A late afternoon start that was already going to be full of excitement became even more important to both teams as both divisional leaders lost big in the morning round of games. With a win, Pittsburgh would be only one game out of first place in their division and back in a playoff spot since the Colts lost. With a win for the Cowboys, they would enter a three-way tie for first place in their division as well as a three-way tie for the final wild card spot in the NFC. In the end, the Cowboys once again persevered, winning another nail-biter and continuing the march to a playoff spot.
In review of my column on Friday regarding the Cowboys’ four quarters to success, the four key points were as follows:
1. Ability to run the ball successfully / ability to keep the Steelers running game in check…
– Overall, the Cowboys defense faired pretty well against the Steelers on the ground. They only gave up one big run early in the fourth quarter and otherwise limited Pittsburgh to only sixty-nine yards on the ground. They were also never really victimized by any play action pass fakes so all-in-all, you would say Dallas did their job in that regard. Offensively, DeMarco Murray ran hard but didn’t really have the numbers that would show dominance. Felix Jones was almost worthless and there wasn’t really any productivity to mention from Lawrence Vickers so this would be considered a push in my opinion.
2. Keeping Mike Wallace under control…
– For almost three quarters this would have been considered a huge win… until Danny McCray (see more about this below) completely let him get free for a 60-yard catch that setup a walk in one yard touchdown run. One the very next drive he had another 20+ yard catch which setup yet another touchdown. We’ll graciously consider this a push since he did not eclipse 100 yards and did not have a score on his own.
3. Breaking through the Steelers’ number one ranked defense…
– Dallas scored more points (27) than the Steelers allow per game (20.3). They also obliterated the Pittsburgh secondary for over 300 yards passing. Regardless of what the outcome of the game might have been, the offense did what they had to do. With no turnovers and timely answers to every Steelers’ score, I call this a win for Dallas.
4. Avoiding the emotional letdown…
– I felt that Dallas showed a lot of life in this game, especially early on, which was a concern given all that transpired over the week. Any time that the game took a negative swing, they fought through adversity and continued to push through. When the Steelers had opportunities to win, Dallas shut the door on those plans. This was a clear win for the Cowboys.
Individually, I also wanted to discuss three players who I felt played the best this week and three players who were most disappointing. It’s time for a little three up, three down.
1. Brandon Carr
– Carr set the tone early, almost causing a turnover on the first series of the game. When he was on Mike Wallace, Wallace was quiet. When he was on Antonio Brown, he was also a non-factor. All that would have been enough to get him on the list but clearly, he also had the play of the game. His interception of Ben Roethlisberger in OT and subsequent return to the Pittsburgh one yard line set up the game winning score. Brandon Carr showed the NFL world why Dallas gave him the big free agent contract, securing the win and helping Dallas get to the top of the division.
2. Alex Albright
– An already super thin linebacking corps took another hit early as Ernie Sims was knocked out of the game after a first quarter special teams tackle caused a possible concussion. Enter Alex Albright who made plays all over the field in both the run and passing game. The possible bright side of these injuries could be the forced playing time of Albright to see if he is ready to be the backup to both guys in 2013.
3. Miles Austin / Dwayne Harris
– Doing what you would expect your number one (or number two depending on your opinion) wide receiver to do when others are not 100%, Austin had a very solid effort catching 7 passes for 79 yards. Not only were the stats there, but also he really helped set a positive rhythm early in the game which the Cowboys have sorely lacked all year. As for Harris, he also stepped up and came to play. The stats are not going to jump out at you but three of his four catches went for first downs. Although it did not turn into points, he also had a huge punt return near the end of regulation to flip field position and get the crowd fired up.
3. Mike Jenkins
– As much as Albright, Austin and Harris stepped up with other players hurting or missing, Jenkins failed to do so with Morris Claiborne missing the game due to a concussion. Jenkins was the one who released Wallace onto safety help and then covered pretty much no one in particular. He also gave up the go ahead touchdown to Antonio Brown playing way off him in a goal to go situation. Lastly he had several lackadasical tackling efforts, so he really did not fulfill the “next man up” philosophy that Dallas tries to employ.
2. DeMarcus Ware
– The leader of the defensive unit was almost completely non-existent, save one big sack, late in the game when the Steelers were driving for the go-ahead score. Unfortunately, minimal pressures on Roethlisberger and only a handful of tackles were very underwhelming. The roughing the passer penalty was completely inexcusable. I know he came into the game banged up with shoulder and elbow issues but there are no excuses, especially this late in the year with so much on the line.
1. Danny McCray
– Multiple missed tackles, multiple catches from Heath Miller, getting smoked by a fullback out of the backfield and of course the biggest play of the day for Mike Wallace all led to the biggest failure in our secondary. McCray had the worst day of any Cowboy, offensively or defensively and almost cost Dallas a huge win.