Considering the razor-thin margin for error for the Cowboys based on their personnel issues, the extra yards and downs cost the team dearly in a close game.