When the Dallas Cowboys went to Heinz Field to take on the Pittsburgh Steelers on Nov. 13, 2016, everyone expected a solid performance between two storied franchises.
No one, however, expected the game to be one of the better contests during the 2016 NFL season. A back-and-forth affair between the rookie-led Cowboys and the experience-laden Steelers culminated in a 35-30 win for Dallas.
Although the 2020 rematch did not bring the same luster as the matchup close to four years its senior, it certainly turned heads. After all, an undefeated Steelers’ team going up against an injury-fractured and chemistry-laden Cowboys team should be an easy victory, right? Right?
Well, not so much, as the Steelers had to ride 15 unanswered points in the fourth quarter to pull away from Dallas, 24-19. How did the Cowboys look during the game, though? Well, let’s look into it, shall we?
The Cowboy quarterback carousel is certainly up-and-running, as the team went with their third different signal-caller in as many weeks. For the bout against Pittsburgh, Dallas went with 29-year-old Garrett Gilbert in what would be the SMU product’s first career NFL start. Many would not expect a practice squad pickup to produce against a sack-savvy Steelers’ defensive core, but instead, Gilbert performed well, given the circumstances. Over the course of the game, Gilbert went 21/38 for 243 yards, one touchdown and one interception. Gilbert’s 243 yards, in fact, would be the most for a Cowboys’ quarterback making his first career start since Tony Romo threw for 270 in his starting debut against the Carolina Panthers on Oct. 29, 2006. On the rushing side of the ball, Tony Pollard once again did more with less, as the running back grounded and pounded for 57 yards on nine attempts, compared to franchise rusher Ezekiel Elliott rushing for 51 on 18 attempts.
Although the injured offensive line allowed not-too-timely penetration to Gilbert, the offense looked more poised than in previous games. So poised, in fact, that they had a shot against Pittsburgh late in the fourth quarter. More emphasis on rollouts and lengthening the opposing defense down the field made this possible, as Gilbert was able to read the field and find receivers much more efficiently than Ben DiNucci last week. Although the offense never will be as explosive without Dak Prescott, it can at least be watchable. Maybe it can be with Gilbert. Will he get the starting nod moving forward, however? What will it be, Cowboys’ brass?
The Cowboys’ defensive unit was able to hold Pittsburgh to 355 total yards. This offensive total, surprisingly, would be less than the Cowboys’ total on offense (364). When looking at the overall intangibles, the Cowboys’ defense looked more aggressive. Sure, the aggressiveness did not lead to turnovers, but it did lead to a sense of paranoia, as Pittsburgh offensively remained out of sync for the majority of the game. This was especially apparent on the rushing side of Pittsburgh’s offense, as running back James Connor was held to his lowest rushing yard total (22 yards) since Week 1 against the New York Giants (nine yards). Although Dallas collected a pair of fourth-down stops, Pittsburgh’s talent eventually leaped over the mishaps and pulled away late via a pair of passing touchdowns from Ben Roethlisberger in the fourth quarter.
The box score shows a loss, but regardless of the outcome, the Cowboys’ defense should feel better about their performance when compared to other games this season. After all, they were able to hold an undefeated team (offensive mid-life crisis aside) to nine points in the first half. The challenge to build off of the performance will prove to be a difficult one, though, as rookie cornerback Trevon Diggs fractured a bone in his foot and could be out for the remainder of the year. How will the defense respond moving forward?
Greg Zuerlein was busy (and perfect) once more as the 32-year-old kicker accounted for 13 of the Cowboys’ 19 points (four field goals, one extra-point). Two of Zuerlein’s four field goals were beyond 40 yards (44 and 45 yards). The success between 40-49 yards has been pivotal for Zuerlein, as he is perfect within that range this season (9-9). Additionally, Zuerlein has been perfect from 20-29 yards (1-1) and 30-39 yards (6-6) this season. For a Cowboys’ offense desperate for points, Zuerlein is providing what he can with the kicks.
The Cowboys go into their scheduled bye week before heading north to take on the Minnesota Vikings Nov. 22.