Opponent preview: Pittsburgh Steelers

Dallas Cowboys logoThe Dallas Cowboys (7-6) will face the Pittsburgh Steelers (7-6) this Sunday. Here’s a look at the Steelers entering the contest.

On Offense: This was the year the Steelers were supposed to get back to straight-ahead, smash-mouth football. That hasn’t transpired, as the Steelers are ranked No. 24 in the NFL in rushing, averaging 98.6 yards per game. What’s the problem? For starters the backfield is more banged up than Dallas’ backfield ever was this season. Three different backs have started games this season – Rashard Mendenhall, Isaac Redman and Jonathan Dwyer. All three have also missed games with injuries, and Mendenhall won’t play this week after the Steelers suspended him for one game for conduct detrimental to the team.  But there is a definite lack of continuity in the backfield. The offensive line is banged up too. Tackle Mike Adams and guard Willie Colon are both out for Sunday’s game. The Steelers are weighing their options. They could move right guard Ramon Foster to Colon’s left guard spot and start rookie David DeCastro on the right side against Dallas. Kelvin Beachum, a rookie from SMU, is Adams’ backup. Their inability to run the football has forced the Steelers to go to the air more often. Doesn’t that sound familiar? The Steelers’ passing game is No. 11 overall, averaging 243.2 yards per game. Starting quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is back from his injury, and is coming off a solid performance in which he threw for nearly 300 yards and three touchdowns. Only thing is the Steelers lost to San Diego at home, something they had never done. Like Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo, Roethlisberger is mobile enough to extend plays and creative enough to turn nothing into something. Tight end Heath Miller is having a resurgent season, giving starting wide receiver Mike Wallace a great compliment. Wide receiver Antonio Brown, who has great vertical speed, has been banged up and that compelled the Steelers to re-sign Plaxico Burress recently. The Steelers may seek to attack Dallas more by air, as the Cowboys have given up five passing touchdowns the past three weeks. If the running game doesn’t produce, they won’t have a choice.

On Defense: Typical Steelers defense. The unit is ranked No. 1 overall, No. 1 against the pass and No. 4 against the run. It also hasn’t given up 300 total yards in any of its last eight games. The defense has steadied the team while the offense has gone through a batch of injuries in the past four to six weeks. The defense is exceptionally healthy for December. Outside linebacker James Harrison is battling an illness and missed practice Wednesday and Thursday. Safety Troy Polamalu, who has battled injuries all season, should play. Outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley is practicing with an ankle injury and should play. The only defensive starter ruled out for Sunday’s game is safety Ike Taylor. With the Steelers there aren’t many surprises. They still employ the zone blitz scheme that defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau practically pioneered, a system that made Harrison and Polamalu stars. But even though this unit is one of the NFL’s best there are a couple of reasons why the team has lost six games. First, the defense has just 27 sacks, a relatively low number for a unit experienced at getting to the quarterback. Second the unit may be weary. The Steelers have a minus-13 turnover ratio and the offense is leaving them on the field too often. In four of their six losses the Steelers have given up at least 26 points. Teams that beat the Steelers are finding ways to hang in there against a tough defense and taking advantage of a tiring defense.

On Special Teams: Kicker Shaun Suisham has been reliable all season and has missed one field goal. Punter Drew Butler is averaging nearly 44 yards a punt, but has had a punt blocked this season. Chris Rainey averages more than 26 yards per punt return. Emmanuel Sanders has the better numbers on punt returns but is questionable. You’ll most likely see Antonio Brown. The coverage units have given up one touchdown this season.

Overall: This Steelers team doesn’t feel like a typical Steelers team. While the defense is top-notch the offense has been off all season. The Steelers jettisoned offensive coordinator Bruce Arians for Todd Haley and it seems an odd fit, considering Haley is known more for the pass. The Steelers weathered Roethlisberger’s injury and they need him healthy for the stretch drive, so the injuries on the offensive line must be driving him nuts. He could have two rookies playing in front of him Sunday. The Steelers always keep it close and, like the Cowboys, have something to play for in a postseason berth. Roethlisberger has played well against the Cowboys in both meetings. If the Steelers win, it will likely be due to Roethlisberger and a stifling defense.