Failure on Fundamentals and Focus Costs Steelers in Loss to Dallas

The Pittsburgh Steelers and the Dallas Cowboys are the NFL’s two most popular and by most measures, most successful franchises. They’ve now faced off 31 times, with Dallas holding a one game advantage in the series. Its hard to generalize about the series, given that:

  • Super Bowl X and Super Bowl XIII came down to which team’s Hall of Famers could make more plays
  • One quarterback’s mistakes empowered the other team’s Hall of Famers secure victory in Super Bowl XXX 
  • Opening day match upd in 1994 and 1997 alternatively served as harbingers and mirages of the season to come

If there’s one constant that’s run through this series of two true NFL titans it is dramatic finishes.

The Steelers second journey to Jerry’s World certainly lacked no fair for the dramatic, but unfortunately for Steelers Nation, Pittsburgh lost because it came up short on both fundamentals and focus.

It’s Keeping Your Eye on the Ball, Stupid

The last few weeks have been a non-stop roller coaster ride for the Pittsburgh Steelers. From losing Ben Roethlisberger vs. Kansas City, to losing Bryon Leftwich after the Ravens loss, to the turnover debacle in Cleveland, to Charlie Batch’s stunning upset in Baltimore, to the equally shocking self destruction vs. San Diego the ups and downs have not stopped.

When the Steelers took to the field for the game’s first possession, the question on everyone’s mind was, “Which Pittsburgh Steelers squad will show up today?”

The answer as previewed on the Steelers first drive left everyone in Steelers Nation queasy. After a nice six yard run by Jonathan Dwyer, Ben Roethlisberger threw:

  • A deep pass to Mike Wallace that Wallace probably should have caught and Dallas probably should have intercepted
  • A short pass to Antonio Brown that he might have been able to catch and that Dallas should have intercepted
  • A deep ball to Emmanuel Sanders that he caught and fumbled, only to have mercifully ruled as an incompletion upon review
  • Another pass that got batted around by Dallas defenders like a volley ball

Sadly, the sight of Drew Butler on fourth down was sign of relief. Things didn’t get much better on the Steelers next possession which ended with Mike Wallace making what looked to be a beautiful catch, only for him to fail to get both feet in bounds.

Even more sadly, these first two series most certainly foreshadowed things to come for the Steelers, although that might not have been immediately apparent.

Keep’n ‘em Honest in Texas

Tony Romo entered the game on a real hot streak, and figured to feast mightily on a Steelers secondary  missing Ike Taylor and Cortez Allen and featuring someone named Josh Victorian starting at corner.

The record will, and should, reflect that Romo and his receivers did pick the Steelers secondary apart for much of the afternoon. At one point Romo was 20-25.

But that’s only part of the story. As has happened all season, in both victory and defeat, members from across the roster have made plays to keep the Steelers in the game.

  • Keenan Lewis broke up a pass to Dez Bryant to hold Dallas to a field goal
  • James Harrison knocked the ball loose from Demarco Murray at the goal line with Brett Keisel recovering
  • Lawrence Timmons smothered Murray on third and one to end Dallas first 3rd quarter possession
  • James Harrison sacked Tony Romo on an attempt to sneak something big on another 3rd and 1

Big plays weren’t solely limited to the defense. Near the end of the first half, Ben Roethlisberger flawlessly executed the 2 minute drill, and completing 3 passes to Heath Miller including a 30 yard touchdown. He also threw a 60 yarder to Mike Wallace to set up Dwyer’s second touchdown.

Jerricho Cotchery, Mike Wallace and Isaac Redman also made excellent plays on the drive the culminated with Antonio Brown’s go ahead touchdown in the fourth quarter.

Failing on the Fundamentals

Although that touchdown gave Pittsburgh its first lead in the game, it also held the seeds for its downfall. Brown made an excellent catch on a very low pass, but the pass was low, as had been several others of Roethlisberger. Even as Pittsburgh was pulling ahead, its fundamentals were flawed.

  • Brown himself would make that painfully clear in just a few minutes. 

A series of Dallas penalties and incomplete passes brought up 4th and 19 for the Cowboys. Not surprisingly, Jason Garrett opted to punt.

Antonio Brown fielded the ball and tore through the defense en route to giving Pittsburgh excellent field position, if not something bigger…

  • …Then he put the ball on the ground.

The repossession gave Dallas new life and they quickly tied the game. As he did on other drives, Tony Romo exploited the youth and inexperience of the Steelers corners, but he was even more successful because the Steelers failed to tackle cleanly, regularly yielding Dallas extra yards after the catch.

Things cascaded after that point.

The Steelers make shift offensive line, complete with David DeCastro making his first start, had done a workman like job, only allowing 1 sack in the game’s first 54 minutes.

  • The Steelers next possession was ended by a sack on third down
  • On the following possession, Roethlisberger was sacked on consecutive downs, for 8 yards each time 
  • On the next play Antonio Brown inexplicably gave Dallas an extra time out by running out of bounds

Sure, the game went into over time anyway, but perhaps that extra time out is what allow Dallas to pin Pittsburgh deep and with no time to end regulation.

  • Finally, overtime ended with Ben Roethlisberger threw a risky pass and paid the price.

Against the Dallas Cowboys the Pittsburgh Steelers played hard and at times played well. But too often they ignored core fundamentals and ultimately lacked focus at key times.

They now need to find both fast, to have any hope of saving their season.

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