By Matthew Postins
Six weeks ago, no one would have taken bets that the Cowboys would be a playoff team. But now, after winning five of their last six games, the Dallas Cowboys are, thanks to tiebreakers, in control of their own destiny when it comes to winning the NFC East.
The Cowboys defeated the Pittsburgh Steelers, 27-24, in overtime thanks to an offense that seems to have found its identity after 14 games and a defense that, despite being one of the league’s most banged-up units in the NFL, finds ways to make big plays when it matters the most.
It was the Cowboys defense that stopped the Steelers with two straight sacks of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger with the Steelers fighting their way into field goal range on their last drive in regulation. It was also the defense that set up the victory, as Dallas cornerback Brandon Carr’s interception on the fourth play of overtime put the Cowboys well into field goal range.
And the offense played with about as much efficiency as it has all season. So why did the Cowboys win?
Here’s how it all broke down.
Run Offense: The Steelers had the No. 1 run defense in the NFL coming into the game and the 81 yards it gave up to Dallas isn’t going to change that. But it was the quality of the 81 yards that mattered. From the start the Dallas offensive line dictated that the Cowboys were going to try and run the ball effectively. The Cowboys gained 4.1 yards per carry and DeMarco Murray had several quality runs in the contest. The signature was the touchdown run in the fourth quarter, a run that was set up oddly with two failed passes to wide receiver Dez Bryant. Most of the Steelers were guessing pass on the play. It might not have mattered. The Cowboys sealed the running lanes so well on the play that Murray could have walked in had the Steelers been anticipating run. They ran the stretch play effectively as well. The only real blemish was Murray’s fumble inside the Pittsburgh 5-yard line in the first quarter, which kept the Cowboys from scoring points that might have rendered the ending of this game much less dramatic.
Pass Offense: First let’s talk about Bryant. He was effective even with the injured finger. But the plays he made were plays in which he had time to break down and position his hands in a way in which he didn’t have to put much pressure on that left hand. The two incompletions in the end zone in the fourth quarter, on the drive where Murray eventually scored, were a good example of what Bryant won’t be able to do with his hand. He can’t catch passes where he has to extend his fingers to make the catch. But he caught a touchdown pass for the sixth straight game. The Cowboys knew the Steelers secondary was banged up so they worked the outside routes early in the game. Miles Austin was the chief beneficiary and had one of his better games of the year. The Steelers adjusted and so did the Cowboys, as they started working the seams and slants in the middle of the game. That got Jason Witten involved and that led to Witten’s touchdown reception in the first half. But other receivers made contributions. Little-used tight end James Hanna had two catches on the drive that led to Witten’s score. Consecutive catches by Dwayne Harris and Cole Beasley helped Dallas out of a 25-yard hole, moved the chains, and led to Bryant’s touchdown. Harris’ 17-yard reception also set up Murray’s score. The passing game shone with diverse weapons for the first time in quite some time. The protection was some of the best quarterback Tony Romo has had all year. The offensive line created a good pocket and stayed with blocks longer than in previous games.
Run Defense: The Steelers have struggled running the football this season and Dallas ensured that would continue on Sunday. The Steelers rushed for 69 net yards. Now that comes to a 4.1-yard average, but it was clear watching this game that Pittsburgh had trouble gaining inside yards on nose tackle Sean Lissemore and inside linebackers Dan Connor, Ernie Sims and Alex Albright. Isaac Redman had one big run, a 22-yarder late in the third quarter. But the rest of the game the Steelers gained what they could. Dallas did a great job crashing the interior of the Steelers’ offensive line. Without the effective run game the Steelers weren’t able to rely on play-action to create movement in the Dallas defense. It was one of Dallas’ more effective games against the run.
Pass Defense: This game started with Dallas nearly forcing three turnovers on the Steelers’ first offensive drive. It set a tone for aggressiveness that might have seemed foolish, given the Cowboys’ overall health. Dallas had trouble putting pressure on Roethlisberger in the first half, but did a great job blanketing wide receiver Mike Wallace. That left the flats and seams open for Roethlisberger and he used those to modest success. Roethlisberger’s ability to keep plays alive came into play on just about every drive, including his touchdown pass to Heath Miller in the first half, one in which Roethlisberger had the ball for nearly nine seconds. The Cowboys secondary had one big busted play, which was the 60-yard completion from Roethlisberger to Wallace in the second half. Roethlisberger’s pump fake had nothing to do with this play as both safeties, Danny McCray and Gerald Sensabaugh, failed to close quickly on the speedy Wallace, leaving him wide open on a play that led to a touchdown. It was also Pittsburgh’s only big play of the game. In the fourth quarter the Cowboys finally succeeded in getting consistent pressure on Roethlisberger and it paid off in stopping Pittsburgh’s potential game-winning drive in its tracks, with two straight sacks by Lissemore and Spencer. The Lissemore sack was especially smart, as he came on a stunt to the left of his normal position. Roethlisberger threw for 339 yards, but it was a workmanlike 339. Carr’s interception in overtime was the second time this season he’s turned a game with an interception. The Cowboys need more defensive plays like that.
Special Teams: Two plays stick out. First Cowboys linebacker Victor Butler forced Pittsburgh’s Antonio Brown to fumble on a punt return with 10:03 to play in the fourth quarter. Dallas’ John Phillips recovered the ball and that set up Murray’s touchdown run. The second was Dwayne Harris’ 39-yard punt return with a minute to play in the game. It didn’t lead to anything, but it did keep the Cowboys from operating deep in their own territory with the game on the line.
Coaching: You could say this was one of Garrett’s best overall coaching efforts. As offensive coordinator he called the right mix of run and pass and did a good job of calling plays that exploited the Steelers’ obvious issues in the secondary. I thought the two straight back-shoulder fades to Bryant in the fourth quarter was a bit much, but he more than made up for it with a savvy run call on third down that led to Murray’s score. As head coach he ran the game well and made no game-management errors. Defensive coordinator Rob Ryan did a good job of finding the right mix of personnel and scheme to mask the defense’s lack of frontline personnel. There were only two major mistakes and one had more to do with Roethlisberger’s ability to extend plays. Ryan stayed with the scheme and it paid off with pressure in the fourth quarter.
Injuries: The defense was further depleted as cornerback Morris Claiborne and safety Charlie Peprah were inactive. Mike Jenkins started at corner for Claiborne. Nose tackle Jay Ratliff was also out after sports hernia surgery earlier this week. Lissemore started in his place. Dallas linebacker Ernie Sims left the game before Pittsburgh’s second drive with a concussion and did not come back. Alex Albright played inside and played well. Pittsburgh wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders suffered a rib injury in the second quarter. Pittsburgh running back Isaac Redman was hurt on 22-yard run in third quarter and left the game for a couple of plays. Pittsburgh defensive back Keenan Lewis suffered a hip injury in the fourth quarter.
One more thing: The Cowboys have turned the ball over five times in the red zone this season.