The Cowboys will face the NFL’s top three defenses in consecutive weeks, starting this Sunday against the absolute best in the Pittsburgh Steelers.
The Steelers have the league’s stingiest defense in total yards allowed, conceding only 238 yards per game, while the Baltimore Ravens (253.3 ypg) and New York Giants (279.1 ypg) round up the top three.
The Steelers have yet to allow 300 yards of offense this season. Dallas needs to win probably two of the next three games to keep their playoff hopes alive, but surviving the brutally physical three-game gauntlet may prove the tougher task.
Pittsburgh’s style of football hasn’t changed much over the years. They run the ball effectively on offense, then stymie their opponent’s ground game. They are sticking to their winning formula this year, despite injuries along the offensive line and at running back.
Starting running back Willie Parker and first-round draft pick Rashard Mendenhall have missed a combined 15 starts this season, yet the Steelers still ground and pound the ball. They commit to the run to control the clock and to set-up their play-action passing game.
Their offensive numbers are down, but when you have by far the best defense in the league, a little offense is all they need.
Steel Curtain is Closed
The Steelers defense plays the most physical brand of football of any team the Cowboys have faced all year. Their smash-mouth style not only rattles quarterbacks and bruises ball carriers, the Steel Curtain defense just refuses to relent yards on the ground.
The Steelers sweep the run defense stats, ranking first in rushing yards allowed (854), first in rushing yards per game (71.2), and first in rushing yards per attempt (3.1).
You would think a team that sells-out so wholeheartedly to stop the run would give up big plays in the air.
Unfortunately for Dallas, Pittsburgh also leads the league defensively against the pass.
Pittsburgh has only given up 2,002 passing yards all season, again, best in the NFL.
And yes, the Steelers also lead the NFL in passing yards allowed per game, allowing only 166.8 yards per contest.
Just in case you haven’t come to understand, this is the best defensive team in the league. They also lead the NFL in takeaways at 42. If the Steelers continue to lead the NFL in rush defense (71.2), pass defense (166.8) and total defense (238), they would become the first team since 1991 (Philadelphia Eagles) to lead the NFL in all three categories.
Offense is Chink in the Steel Armor
For all the Steelers' first-place statistical ratings on the defensive side of the ball, their offense has been average at best.
Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has been sacked 33 times in 12 games, which bodes well for Dallas and their 40 sack total on the year. Roethlisberger has been guilty of holding the ball too long at times, while his patchwork offensive line has failed to provide him any time on other occasions.
Roethlisberger has just one more touchdown (13) than interceptions (12), which is the most he’s thrown in a single season since the 2006 campaign, when he was fresh off head planting into a car off his motorcycle.
Roethlisberger’s quarterback rating of 80 is also the lowest of his career other then the dubious 2006 season (75.4 QB rating).
Sacks on the Sod
Three of the five leading sack men in the NFL will be on Heinz Field’s new sod Sunday, when Dallas visits Pittsburgh.
The Cowboy’s DeMarcus Ware leads the NFL in sacks with 15, while Pittsburgh will counter with James Harrison’s 14 and LaMarr Woodley’s 11.5.
The Steelers’ ground crew will be installing fresh sod, and the forecast is calling for snow and 30 degree temperatures. The fresh sod, wet conditions, and heavy lumbering feet of offensive lineman, could create a sack happy affair for the league’s best.
A December to Remember?
The Cowboys have not had a winning record in the final four games of the season, dating back to 1997, accumulating an 18-31 record.
If Dallas is going to make the playoffs, they will need to improve on that number. The last time the Cowboys had a winning final stretch of the season was 1996, the last year the Cowboys won a playoff game.
The Steelers go on the road at Baltimore and at Tennessee after hosting Dallas, so both teams need the win.
Injury Wheel Keeps on Turning
Romo has been practicing without the pinkie splint this week in Valley Ranch. A wet and heavy football, plus a couple of sacks, could change that, but this will be the healthiest start for Romo in over a month.
Too bad the same thing can’t be said about running back Marion Barber, who dislocated his pinkie toe. Barber has been held out of practice all week, but is expecting to play Sunday.
Ware’s MRI on his sprained knee was negative, but he has yet to practice this week as well. A healthy Ware could be a game-changer defensively for Dallas, so here’s to a speedy recovery for the 26-year-old.
Pacman Jones is expecting to return to the secondary in nickel and dime formations, as well as, get return opportunities.
The Steelers are playing their fourth home game in the last five weeks.
The Cowboys have enjoyed a prolonged week following the Thanksgiving contest against Seattle.
Pittsburgh finally got the New England monkey off their back last week, when they held Matt Cassel to 169 yards passing and two interceptions. Cassel was coming off consecutive 400-plus yard passing performances before being shut down at home by the Steelers.
The Cowboys have Romo back and look like the same dominant team that started the season 3-0.
If Barber can fight through the pain for meaningful carries, or backup Tashard Choice can step up and shoulder the load against the physical Steelers, then Romo should find Witten roaming the places vacated by the always blitzing Steelers linebackers.
Pittsburgh won’t have much success on offense against Dallas, nor will Dallas run effectively on the Steelers.
This game will come down to turnovers and special teams and whomever makes the fewest mistakes will carry the day.
Dallas 19, Pittsburgh 17