Hritz: Steelers Versus Cowboys Preview & Prediction – Week 15

By Jeremy Hritz

Hritz 2012 Prediction Record: 8-5

RANKINGS Pittsburgh Dallas
Offense 19th (341.8) 10th (372.1)
Rushing 25th (98.6) 31st (79.8)
Passing 11th (243.2) 3rd (292.2)
PPG 21st (21.4) 15th (23.1)
Defense 1st (262.4) 11th (336.6)
Rushing 5th (93.2) 16th (118.8)
Passing 1st (169.2) 22nd (217.8)
PPG 7th (20.3) 22nd (24.2)

There has been much attention given to the showdown next week in Pittsburgh against the Cincinnati Bengals as it will determine who will clinch the sixth seed in the AFC. What has been overlooked and minimized as a result of this discussion is the match-up that will take place in Texas on Sunday at 4:25 PM when the Steelers play the Dallas Cowboys. While the game does not have any bearing on the Steelers earning a Wild Card spot, it could have a tremendous bearing on this team’s confidence as it has yet to find a rhythm and groove that will be essential if it is to win games in the playoffs.

Earlier this season, the Pittsburgh Steelers strung together four victories and were playing solid football until the Kansas City game when Ben Roethlisberger nearly punctured his aorta. Since that time, the momentum gained has fizzled and the team has been inconsistent and unfocused. That’s why this game is so important: the Steelers must build momentum moving forward. The Steelers need to play well against Dallas, establish some consistency, and depart with a win. If they can manage this, their chances next week against the Bengals, and moving forward in the playoffs will be that much more promising.

Injuries this season have been a bear, and you can point to them as the reason why there has been so much inconsistency. Four of their losses have been by six points or less, two of those games without Roethlisberger. While pointless to play the what-if game, it is absurd to not consider the magnitude of this team’s injuries this year and the impact that they have had on the outcomes of games. Are the Steelers as bad as the team that we watched get pounded last weekend against the San Diego Chargers? Probably not. But what has been holding this team back is the myriad injuries and the lack of continuity that has resulted.

Heading into Dallas, the Steelers are beginning to show signs of getting healthy, with LaMarr Woodley returning, as well as David DeCastro. This will be Big Ben’s second game since returning, and Troy Polamalu and Antonio Brown should now be close to returning to form. If the team can continue to get players back to full health and avoid any other injuries from this point on, they should be able to play at their highest possible level, a level that will make them a threat to any team that they will play in the playoffs.

The major concern tomorrow is the absence of Ike Taylor and Cortez Allen. While many of us, including myself, condemned Taylor early in the season, his absence was felt last week against the Chargers as Philip Rivers did as he pleased against Allen and Curtis Brown on third downs. Now, heading into Dallas to play against the third ranked passing offense, there has to be great reason for concern regarding the secondary. While Keenan Lewis should be able to hold his own, Brown is not proving his value, and Josh Victorian has just not seen enough playing time. Though injured, Dez Bryant, along with Miles Austin and Jason Witten, are truly going to test the Steelers passing defense. The great equalizer for the injuries in the secondary will have to come in the form of a pass rush from James Harrison and Woodley, though there is no reason to have much confidence in that happening since it hasn’t all season. With that said, the Cowboys will probably amass lots of yardage through the air. The Steelers best hope defensively is to limit big plays for touchdowns.

Because I see the Cowboys exploiting an inexperienced secondary and ineffective pass rush, the pressure will be put on Roethlisberger and the offense to match the scores of Tony Romo and company, and this is something that I like in this match up for no other reason than it has not happened all year. Let’s be honest, this team is only going to go as far as Roethlisberger takes them, and his play needs to ignite in order for them to make a serious push in the post-season. In his second game back from injury, look for Roethlisberger and his receivers to be sharp, and the deep passes that we saw against the Chargers to continue. For the majority of the year, the Steelers predicated their offense on the short passes, and while this will still be a focus of the offense, Roethlisberger’s strength has always been the big play down the field, something that Todd Haley can only hold back for so long. And how much longer can Mike Wallace and Brown continue to drop passes?

Expect a big day from Big Ben and the offense as he outduels Romo and brings out a frown on the expensive face of Jerry Jones.

Steelers 31 Cowboys 27

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