The Cowboys defeated the Steelers to the tune of 35-30 at Heinz Field, in a thrilling game that came down to the wire, but ultimately gave Pittsburgh its 4th straight loss. But the game revealed something about the Steelers that can’t quite be measured in numbers.
- The Cowboys 35-30 win over the Steelers confirmed an unpleasant truth this team:
The 2016 Steelers simply are not that good and, worse yet, the process of finding out just how bad the are may not yet be over.
Former Dynasties Heading in Opposite Directions
The history that the Pittsburgh Steelers and Dallas Cowboys have authored together makes any matchup between these two NFL flagship franchises special. They are the only two Super Bowl dynasties to collide twice in contests that ended with a Lombardi Trophy presentation. A generation later, Dallas’ win in Super Bowl XXX conferred extra legitimacy to the Jerry Jones/Jimmy Johnson dynasty of the 90’s – no one could claim the Cowboys simply benefited by beating a series of snake bitten Buffalo Bills teams.
- The Steelers-Cowboys matchups of the 21st century haven’t been as definitive, but all of them have been revealing.
The Steelers 2004 win in Texas Stadium helped Ben Roethlisberger prove he was for real. The 2008 Steelers win showed just how resilient the eventual Super Bowl Champions were. And Pittsburgh’s 2012 loss at Jerry’s World unveiled a Steelers team in rebuilding mode, unable to summon the rebound magic of season’s past.
- And so it is with the Dallas Cowboys win over the 2016 Steelers.
Mike Tomlin’s crew certainly made several impressive plays in all three phases of the game. But it was the plays they failed to make that defined the game and have defined the season as one where the Steelers are most certainly slipping. (The Dallas Cowboys for their part, are clearly on the rise.)
A Few Things that Went Right….
When the history books close on the 2016 Steelers season, larger events will likely relegate much of what comes in this section to footnotes. And so it should. No team ever won a Lombardi Trophy because of its “almosts” “could haves” or “would haves.” With that acknowledged, let’s highlight some of the things the Steelers did right on this occasion.
- Anthony Chickillo’s strip sack and Ryan Shazier’s fumble recovery started the game with a welcome spark.
- The Steelers Red Zone offense and Le’Veon Bell’s transformed that error into a touchdown
- Eli Rogers and Jesse James stepped up to make excellent catches on another touchdown drive
And there you have a flash of what the 2016 Steelers are capable of when they’re at their best. When things are clicking, the Steelers offense can play with any team in the league. But things didn’t click all of the time for the offense and, of course, there’s the matter of the defense….
For all intents and purposes, the Steelers lost this game in the third quarter. The Steelers seemed to be making a decisive statement by starting out the second half with a 36 yard strike to Cobi Hamilton. Three plays later, a pass interference penalty put the Steelers in the Red Zone, but Pittsburgh had to settle for a Chris Boswell field goal.
Up until that point, the Steelers had been winning the time of possession battle, but on the next series, the Cowboys turned the tables, burning 7:35 and converting multiple 3rd and 1’s along the way. Dallas had to settle for a field goal, but the Cowboys were now dictating the tempo of the game.
The Steelers looked primed to get that back when two Le’Veon Bell runs gave Pittsburgh a 3rd and 3, but protection broke down, Ben Roethlisberger got sacked, and the Steelers went 3 and out. Then, as if on cue, things began to unravel, as they do for this Steelers team:
- Jordan Berry boomed off a spectacular punt, only to have Lucky Whitehead return it 39 yards.
Although Dallas had a short field, the Steelers defense appeared to have the Cowboys on the ropes, when a penalty transformed 3rd and 1 to 3rd and 11. What happened next shows why Keith Butler’s defense has regressed so badly this season.
Keith Butler turned around the Steelers defense in 2015 by producing sacks and turnovers. This year both have been in short supply. Butler has as much as admitted that one reason he has blitzed less frequently is because his young secondary can’t be counted on to take care of business downfield.
- Proof of that came when the Steelers blitzed the house but failed to pressure Dak Prescott, and Dez Bryant burned Artie Burns (pun fully intended.)
The Steelers next possession began at the end of the third quarter, lasted 6 plays and just 3 minutes and ended as the 4th quarter began with a punt. The Steelers began the quarter nursing a 15 to 13 lead. They ended it trailing 23 to 18. That tells you (almost) everything you need to know about the game and the 2016 Steelers.
Ezekiel Elliott Exposes 2016 Steelers Defense
Hats off to Jerry Jones, Stephen Jones and/or Jason Garrett for drafting Ezekiel Elliott. Elliot is the type of blue-chip player that, if he remains healthy, could help revive the forgotten “Franchise Running back.” But the Pittsburgh Steelers defense once prided itself on shutting down players like this (see holding Emmitt Smith to under 50 yards, albeit in a loss, in the Super Bowl.)
- Those days are over.
A lot of what is wrong with Steelers 2016 defense can be explained by the fact that Keith Butler is playing two rookies in the secondary before either is really ready. The Steelers were counting on Bud Dupree and Senquez Golson, neither of whom have played a snap. Outside of Chickillo’s strip-sack and the Stephon Tuitt James Harrison sack, the Steelers defense generated zero pass rush.
Fair enough. Pressure, tight coverage, sacks and turnovers go-hand-in-hand and the Steelers are missing many pieces they expected to have as recently as the run test in Latrobe.
- But there’s something else amiss with this Steelers defense, as exhibited by Ezekiel Elliott.
Ezekiel Elliot logged 209 yards from scrimmage and he scored 3 touchdowns where nary a Steelers defender laid a hand on him with the last one coming when everyone knew the game was on the line.
I’ll leave it to the more educated eye to pick apart the film to finger what scheme and/or which players were at fault, but the bottom line is simple: A good defense doesn’t allow that to happen; an average defense doesn’t allow that to happy. Only bad defenses allow that to happen.
There’s no sugar coating things, the Steelers 2016 defense is bad. Very bad.
Steelers Spiral Continues, with No End in Sight.
Steel Curtain Rising opened the season arguing that the 2016 Steelers would only go as far as their defense could take them. Nine games into the season, Steelers Nation can see this painful dynamic at work: Ben Roethlisberger getting the ball into Antonio Brown’s hands 14 times doesn’t cut it when your defense plays spectator to Ezekiel Elliott running though the secondary. That is bad enough, but right now something more insidious is at play:
- The 2016 Pittsburgh Steelers are learning how to lose games.
The Steelers started down this path during the 0-4 start in 2013 and only truly broke out of it at the end of 2014. Now they’re a team headed so far in the wrong direction that even victory against the 0-9 Browns on the road is far from a sure thing.
Mike Tomlin can talk all he wants about “We own what we put on tape,” he can continue to “Accept responsibility for everything.” He needs to find a way to get his players to stop losing games, and he needs to do it fast.