Two of the NFL’s most successful franchises face off with playoff hopes directly on the line
The Pittsburgh Steelers and the Dallas Cowboys will each be looking to stay above .500 and in the thick of the playoff hunt when they face off this afternoon at 4:25 p.m. ET on CBS. The Steelers (7-6) are currently holding onto the final wild-card spot in the AFC, while the Cowboys (7-6) need to keep winning to have any hopes of securing a postseason berth in the NFC bracket.
The Steelers and Cowboys have played each other 30 times over the years, with the series tied at 15 victories apiece. Three of these meetings were Super Bowl matchups, with Pittsburgh holding a 2-1 edge, although Dallas won the last one, a 27-17 victory in Super Bowl XXX in 1996. The Steelers have won the last two regular-season meetings, the most recent being a 20-13 home victory on Dec. 7, 2008.
When the Pittsburgh Steelers have the ball:
Pittsburgh’s offense has been somewhat one-dimensional this season, as injuries and a lack of production from the backfield have put much of the burden on the passing game. The Steelers are 19th in the NFL in total offense with 341.8 yards per game and 21st in scoring with 21.4 points per contest. The running game is generating less than 100 yards on the ground per game, as Jonathan Dwyer, Rashard Mendenhall and Isaac Redman have all taken their turns as lead back. Dwyer is the current starter and he leads the team with 510 yards, but has just one rushing touchdown. As a team, the Steelers have just seven rushing scores with Redman and little-used rookie Chris Rainey sharing the team lead with two apiece. As a result, the offense has leaned more on the arm of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and the aerial attack, and for the most part, Big Ben has responded. He’s the league’s sixth-rated passer with 20 touchdowns and only five interceptions. However, he’s only 22nd in passing yards with 2,572 although he did miss Weeks 11-13 because of injury. Vertical threat Mike Wallace has been inconsistent at best for most of the season, as he’s averaging a mere 12.3 yards per reception. He is coming off his best game, an 11-catch, two-touchdown effort against San Diego, so perhaps he has turned the corner. The most reliable weapons in the passing game this season have been tight end Heath Miller, who leads the team with 61 catches and has seven touchdowns, and wide receiver Antonio Brown. Turnovers have been a bit of an issue as well, especially when Roethlisbeger has not been under center. Backup quarterbacks Charlie Batch and Byron Leftwich have combined to throw five interceptions during their time on the field and the Steelers as a team have fumbled the ball away 14 times.
Dallas’ defense is 11th in the league in terms of yards allowed at 372.1 per game, but only 22nd in points allowed at 24.2 per contest. The Cowboys have fared much better against the pass, where they are ranked eighth (217.8 ypg), compared to slowing down the run. They are 16th against the run, surrendering an average of 118.8 yards on the ground per game, and have seen that total rise to nearly 150 over their last four. Even with DeMarcus Ware (11 sacks) getting pressure from wherever he lines up, the Cowboys have not been able to collect a large number of sacks. They have just 29 on the season and also have been unable to create many turnovers. The Cowboys have only six interceptions so far, the fewest of any team, and have produced a total of 14 turnovers.
When the Dallas Cowboys have the ball:
Dallas’ offense is right up there among the league’s leaders when it comes to yards gained as the Cowboys are averaging 372 per game. The same cannot be said for the damage done on the scoreboard, however, as they are tied for 15th in scoring offense at 23.1 points per game. The ground game has certainly not carried its share of the load, as a foot injury to running back DeMarco Murray caused him to miss six games and is a big reason why the team ranks second-to-last in the league in rushing offense at less than 80 yards per game. This means the Cowboys are averaging close to 300 yards passing per game, which is also why quarterback Tony Romo is second in the NFL with 349 completions, fourth in passing yards with 3,928 and fifth in attempts with 526. However, with all of those passes comes a degree of risk, as evidenced by Romo’s 16 interceptions, which are the third-most in the league. To be fair, 11 of Romo’s picks have come in two games and he has just three total over his last five outings. Pass protection issues (31 sacks allowed, tied for 10th ) and untimely penalties also have contributed to the offense’s struggles, as Romo has shown what he’s capable of doing when given the time. Wide receiver Dez Bryant has been red hot lately, with seven touchdown receptions over his last five games, but his status for this afternoon is somewhat in doubt as he suffered a broken finger last week against Cincinnati. He has said he will put off surgery for now and play with the fractured digit, but even if he doesn’t miss any time, teammates Miles Austin and Jason Witten will each need to step up to take some of the load off of him. Regardless of who makes the plays for the Cowboys, they need to make sure they hold onto the ball when they get it. Besides the interceptions, they have lost eight fumbles, giving them the third-most turnovers in the NFC.
Pittsburgh’s defense leads the NFL in both total (262.4 ypg) and passing (169.2 ypg) defense, and also is among the top seven in rushing (93.2 ypg, 5th) and scoring (20.3 ppg, 7th) defense. These numbers are even more impressive considering the fact that the Steelers have dealt with numerous injuries to key personnel, notably in the secondary, and haven’t produced that many sacks or turnovers. The defense has had to play a good part of the season without All-Pro Troy Polamalu at safety, and although Polamalu has since returned, the secondary is now without the services of cornerback Ike Taylor, who isn’t likely to return until Week 17 at the earliest. There also have been injuries to linebackers LaMarr Woodley and James Harrison, one of the reasons why the defense has only 26 sacks, to go along with a total of 12 takeaways. Still, this is an experienced, veteran unit well versed in defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau’s complex schemes that has been able to get the job done for the most part.
The NFL has presented its fans with quite the early Christmas present as they get to see Pittsburgh and Dallas, two of the sport’s most recognizable and successful franchises, get together for a game that’s equally important for both teams. The Steelers and Cowboys are tied for the most postseason wins (33) and Super Bowl appearances (8) in NFL history and collectively have won 11 league championships. However, if either team has any hopes of adding to these numbers this season they need to win out, starting with this afternoon’s game. Pittsburgh is coming off of a disappointing showing at home to San Diego, but the offense got its field general back and this is a veteran team that’s been down this road before. Dallas appears to be riding some momentum after last week’s comeback win in Cincinnati, but more often than not the Cowboys have been their own worst enemy with turnovers, costly penalties and inopportune breakdowns in execution, and face a tougher hill to climb than the Steelers when it comes to making the playoffs. Dallas also caught another bad break, if you will, with the news of Dez Bryant’s fractured finger, as he’s been the team’s most explosive and productive player over the last month or so. Even if Bryant makes good on his promise of playing in this game, I think the injury and the Steelers’ defense will keep the Cowboys’ offense in check, setting the stage for Ben Roethlisberger to engineer another game-winning drive in the fourth quarter, this one coming in the house that Jerry (Jones) built.
Steelers 23, Cowboys 20