With the regular season winding down the Steelers and Cowboys are nearly in the same situation. Both are sitting at 7-6 and both are right on the fringe of getting into the playoffs. What was once a heated rivalry has died down since the two teams only see each other once every four years but that doesn't make this game any less important or give you that kind of feeling when you think of Steelers/Cowboys.
Dallas did the Steelers a favor last week when they took down the Bengals but that doesn't mask the truly terrible game that the Steelers played in a loss to the Chargers. Things weren't good by any stretch against San Diego but this is a new week and I think we can expect to see a different Steelers team.
Enough with that. Here is the preview:
San Diego 34, Pittsburgh 24
Passing: Roethlisberger: 22-42, 285 yards, 3 TD, 1 INT
Rushing: Dwyer: 8 car., 32 yards, 0 TD
Receiving: Wallace: 7 rec., 112 yards, 2 TD
Dallas 20, Cincinnati 19
Passing: Romo: 25-43, 268 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT
Rushing: Murray: 21 car., 53 yards, 1 TD
Receiving: Witten: 6 rec., 62 yards, 0 TD
Offense (rank in NFL)
Pittsburgh: 341.8 yards/game (19th)
Dallas: 372.1 yards/game (10th)
Pittsburgh: 243.2 yards/game (11th)
Dallas: 292.2 yards/game (3rd)
Pittsburgh: 98.6 yards/game (25th)
Dallas: 79.8 yards/game (31st)
Pittsburgh: 21.4 points/game (21st)
Dallas: 23.1 points/game (t15th)
Pittsburgh: 262.4 yards/game (1st)
Dallas: 335.1 yards/game (9th)
Pittsburgh: 169.2 yards/game (1st)
Dallas: 217.8 yards/game (8th)
Pittsburgh: 93.2 yards/game (5th)
Dallas: 118.8 yards/game (16th)
Pittsburgh: 20.3 points/game (7th)
Dallas: 24.2 points/game (22nd)
All-Time Record vs. Dallas: 13-14-0 (2-1 Playoffs)
Last Five Meetings
December 7, 2008 - Pittsburgh 20, Dallas 13
October 17, 2004 - Pittsburgh 24, Dallas 20
August 31, 1997 - Dallas 37, Pittsburgh 7
January 28, 1996 - Dallas 27, Pittsburgh 17
September 4, 1994 - Dallas 26, Pittsburgh 9
Hit the jump for the rest of the preview
A lot of people like to take shots at the signal caller from Dallas, Tony Romo, and some of it is for good reason. The Cowboys haven't had a playoff win in what seems like (and literally is) forever. The Cowboys are one of the premier franchises in the NFL if not just for the fact that they have a large, and annoying, owner that thinks that his team is the only one in the NFL. Being the quarterback of that team isn't easy but Romo still does a pretty good at it during the regular season.
Romo isn't without his faults. He is going to make some really boneheaded decisions that can cripple his team but he has been playing some much better football lately. I normally wouldn't give a shit because the Cowboys are up there with the Ravens among teams I truly hate but I actually have Romo on my fantasy team (don't yell at me) and he has helped my team win the last five games of the regular season and vault me into the playoffs.
Like I said, Romo hasn't been great all season by his raw numbers but taking a look at the advanced numbers from Football Outsiders and we can see that Romo has been performing pretty well. He has a defensive-adjusted yards above replacement (DYAR) number of 973 which gives the value of the players performance compared to replacement level, adjusted for situation and opponent and then translated into yardage. Romo ranks third in the league with his DYAR and is only behind Tom Brady and Peyton Manning and right above Aaron Rodgers. He also has a defensive-adjusted value over average (DVOA) of 15.6% which represents value, per play, over an average quarterback in the same game situations. The more positive the DVOA rating, the better the player's performance. Negative DVOA represents below-average offense. The simple version of the two is that DYAR represents a player with more total value and DVOA represents a player with more value per play. Romo ranks ninth in DVOA which is only a spot behind Roethlisberger. This isn't something new for Romo as he ranked fourth last season in both DYAR and DVOA which was his best season to date after finishing 19th and 11th, respectively, in 2010.
In terms of overall play this year Romo is completing 66.4% of his passes for 3,928 yards, 20 touchdowns and 16 interceptions. Despite his high number of interceptions he only has thrown three in the last six games while having 11 touchdowns in that span. He has seven games this year with 300 or more passing yards and has gone over 400 yards twice. He ranks fourth in the league in yards and 11th with a respectable 7.5 yard per attempt (YPA) average.
Romo is on pace to set career marks for passing as he is on pace to throw for 4,834 yards which would be almost 400 more yards than he threw for in 2009. He won't match his 31 touchdown tosses from last season and most likely will surpass his career-worst 19 interceptions that he threw in 2007. His YPA is down from his career average of 8.0 but overall he is playing some nice football, especially recently.
As I said Romo has a 11-3 TD/INT ratio over the last six games which the Cowboys are 4-2 in as they get back into the NFC East race. It was interesting to watch him against the Bengals as he had a pretty average game, at best. He only completed 25-of-43 passes for 268 yards for a touchdown and a pick and had a pedestrian 6.23 YPA. While his game wasn't very good he was still able to lead that final drive for the Cowboys to give them a one point win over the Bengals, so I guess we can say thanks because that was pretty huge for the Steelers.
Before that game against the Bengals Romo had a stream of three straight games with 300 or more passing yards which was highlighted by am amazingly efficient game against the Eagles where he went 22-of-27 for 303 yards, three touchdowns and no picks and a 441 yard three touchdown (two pick) performance against the Redskins.
The fact of the matter is that Romo can sling it if you give him an opportunity. I sort of put him in the same category as Phillip Rivers in the fact that they both have big arms and have both put up big numbers in the past but for some reason just can't get it done in the post season and have been known to turn the ball over. Like Rivers he might be able to go against a banged up Steelers secondary and make it a very long day. Hopefully he doesn't
The Cowboys rushing game is sort of weird to look at. Dallas has a pair of good athletes in the backfield in Felix Jones and DeMarco Murray but the Cowboys run game only ranks 24th in the league with a -10.8% DVOA and averaging only 79.8 yards per game and a mere 3.4 yards per attempt and seven rushing touchdowns.
To be fair the backfield has been pretty banged up for the Cowboys this season as both Mrray and Jones have missed time due to various injuries and in Jones' case he can been seen as a guy who can just never stay healthy. Murray leads the team with 466 yards on 119 attempts with three scores while Jones has carried the rock 103 times for 368 yards and three touchdowns. What is interesting about the two is that they have combined for only four runs of 20 yards or more. With how athletic both of these guys are you would imagine they could break off a few long runs here and there but it just hasn't happened this season.
Murray ranks 22nd among qualified running backs with a 35 DYAR and 17th with a DVOA of -1.6% which is below average when you consider that 0.0% is the break even point. While Murray is lower in both DYAR and DVOA than you would like from a running back his success rate of 51% is eighth best in the league which is measured by a successful running plays (that are determined by down and distance) and decided by the total number of running plays. The solid success rate and lower DVOA signifies that Murray generally gets the yards he needs but he isn't going to get much more which might be a partial reason for the low number of long rushing plays.
Last week was Murray's second game since the middle of October and since his return has has been pretty average. In his first game back against the Eagles he rushed 23 times for 83 yards and a score before rushing 21 times for only 53 yards and a touchdown last week. Murray has ben fairly successful out of the backfield as a pass catcher with 25 catches for 159 yards but has yet to find the end zone as a receiver. Before the injury Murray was hot and cold as he had to games with over 90 rushing yards and three others with less than 50 yards. Who knows what you will get.
Although Jones has stayed fairly healthy this season he really hasn't been all that productive. He ranks 25th in the league with a 10 DYAR and 24th in the league with a -6.3% DVOA. His success rate of 47% ranks 25th in the league so really there hasn't been much to get excited about with Jones. Jones has never really had a big season when you look at his career as a whole. He rushed for 800 yards and a lone score in 2010 but only rank for 575 yards and a touchdown last season. Like I said, nothing too exciting.
With Murray back Jones' carries really took a hit as he only carried the ball two times against the Bengals and then seven times in the game before against the Eagles. His best game of the season came way back in the beginning of October when he rushed for 92 yards and a score on 18 carries against the Ravens, but since that game Jones has had carries in eight games and only went over 50 yards one time and had under 30 yards three times.
While Jones probably isn't going to wow you he can catch the ball out of the backfield much like Murray can as he has 25 catches on the season for 262 yards although he hasn't had a catch in the last two weeks. He has scored two touchdowns through the air this season.
Murray and Jones are pretty much the only two guys that the Cowboys rely on. Lance Dunbar is the team's third leading rusher with 21 carries for 75 yards.
I talked about how good the passing game was earlier when I touched on Romo but really the receivers have been just of a big part of the big time passing attack from the Cowboys as anything else. They are a little hit and miss but when they are on they are scary good and with a banged up Steelers secondary coming into the game this could get pretty interesting.
Leading the pack of three really good targets is third year Oklahoma State receiver Dez Bryant. Bryant is one of those receivers that has big time talent and athleticism but really hasn't been able to put it all together. So far this season he has already set career highs with 75 catches and 1,028 yards while matching his career high in touchdowns with nine. Last season Bryant caught 63 passes for 928 yards and nine scores.
Bryant is coming into this game on a pretty significant hot streak. Over the last five games he has 33 catches for 525 yards and seven touchdowns. He has a touchdown in each of those games and posted back-to-back 145 yard games against the Browns and Redskins. He was slowed a touch against the Bengals with only four catches for 50 yards but still found the end zone.
While he has been really good the last five weeks he has had his touch goings this year as on three separate occasions he was held under 20 yards receiving and before the previous five games he had only found the end zone twice which both happened in the same game.
Bryant is the highest ranking Cowboys receiver according to Football Outsiders as he ranks 13th in DYAR (222) and 22nd with a 14.5% DVOA. Bryant has a very healthy catch rate of 69% which accounts for the percentage of passes that is completed to the receiver when thrown to.
Bryant is a big and physical receiver that measures 6'2 and 220 pounds so without Ike Taylor the Steelers are really going to have a hard time covering Bryant. The only thing that might turn in the Steelers favor is that Bryant comes into the game with a broken right index finger that nearly cost him the rest of the season due to surgery. It was his decision to not get surgery to repair the finger but I can't imagine that it will be comfortable for him to catch the football but that doesn't mean that he won't have an impact on the game.
Miles Austin is opposite of Bryant and has been pretty strong with 55 catches for 819 yards and five touchdowns. He is tied to Bryant with 13 catches of 20 yards or more and can be just as dangerous as Bryant down the field with his 14.9 yard per catch.
Austin was limited last season due to injury with only 579 yards in ten games played but posted back-to-back 1,000+ yard seasons in 2009 and 2010. Right now he is projected to surpass 1,000 yards on the year but really hasn't been very productive as of late.
Austin has ben held in check as he hasn't broken the 100 yard barrier seven games and has a high receiving game of 58 yards on six catches on November 18 against Cleveland. Last week against Cincinnati he caught four passes for only 46 yards while he caught two passes for 46 yards (and a score) two weeks ago against Philadelphia. Clearly the focus recently has been on getting Bryant the ball and that has hurt Austin's production but he should not be taken for granted as he can put up some pretty solid numbers catching the football.
According to Football Outsiders Austin ranks as the 27th receiver with a DYAR of 144 and 32nd with a DVOA of 6.2%. Austin hasn't been very good at catching the balls when he is targeted putting up only a 56% catch rate which would help explain the low DYAR and DVOA.
While Bryant and Austin have had their success the number one target for Romo has been tight end Jason Witten. Witten leads the team in both targets (126) and receptions (92) while having 880 yards and a touchdown.
Witten has been wildly consistent in his time in the league and has had over 900 yards receiving each of the last five seasons and barring an injury should have that against this season. He is three 1,000+ yard receiving season in that stretch and is only four catches away from setting a career best. His yardage is a little down as his YPC average of 9.6 yards per catch is well below his career average of 11.2.
Witten ranks third among all tight ends with a DYAR of 154 and 13th in DVOA at 13.0%. His catch rate of 75% is third among qualified tight ends. His size of 6'6 261 pounds is going to be a really tough matchup for the Steelers and you would assume that Troy Polamalu will be matching up with him but Witten has been a favorite target of Romo and that will be continued.
Witten has had three 100 yard games this season highlighted by an unreal 18 catch, 167 yard receiving day against the Giants and while he doesn't have a ton of 100 yard games he does have at least six catches in nine games and that nine game streak was shaped as he only had four catches against the Bengals for 62 yards. What you should expect from Witten is around six catches for around 60 yards and from what we see in his statistics he isn't a huge red zone target although we are not sure if that is by design or just by good game planning by their opponents on him.
From left to right on the Cowboys line they read Tyron Smith, Nate Livings, Ryan Cook, Mackenzy Bernadeau and Doug Free. The line is a pretty experienced one as every person on the line has at least five years experience except for Smith who is in his second season.
The Cowbowys are bottom-third team in terms of running the football. They post a 3.61 yard per carry average by their backs while their adjusted line yard (ALY) average of 3.78 ranks 25th in the league.
ALY takes all running back carries and assigns responsibility to the offensive line based on the following percentages:
Losses: 120% value
0-4 Yards: 100% value
5-10 Yards: 50% value
11+ Yards: 0% value
These numbers are then adjusted based on down, distance, situation, opponent, and the difference in rushing average between shotgun compared to standard formations. Finally, we normalize the numbers so that the league average for Adjusted Line Yards per carry is the same as the league average for RB yards per carry.
In overall performance you aren't going to find that the Cowboys are very good across the board at anything in terms of running the football. They rank 16th in the league in power success which is defined as the percentage of runs on third or fourth down, two yards or less to go, that achieved a first down or touchdown. Also includes runs on first-and-goal or second-and-goal from the two-yard line or closer. They also rank middle of the pack in stuffed rank at 20% which is good for 17th in the league. Stuffed rank is the percentage of runs where the running back is tackled at or behind the line of scrimmage.
Dallas runs the ball around league averages in some portions and is really bad in others. They are more successful running to the left side of the offensive line where they post slightly above league average ALY to the left and and left tackle but ranks 23rd or worse when running up the middle or anywhere to the right side of the line. They are most successful running to the left end where they post a 4.36 ALY which is above the league average of 4.00. They rank 13th in the league running off the left tackle with a 4.26 ALY. Of the Cowboys 271 running back carries they have run to those two spots in the line 13% of the time while they run the football the most up the middle or off the guards which is 49% of their runs. They average a mere 3.91 ALY up the middle/off the guards which ranks 23rd in the league. Outside of the runs up the middle they run the most off the right guard (16%) where they rank 31st in the league with a 3.20 ALY.
In pass protection the Cowboys are decent, but not great, of protecting Romo. SO far this season teams have taken down Romo 31 times which is the tenth most in the league but they actually rank 11th in the league with an adjusted sack rate of 5.7%. Adjusted sack rate gives sacks (plus intentional grounding penalties) per pass attempt adjusted for down, distance, and opponent so those other outside forces would explain for the improved ranking despite the amount of sacks they have given up. Obviously when you drop back to pass as much as the Cowboys do you are prone to give up some more sacks. Dallas only has 271 running back carries which is only more than six other teams in the league.
While Dallas boasts one of the best passing offenses in the league which leads to a potent offense but the defense isn't quite up to par. That is OK not only because the Steelers will be playing the Cowboys but because Rob Ryan runs the Dallas defense and any time a Ryan brother fails it is a good time.
The Cowboys rank 22nd in the league with a 4.2% DVOA in overall defense (remember negative is better for defense). They have a league average defense against the run with a -6.4% DVOA that ranks 15th in the league but they rank 23rd in the league against the pass with a 13.7% DVOA. Just an average at best defense that can't create turnovers as they have recovered only eight fumbles and intercepted six interceptions.
The Giants, as I said, are much better against the run than they are against the pass. They give up an average yard per carry of 4.33 on running back carries and give up an average ALY of 4.23 which ranks 22nd in the league. They don't necessarily do much well in terms of short yardage run defense as they rank 20th with a 67% defensive power rank and an even worse 27th in defensive stuffed rank (16%). The Cowboys just aren't able to get the stops in short yardage situations and it isn't going to improve now that they have lost nose tackle Jay Ratliff to a sports hernia. Bad for the Cowboys, good for the Steelers.
When you take a look at where the Cowboys are successful stopping the run you can't really find too many spots. They do a pretty nice job when teams run to the offensive right end where they only allow an average ALY of 3.02 that ranks fifth in the league. Teams aren't running to the right side though as it is the only spot where teams run less than 10% of the time. The Steelers love to pound the rock up the middle and off the guard and the Cowboys really struggle there. They give up an average ALY of 4.35 up the middle which ranks 27th in the league. They are only worse when teams run to the offensive right tackle where Dallas ranks dead last in the league with a 4.77 ALY.
While the Cowboys struggle to create any turnovers they do an outstanding job of getting to the quarterback. They rank fourth in the league with a 7.6% adjusted sack rate and have dropped opposing quarterbacks 30 times.
In terms of pass defense they aren't as talented as I talked about before. The pass defense actually gets worse the further down the depth chart you get on the receivers. Dallas ranks 13th in the league against opposing teams top receivers with a DVAO of -6.9% but drop to 20th in the league against number two receivers with a 7.3% DVOA and they rank nearly last (29th) in the league against "other" receivers which would be the number three, four, and sometimes five receivers. Against other receivers they have a 26.2% DVOA. Where the Steelers might (read:should) take advantage is with Heath Miller. The Cowboys rank 30th in the league with a 22.7% DVOA against opposing tight ends and with how productive Miller has been this season you would have to imagine that he will be one of the main targets for Roethlisberger.
To be good at getting to the quarterback you need to have some talented pass rushers and the Cowboys have one of the best tandems in the league with Anthony Spencer and DeMarcus Ware pinning their ears back and getting after the quarterback. Ware has 11 sacks on the season and has only been held without a sack in three games this season. The good news on that stat is that two of those three games happened in the last three weeks with his only sack coming last week against the Bengals. Spencer has 8.5 sacks on the season and leads the team with 76 total tackles. Spencer had a pair of sacks last week and in the past five games he has racked up 5.5 sacks. Jason Hatcher has four sacks and Victor Butler has three to round out a talented group of defenders that can get to the quarterback.
Brandon Carr leads the team with a pair of interceptions and seven passes defended. Bruce Carter is second on the team with 70 total tackles and also has a pair of passes defended while Danny McCray has 62 total tackles.
-This is a game of two teams that are really hunting for a spot in the playoffs but the meaning of the game couldn’t be further apart. Right now the Cowboys sit at 7-6, just like the Steelers, but they currently sit in third in the NFC East and with Chicago and Seattle sitting in second place in their respective divisions a loss here might knock them completely out of the playoffs even if it doesn’t mathematically knock them out. The Steelers on the other hand sit a half game back of the Bengals after they defeated Philadelphia last night but even if the Steelers lose against the Cowboys they still have a head-to-head matchup with the Bengals next week that will most likely decide the final playoff spot in the AFC. The Steelers already beat Cincinnati once this year and a second win would give the Steelers the tiebreaker and while the Jets are still somewhat in the race they own a tiebreak over them thanks to a win earlier this season. Basically the Steelers need to defeat Cincinnati and win one more game, whether that is against Dallas this weekend or Cleveland in the final week of the season. The Cowboys have to win, the Steelers don’t.
-While I say that the Steelers don’t have to win that doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t feel like they can just coast through this and not care if they win or lose. While the game really means nothing in the grand scheme of the playoffs it will go a long way in determining if this is a team that can truly make a run if they get into the playoffs. The Cowboys aren’t a great team, as I highlighted above, but they are desperate and have been playing some really good football lately. Going down to the Jerry Dome and getting a win could propel the Steelers into the big matchup next week against Cincinnati and probably have the fan base feeling a little bit better.
-While the Steelers are still missing some key players who are out due to injuries it is a relatively healthy team based on what we have seen the last few weeks. LaMarr Woodley is going to be back after practicing all week and Troy Polamalu practiced fully so the Steelers are slowly but surely getting healthy. The Steelers will still be without Mike Adams and Ike Taylor, but that was already known, and they will most likely be without Cortez Allen who is doubtful with a hip injury. Other than that it is starting to look a lot healthier if they can get by without a big injury the next few weeks. Taylor and Adams should be back before the season is out and if they can get that healthy going into the playoffs then who knows what can happen.
-While we talk about the Steelers injuries getting better the Cowboys have fallen on some really hard times with injuries. Ratliff, the nose tackle, is lost for a while after getting sports hernia surgery. I talked in a greater length about Bryant having a busted up finger and it is looking more and more like he will play but he is going to be nowhere near 100% as the pointer finger is a pretty significant one when you are catching a pass and from what we are being told he could cause permanent injury to the finger if it gets banged up any more so it will be very interesting to see how he treats it. DeMarcus Ware has been a monster rushing the passer but he didn’t practice all week and is listed as questions while guard Nate Livings was limited with concussion symptoms and is listed as questionable after only having limiated practice on Thursday and Friday.
-The Steelers defensive backfield is going to be tested in a big way. With the injury to Taylor and the probability of Allen not playing the Steelers are really going to have to go deep into their defensive backfield and after what we saw from the likes of Curtis Brown against the Chargers I am not really sure what to think. DeMarcus Van Dyke and Josh Victorian are going to be in the lineup a good bit this week and I have no idea what to think of that since we haven’t seen them play much in games. This might become a big problem if Bryant can be productive in any capacity with the likes of Witten and Austin also being on the field for Romo.
-The defensive backfield is obviously banged up for the Steelers but one thing they must do if they want to win is to get pressure on Romo early and often. The Cowboys have given up their fair share of sacks this season and nothing would help the secondary more than to have Woodley and James Harrison wreaking havoc in the offensive backfield. The less time Romo has to throw the less time the beat up secondary has to cover the talented receivers.
-One good way to help out the defense is to control the clock. Last week the Chargers were able to hold the ball for huge chunks at the time and it limited the Steelers offensive opportunities and really put a lot of pressure on the Steelers offense to make something happen when they did have the ball. The last three games the Steelers have averaged having the ball only 28 minutes while their season average is nearly 33 minutes, even after the horrid display against San Diego. To do this the Steelers need to get back to the bread and butter to get the ball to their most talented players and let the receivers get some yards after the catch. That will also open up the running game for some success which you know the Steelers want to do given how poor the Cowboys have been against the run this season. The Steelers don’t really have a number one back but you would have to believe that Jonathan Dwyer is going to get his fair share of carries with a little Isaac Redman mixed in.
-Talking about keeping the ball away from the other team you can really talk about third down conversions. While I could have thrown this in to the paragraph above I think this is one of the most important stats in the game and while the Steelers rank fourth in the NFL with a 44.32% conversion rate heading into the game and only six team have converted at a worse rate over the past three games than the Steelers (31.43%). The offense hasn’t had much continuity recently so hopefully Ben got the rust off last week and hopefully the receivers bring the right gloves to snatch up some of these passes.
-An interesting note for the Steelers that has sort of flown under the radar is that this will most likely be the first start for first round pick David DeCastro. The Steelers are banged up a little on the line and with Willie Colon out after knee surgery the Steelers have the option to continue with Maurkice Pouncey at left guard with Doug Legursky playing center or they could move right guard Ramon Foster over to left guard, plug DeCastro at right guard, and keep Pouncey at center. From what I understand the Steelers want to keep Pouncey at center so it would seem that DeCastro might get his first start against the Cowboys. Not really sure how I feel about this due to the fact that DeCastro has virtually no experience as he was late getting to camp due to obligations he had at Stanford and then he was knocked out of the second preseason game. I guess now is better time than any to get him in there but it wouldn’t shock me to see him struggle some.
-Although I am not old enough to remember when the Cowboys were the number one rival of the Steelers I think my parents did a pretty good job of implanting in my brain on how I should feel about the Cowboys. Obviously teams like the Patriots and Ravens poke me due to the fact that they are both in the AFC and have had very talented teams that have pushed, and beaten, the Steelers but the Cowboys are one of those teams even if they are in the NFC East and they play each other one once every four years. I remember being at Heinz Field back in 2008 when these two teams played when Deshea Townsend picked off Romo to win the game late and it is one of my best memories being at a Steelers game. While the rivalry might have lost some of the luster that it used to have in the 70’s it is still a big one in my mind.
PREDICTION – This game could really go either way. Both teams have some really good talent that they throw on the field but for one reason or another both teams have been wildly average this season. In the stretch run of the NFL season games feel more and more important even though they mean just as much as any other. This one is no different. The Cowboys are fighting for their playoff lives and in some sense so are the Steelers. Both teams are banged up but if the Steelers secondary can hold their own they are going to have a great chance to win this football game. I think they do that. Steelers 27, Cowboys 23.