On a beautiful autumn afternoon the largest home crowd in the the history of the Pittsburgh Steelers saw an amazingly entertaining game between the home team and the Dallas Cowboys. And plenty of folks went home happy. Heinz Field was loaded with Cowboys fans who got to see the visitors beat the Steelers 35-30, scoring the dramatic game-winning touchdown with just 00:09 left. In a reversal of last week’s performance the offense was excellent, but the defense struggled, giving up two 75-yard TD drives in the last eight minutes. The loss dropped the Steelers below .500 for the first time since week one of last season when they lost the season-opener to the Patriots.
*Linebacker/special teams player Steven Johnson suffered a broken ankle early in the game, likely ending his season. Shamarko Thomas, who actually played a couple defensive snaps early in this game, suffered a groin pull. He missed three weeks with the same injury earlier this year and might also be a candidate for season-ending injured reserve. It was also reported Sunday the DeAngelo Williams had arthroscopic surgery this week. Mike Tomlin characterized the injury as week-to-week, not long-term.
The inactive list was straight forward. Williams, WRs Darrius Heyward-Bey and Markus Wheaton and safety Jordan Dangerfield didn’t dress due to injury. Also not dressing were third-string QB Zach Mettenberger, OL Brian Mihalik, and DL L.T. Walton.
Maurkice Pouncey played the entire game after dislocating his thumb and having surgery last week. Free agent TE Ladarius Green, signed this past offseason, was activated from the PUP list Saturday and played 12 snaps and made 3 catches for 30 yards. LB L.J. Fort was released to make room for Green.
Sunday saw a much better performance from Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers offense, aligning with what they have been able to do at home so often the past few years. They tied their season-high with 30 first downs, went 4-5 in the red zone and were the first team to put up more than 23 points on the Cowboys this season. They were able to drive for touchdowns twice in the fourth quarter to take the lead. But it wasn’t enough. The Steelers are going to have to learn how to take this type of performance on the road as they play four of their next five away from Heinz Field.
And that has to start with Ben. Remarkably, Roethlisberger has yet to play a game this year where he has recorded a passer-rating between 80.0-112.0. He’s posted four games with a passer rating less than 80.0 and the team is 1-3, with all three losses coming on the road. And he’s posted four games with a passer rating above 112.0, three at home, and the team is 3-1, 2-1 at home, with the loss coming Sunday.
*Ben was very good in this one and his receivers made a bunch of tough, challenged catches. The fake-spike TD to Antonio Brown was a thing of beauty. While 19 players on the field were basically doing nothing, the corner covering AB, Leon McFadden, actually stayed with the play. This was no gimme TD. Ben made a perfect throw to a spot and AB ran hard to get there. Again, the DB played it about as well as you can. The execution was just too good.
*Antonio Brown was very good, making a bunch of challenged catches and finding separation late in the game. He finished with 14 catches in 18 targets for a 154 yards and a TD. (I will note that is 44-yard catch-and-run-out-of-bounds on the last play of the game was meaningless. I have no idea why he didn’t cut back to the middle of the field. It happened, but it just inflates his and Ben’s numbers.)
*Le’Veon Bell’s two TDs look pedestrian on the stat sheet, a 2-yard TD catch and 1-yard TD run, but were both great plays. The first was a great hands catch on a slant. The throw was a dart and it wasn’t an easy catch. On the second the defense made contact with him at the three and he had nowhere to go. He slid through and was able to reach the ball to the goal line from a full yard+ away. Great effort.
*Both Eli Rogers and Cobi Hamilton made contested catches. Nice job by Rogers on the TD which was low and behind him and by Hamilton, for 39 yards, on his only target of the game, though he did draw a 28-yard pass interference penalty as well. Rogers also made a really good block on a WR screen to AB to spring him.
*The one time the Steelers didn’t convert in the red zone proved costly, though on third down it did look like AB got held at the goal line.
*What has happened to Sammie Coates? He only played 2 offensive snaps in this game, but was able to play 18 special team snaps. Since the Jets game in week 5 when he suffered his hand injury Coates has been targeted 11 times and made just 1 catch for 4 yards, and that was from Landry Jones in the NE game. He is 0-for-10 with Ben. Through the first five weeks Coates had 19 catches for 421 yards. This may be the “accountability” that everyone is discussing.
*On two occasions the Steelers had receivers running deep routes in exactly the same part of the field where Ben was throwing. The first involved Ladarius Green and Eli Rogers up the left seam. The second involved Sammie Coates and Rogers down the left sideline. Someone wasn’t where they were supposed to be. I’m guessing it was Rogers both times.
*Jesse James has proven a capable receiver, not yet a capable blocker.
*Near the end of the first half the Steelers had first down on the Cowboys 40 with 1:16 left. They took a deep shot down the right side to Coates (it looked like he was held), then the left side to AB and then suffered a 3-yard loss on a check down to Bell. They were forced to punt. I like the deep shots, but at the 40, with the clock where is was, it would have seemed prudent to use Rogers or Green in the middle of the field to first get into FG range.
After a good performance against a bad offense last week, the Steelers defense started strong, but finished terribly against a very good offense this week. Last week’s loss was on the offensive game plan and its execution. This one falls squarely on the shoulders of the D.
*The Steelers continued to blitz, following on last week’s game plan and had some success. The only turnover of the game occurred on the game’s third play when Ryan Shazier blitzed but was unable to collar Dallas QB Dak Prescott. But he forced him from the pocket and Anthony Chickillo got a strip sack and Shazier recovered the fumble on the Cowboys 38. The Steelers punched it in to take and early lead.
*Sean Davis made an excellent tackle early in the fourth quarter on 3rd-and-1 wrapping up Ezekiel Elliott short of the marker. At the time, it looked like that might be the defensive play of the game as the Steelers took the lead on the ensuing drive.
*A lot here, so we’ll just talk about plays rather than players. The Steelers got completely manhandled on all three of Elliot’s TDs. On the two rushing TDs the Cowboys OLine blew open big enough holes that we legitimately asked on the post-game show whether the Steelers had let him score. On the second, I didn’t understand the defensive alignment. Sean Davis blitzed off the corner but he had to come 15 yards just to get there and Robert Golden lined up 10 yard of the LOS even though it was almost guaranteed to be a running play and there was no wideout on his side. Neither was able to get close to Elliot as he burst through the line and went 32 yards for the TD.
*Late in the first quarter the Cowboys had 1st-and-10 on their on 10. Two plays later they scored on an 83-yard screen pass to Elliott. It was a great call against a blitz, but with that down and distance from that spot, you have to get a 3-and-out. On the TD Robert Golden missed a tackle and Mike Mitchell took a bad angle.
*Late in the third quarter the Cowboys had a 3-and-11 form midfield. The Steelers ran the fire X blitz with both inside linebackers and Mitchell came late up the middle. Artie Burns had single coverage outside and got beat for the TD. We’ve seen the Steelers exploit this kind of coverage many times this year. This time they were the burnee.
*Ross Cockrell and Sean Davis took 15-yard personal foul penalties that were crucial to the success of the Cowboys’ last two TD drives. Not much to say. Cockrell just has to know where he is. Davis was mostly unlucky.
*The defense held Jason Witten without a catch in the first half, but he was huge in the second with 6 catches for 59 yards, mostly in the game’s most important moments.
*Antonio Brown had a 22-yard punt return earlier in the fourth quarter that put the Steelers on the Cowboys 46. The ensuing drive went six plays for a TD to give the Steelers the lead.
*Fitzgerald Toussaint’s 33-yard kickoff return was the Steelers longest of the year.
*Not Chris Boswell’s best day. He kicked one kickoff out of bounds and he missed a 55 yard field goal. A 55-yarder certainly isn’t a chip shot, but I fully expected Boswell to make that one at the end of the first half. Had plenty of distance, but missed it right.
*The Steelers gave up a 39-yard punt return by Lucky Whitehead that set up the Cowboys on the Steelers 49 down 18-16 late third quarter. They scored three plays later.
One week it’s the offense that struggles, another it’s the defense. Sometimes it’s both. Last week special teams were poor. Not getting all three units to perform at a consistently high level falls on the coaching staff. We’ve seen it once this year for 60 minutes. That’s unacceptable.
I’m not going to criticize Mike Tomlin going for two after TDs. I have said for years I’m in favor of it. I’d go for 2 after every first half TD and then base things on the game situation after that. The Steelers came into the game 14-17 on 2-pt. conversion since the start of the 2014 season. That’s 82.4%. That’s outstanding. I had no problem with the first two 2-pt. attempts in the first quarter. The last two were clearly dictated by the game situation. Going for 2 was the right decision in both cases in an effort to go up by 3 rather than 2 at that point.
*The Steelers did an excellent job at the end of both halves setting up scoring opportunities and managing their timeouts.
*In the end it wasn’t meaningful, but Mike Tomlin again screwed up the process of clock management, in my opinion, before the 2:00 warning at the end of the game. The Cowboys completed a pass to Jason Witten to the Steelers 14 for a first down with about 2:35 left in the half. The Steelers had two timeouts left. Tomlin let the clock run to 2:00 basically giving away that stoppage. He could have forced the Cowboys to run two plays before the 2:00 warning then used that stoppage to stop it after third down. A team can do a great deal to control the clock on offense. They can only can control it on defense by using timeouts. That is when they should have been used. The Cowboys ended up scoring on the next play, so the decision didn’t impact the game.
*The Cowboys coaching staff also made a dubious decision to throw three straight times from the own 16 with only 00:45 left. (Although maybe the end-of-game scenario suggests otherwise.) Three incompletions led to a punt and Steelers ball after using just 25 seconds and led to a FG attempt.
Big Officiating Calls:
*There was a huge challenge and reversal on the last play of the first half. Eli Rogers caught a 23-yard pass at the Cowboys 19-yard line with 00:02 left in the half. There was also a defensive holding call on the play. The catch was reversed to incomplete, so the penalty was enforced. Rather than kicking a 36-yard FG, Boswell was forced to attempt a 55-yarder and missed.
*Some other questionable non-pass interference calls as always. The two personal fouls on Steelers defensive backs late in the game were legit.
Up Next: The Steelers will take on the Cleveland Browns (0-10) at First Energy Stadium in Cleveland. Cleveland is 0-10 for the first time in their history. The Steelers are 1-3 on the road with three consecutive losses after a season-opening win in Washington. They play four of the next five on the road. Kickoff is scheduled for 1:00 pm EST.
Reminder: You can hear me on the postgame show with Charlie Batch across the Steelers Football Network (WDVE, ESPN, steelers.com or the Steelers Gameday app) after every Steelers game and on weekdays on ESPN Pittsburgh 970 and 106.3 FM from 4-7 pm. You can follow me on twitter @DavidMTodd.