The Pittsburgh Steelers will host the (7-1) Dallas Cowboys Sunday at Heinz Field and will be attempting to break a three-game losing streak. Below are seven things that I believe the team will need to do in order to come away with their fifth win of the season against a very good Cowboys team.
Start fast – As I mentioned earlier this week, the Steelers offense has only scored three times in total so far this season during their first two possessions of games (16 total). Those three scores were all touchdowns and all of them happened via explosive plays. Conversely, the Cowboys offense has scored 11 times in their 16 offensive possessions to start games so far this season and 7 of those scores were touchdowns. Sunday at Heinz Field, the Steelers offense needs to get into the end zone at least once during their first two possessions and their defense needs to keep the Cowboys to field goals at worst during their opening two possessions. Since 2004, the Steelers are 36-8 when they score a touchdown on their opening offensive possession.
Test drive the Green Ferrari in the MOTF – Tight end Ladarius Green is expected to make his 2016 debut Sunday at Heinz Field and while he’s not expected to play every offensive snap, he should have plenty of chances to contribute. Green must be used as part of a middle-of-the-field attack against a Cowboys defense that will likely play quite a bit of man-coverage with two deep safeties.
Contain Dak – In addition to attempting to put the clamps on Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott Sunday at Heinz Field, the Steelers defense also must contain rookie quarterback Dak Prescott as well. Prescott has already rushed 31 times for 125 yards and 4 touchdowns so far this season and is not afraid to take off with the football should his first read not be open and an escape lane open up. The Steelers defense hasn’t done a great job at containing quarterbacks so far this season and especially on downs where they have the opposing offense behind the chains.
Early run success is crucial – The Steelers running game never got on track last Sunday against the Baltimore Ravens, and that, along with several penalties, kept the unit behind the chains for most of the game. Establishing the running game early with running back Le’Veon Bell at Heinz Field against the Cowboys could go a long way in helping the Steelers come away with a win. For starters, success on the ground should lead to longer time of possession and that will in turn keep the Cowboys offense off the field. Additionally, success on the ground should result in more play-action, something we haven’t seen a lot of from quarterback Ben Roethlisberger as of late. Lastly, success on the ground could result in the Cowboys having to play more one-deep safety looks and that could result in wide receiver Antonio Brown having more room to work in the second and third levels of the field.
Plaster Beasley on 3rd downs – Cowboys wide receiver Cole Beasley is having a fantastic season so far as he leads his team in receptions with 43 grabs for 499 yards and 4 touchdowns entering Sunday’s game against the Steelers. If that’s not enough, Beasley leads the team in 3rd down receptions with 17 catches on 19 targets and 14 of those have resulted in successful plays. Yes, the Cowboys obviously have other offensive weapons in wide receiver Dez Bryant and tight end Jason Witten but their air attack runs through Beasley the most and especially when it comes to converting on 3rd downs.
Need at least two short fields – The Steelers starting field position has stunk as a whole so far this season. In total, the Steelers offense has started a drive in their opponent’s territory just 9 times so far this season and three of those happened in the win over the Kansas City Chiefs. Either the Steelers defense or their special teams unit needs to set the offense up in Cowboys territory at least twice during Sundays game.
Punish Zeke – To think the Steelers defense will completely shut down Elliott on Sunday would be foolish as he’s currently one of the best running backs in the league. The Cowboys offense will lean on him heavily once again on Sunday and that will include Elliott running behind one of, if not the best, offensive lines in the NFL. While Elliott is sure to get plenty of opportunities on Sunday, the Steelers defense needs to make sure he earns every yard by hitting him hard within three yards of the original line of scrimmage. They can’t allow Elliott to break first contact and get to the second level where it will likely be him delivering the punishment to members of the Pittsburgh secondary. When Elliott decides to run outside the tackles in this game, the Steelers cornerbacks must come up and hit the rookie and get him down on the ground. Or at the very least, force him back inside to help within four yards of the line of scrimmage. Elliott is the kind of back who can wear down an opposing defense in the first half games and that can’t happen Sunday at Heinz Field if Pittsburgh hopes to keep this game close and winnable.