The Steelers are coming off their biggest win of the season against the Baltimore Ravens. After coming out of the gauntlet of their schedule 3-0, they now head to Dallas to face the Cowboys. The entire NFC East is in flux, but the Cowboys seemingly have no idea since losing Dak Prescott for the year. What are the Steelers facing when they face the struggling Cowboys on Sunday?
On offense, the Cowboys still run a West Coast offense similar to the one Mike McCarthy ran during his time in Green Bay. A key point of his entire offense is to move the chains through quick concepts. That often means he will pass early and often, although that could change with their quarterback issues right now. All of it coalesces in trying to keep the defense off guard to try and open up the running game and deep passing attack.
This is a standard part of the Cowboys playbook. They want to spread defenses out and attack them at the sticks or just behind the sticks. Most importantly, they want to attack with their concepts all over the field to utilize the spacing of their route concepts. On the front side of this play, the Cowboys run double slants while on the backside they have a double curl concept. This is all about either beating the cornerback or finding the soft spot in those underneath zones. CeeDee Lamb finds that soft spot and gets open for the first down. The receivers have to feel leverage and spacing in the McCarthy scheme
On the ground, ever since Prescott was injured, the Cowboys have to utilize trickeration and misdirection. They always try to spread defenses out which is standard for the West Coast offense. The running backs get used in the passing game too. However, motion and reverses have become the norm for the Dallas offense over the last few weeks. They send Tony Pollard in motion here, give it to him on a pop pass, and when it looks like he will throw it back to Lamb, Pollard just keeps it through the alley. For a linebacker, this is hard to process through the normal keys. The Steelers will have to be mindful of this misdirection.
As for the running game, McCarthy’s scheme calls for a lot of zone runs. Outside zone, in particular, is a staple in the Cowboys offensive attack. However, split zone, midzone, and inside zone all show up along with some gap runs including duo. The Cowboys almost always run to the strong side of their formation and like to get into 12 personnel for these outside zone runs to create extra gaps for the edge defender to guard.
The Cowboys, even with Mike Nolan coming on board, stuck to their guns and run a 4-3 defense. The key to this defense is that it tries to get flexible on the back end in a pattern-matching scheme that will allow them to disguise coverages and blitzes to the quarterback pre-snap. Unfortunately for the Cowboys, they simply do not have the personnel to run such a complicated scheme on the back end of the defense. Regardless, this is a defense that will get aggressive and try to force turnovers with their schematics.
Players to Watch
WRs Amari Cooper, CeeDee Lamb, Michael Gallup, and Cedrick Wilson Jr
With Garrett Gilbert set to start, the Cowboys are hoping he is able to take advantage of this talented wide receiver group. There is no question that this quartet of receivers is one of the best in the entire league. Cooper is a ridiculously talented route runner who creates easy separation. Lamb is a tough football player who makes all the tough catches look easy. He is dangerous after the catch. Gallup has phenomenal body control and acts as a pseudo-deep threat on the boundary. Out of the slot, Wilson Jr is quick and shifty. That leaves him as a big-play threat. The Steelers need to shut these four players down.
OG Zack Martin
Arguably the best guard in football, Zack Martin is the one constant for the Cowboys on a truly battered and bruised offensive line. Without La’el Collins or Tyron Smith, it will be an uphill climb. Ezekiel Elliott is dealing with a hamstring injury as well, but Martin could provide some sort of spark as a pulling guard. Against Stephon Tuitt, it will be a battle of elite players on the interior in pass protection. Martin is the one guy the Cowboys can run behind with lots of confidence, however.
DE Aldon Smith
Dealing with a knee injury, Smith may not be fully up to health, but he has been a weapon for the Cowboys this season. Smith can have been a difference-maker as a pass rusher. Just like during his time in San Francisco, it is Smith’s burst and bend that is so rare for the position. His talent has to be neutralized by the Steelers front if they want to keep Ben Roethlisberger upright today.
Matchups to Watch
TJ Watt and Bud Dupree vs Terrence Steele and Cam Erving
Make no mistake, the Cowboys are overmatched across the line, but especially on the outside here with their tackles. There should be no reason Watt and Dupree can not eat on Sunday. Both players have had their numerous struggles over this year against less impressive players, and even with chips, Dupree and Watt still got to Lamar Jackson last week. If the Cowboys can not figure out a way to at least slow down these two, it is going to be a long day for them offensively.
Steelers Receivers vs Cowboys Secondary
The Cowboys secondary has not been good this year at all. They have been exploited deep and in man coverage. Meanwhile, the Steelers receiving corps has yet to be shut down for an entire game. With such a deep group of pass-catchers and mismatches across the board, it is hard to see how the Cowboys can slow the Steelers offense as long as they take care of the football.