(CBS Pittsburgh) — The Pittsburgh Steelers are coming off a thrilling win over the AFC North rival Baltimore Ravens to remain undefeated. The Dallas Cowboys endured an ugly loss to fellow NFC East laughingstock the Philadelphia Eagles to sink to 2-6. The two teams will match up in Week 9 for what could be one of the season’s more lopsided affairs.
Classic Steelers-Cowboys matchup of yesteryear this is not.
Ben Roethlisberger’s storybook comeback season continued in Week 8 with a comeback win. It was the team’s biggest of the season to date. (The last season the Steelers began 7-0 (1978) ended with a Super Bowl title.) Big Ben tossed two second-half touchdowns, one to tight end Eric Ebron and another to exciting rookie Chase Claypool. The latter finished off an 80-yard drive, answering a Ravens TD, and put them ahead for good. All this happened after being shut down almost entirely in the first half. Roethlisberger ended his afternoon going 21-32 for 182 yards.
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Like many Steelers-Ravens games, this one was marked by physical play, particularly on defense. The Steelers defense limited Lamar Jackson to 65 yards on his 16 carries; his 4.1-yard average was well below his 6.2-yard average on the season. They struggled to slow the rest of the ground game, however, allowing J.K. Dobbins and Gus Edwards to combine for 200 yards. Jackson added another 208 yards threw the air, completing 13-28, including two touchdowns.
The Steelers defense also forced Jackson into costly errors, including two interceptions and two fumbles. The first interception linebacker Robert Spillane returned for a touchdown early in the first quarter. The second fumble ended a long Ravens drive inside the Steelers’ 10-yard line with two minutes on the clock and the game on the line.
This Steelers defense entered last week’s action leading the NFL. While their numbers have dropped off a bit, they remain a top-five unit that can stop the run and the pass. Even after allowing the Ravens to run for 265 yards, they still allow opposing offenses to run for under 100 yards per game on the season.
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“It starts first and foremost with that defensive front, especially the two outside linebackers in Bud Dupree and T.J. Watt,” says NFL On CBS analyst London Fletcher. “Those guys do a great job of setting the edge in run support and then creating havoc in passing situations. Cam Heyward, Stefon Tuitt, those guys are disruptive forces as well that people have to deal with. Then, when you look at the secondary, they have playmakers on the back end, led by Minkah Fitzpatrick. So the Pittsburgh Steelers they do a great job of dictating the terms of the game to you. They dictate how the game is going to be played.”
They won’t face quite the same challenge this week. The Cowboys were down to third-string quarterback Ben DiNucci last week. Dak Prescott suffered a season-ending ankle injury in Week 5. Backup Andy Dalton exited in Week 7 with a concussion and has since been moved to the reserve/COVID-19 list.
So while the Cowboys are averaging a league-leading 293.1 passing yards per game, DiNucci wasn’t the source of those numbers. He struggled to complete 21-40 passes for 180 yards against the Eagles. He will be replaced this week by either Garrett Gilbert Or Cooper Rush, both of whom have more experience in the league than DiNucci.
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The Cowboys offense resorted to trickery against the Eagles, but it didn’t really help. Playing behind a banged-up line, they struggled to do much of anything for the second week in a row. Ezekiel Elliot, one of this offense’s main engines, picked up only 63 yards on 19 carries. Michael Gallup had seven catches for 61 yards, but Amari Cooper managed just one catch for five yards.
The Cowboys defense leads the league in points allowed, giving up 33.3 points per game. They’ve allowed 23 and 25 the last two Sundays, which speaks more to the quality of the Eagles and Washington Football Team offenses. The Seattle Seahawks and Arizona Cardinals each put up 38 points on this unit. The Cleveland Browns scored 49 points. The Cowboys defense could struggle against a Steelers offense that scores over 30 points per game.
As Fletcher points out, “the Cowboys and their defense, one of the things that they’re going through is they made the transition from a 4-3 defense to a 3-4 this year. It takes time to get the right personnel. I don’t think the Cowboys have the prerequisite talent up front, particularly at nose tackle and defensive end to be able to play a defense like the 3-4 and be effective. They need some bigger guys on the interior of that defense. Otherwise you’re going to have this type of year where you’re struggling to stop the run. On the backend you’re going to give up some big plays, because all of a sudden you’re committing more resources to stop the run and guys are able to take shots on you down the field.”
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Likewise, a Cowboys offense led by yet another quarterback could find it difficult to do much against this Steelers defense. Elliott remains their only real threat to move the ball. If Pittsburgh can stop the run and force passing situations, they can then come after the Dallas QB. Look for the Steelers, who already lead the NFL with 30 sacks, to pick up a few more.
The Cowboys are overmatched on both sides of the ball. For them to be competitive, they’ll have to create turnovers and win on special teams. As Fletcher sees it, “you possibly try and get some turnovers. Special teams, win that battle. Create short fields. Those are ways that I know Coach McCarthy is probably talking about how can we win the special teams battle.”
“That’s the only way I really see Dallas being able to keep this game close or come up with an upset,” says Fletcher. “Create some turnovers and win the field position battle and possibly score on special teams or score on defense.”
The Steelers play the Cowboys Sunday, November 8 @ 4:25 ET on CBS.