ARLINGTON, Texas – The Cowboys understood the situation.
If they planned to hang with the NFL's only remaining undefeated team Sunday, they knew it would take complementary football from all three phases.
The offense scored its first touchdown in three games in quarterback Garrett Gilbert's first NFL start. The defense held the Pittsburgh Steelers to a season-low point total.
And the special teams delivered its best performance yet with a variety of impactful plays that kept the game close in a 24-19 loss at AT&T Stadium.
"On special teams, we felt that we needed to go out there and create a couple big plays today," head coach Mike McCarthy said.
They did just that.
The Cowboys (2-7) built a 13-0 in the second quarter after punt returner Cedrick Wilson threw a cross-field lateral pass to special teams captain C.J. Goodwin, who weaved his way up the left sideline for an 83-yard gain. Four plays later, Greg Zuerlein kicked the second of four Cowboys field goals in the game.
In the fourth quarter, leading 19-15, rookie running back Rico Dowdle took his first career kickoff return 64 yards up the right sideline to put the Cowboys' offense just outside the Pittsburgh red zone.
Dowdle, undrafted out of South Carolina, might have gotten that return opportunity because regular kickoff returner Tony Pollard was handling a heavier load at running back.
"We you hit November you want to see younger players … they've got to be ready to play and they've got to be ready to contribute because history will tell you that your young players will be contributing in November and December," McCarthy said. "Just the fact that he was ready, you love it when you see a young guy get an opportunity and make a play like that."
The ensuing Cowboys drive ended in a Gilbert interception, but field position was flipped. Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger had to start his next drive from his own 1-yard line, an 11-play series that resulted in a field goal to cut the Cowboys' lead to 19-18.
At the time, that particular score was significant because defensive lineman Tyrone Crawford blocked an extra point by the Steelers (8-0) at the start of the fourth quarter. It was the second extra point missed by Pittsburgh on Sunday.
New special teams coordinator John Fassel arrived in Dallas this offseason with a reputation as one of the league's most effective and creative coordinators. There have been a share of miscues in the first nine games, but also some memorable moments, like the improbable onside kick recovery at the end of the Cowboys' comeback win over the Falcons in Week 2.
Now there's more to build on in the kicking game heading into the bye week.
"I definitely feel that the special teams, particularly the last four outings, has been played at a very high level," McCarthy said. "John Fassel does a tremendous job. Our guys, you're seeing the continuity that is so important in this game. That's the one part of our team that has been able to play consistent with similar lineups week in and week out.
"Everything that we do is well-repped, and it's just great to see the players go out and execute it. They're very well prepared, and they did a lot of things today to put us in position to win the game."