There are few things that Pittsburgh Steelers fans are more invested in than the concept that the team ‘plays down to the competition’, a theory that they persist in holding even when the Steelers are not a particularly good team themselves, such as last year or in 2013. They didn’t do anything to dispute the theory early on Sunday against a Dallas Cowboys team starting Garrett Gilbert at quarterback, however.
Even though the Steelers opened the game with the ball, it was the Cowboys who came out of the first quarter with a 3-0 lead. Pittsburgh did convert twice on third down, but then again, they had to convert twice on third down, including a Ben Roethlisberger scramble on the third play of the game. The drive ended with Chase Claypool unable to secure a deep pass that could have been a touchdown, but Roethlisberger also nearly threw an interception on the drive as well.
The Cowboys responded by marching down the field, led by a pair of explosive plays, first through the air for 32 yards from Gilbert to Amari Cooper, beating Cameron Sutton out of the slot. Tony Pollard broke out a long run into the red zone later on the drive, but the defense finally closed at that point, including a third-down sack by Alex Highsmith, the first of his career.
It didn’t get better from there, however, as the Steelers offense then went three and out, the best part of that sequence being a 54-yard net punt for Jordan Berry that allowed them to flip the field. The Cowboys ultimately elected to punt on fourth and a foot. The Steelers did choose to go for it just on the cusp of a long field goal range, but Dallas stopped Benny Snell short for a turnover on downs. Three possessions, no points.
Dallas built off of that momentum to get into the end zone, Gilbert scrambling multiple times on the drive and then finding CeeDee Lamb for the Cowboys’ first offensive touchdown in 25 drives, which gave them a 10-0 lead.
Following another three-and-out drive, the special teams unit added to the Steelers’ continued failure by allowing a near-touchdown punt return on a gadget play, throwing across the field, which set up another field goal as the Cowboys built a 13-0 lead, the largest deficit they have had all season.
That is, of course, the point at which things began to turn, but by no means was it pretty, or convincing. Roethlisberger found James Washington for a touchdown late in the half after suffering a knee injury, and they added another field goal, but Dallas would net another six points before Pittsburgh would score again.
The Steelers produced a 15-point fourth quarter and only secured a 24-19 victory, repeatedly giving the Cowboys life with missed and blocked extra points, long special teams returns, and the like. They very nearly once again lost a game to a bad team. They certainly ‘played down’ to the competition on this day—but in the end, it doesn’t matter.