The Pittsburgh Steelers (7-6) face a crucial road test against the Dallas Cowboys (7-6) on Sunday afternoon in Dallas. Pittsburgh’s playoff hopes rest on their ability to win their final three games. A loss in any of them takes their playoff fate out of their hands.
Here’s a look at 10 keys for the Steelers to claim a victory in Dallas this weekend.
Sadly, this is something that needs mentioned after Pittsburgh didn’t come to play in a home loss to the hapless San Diego Chargers. In reality, it needed mentioned earlier.
The truth is that Pittsburgh has been terrible against some of the league’s terrible teams.
In short, preparation has been the difference between a 7-6 record that leaves them scuffling for a playoff spot and being 12-1 and having the best record in the NFL. That’s unacceptable for a team that has plenty of talent on the field each week.
To beat Dallas, a hungry team that is now gunning for a playoff berth, Pittsburgh has to show up ready to play and prepared for what Dallas offers. If they can’t do that, nothing else will matter.
It has become obvious in the past few weeks that Mike Wallace has become extremely streaky. He’s been that way his entire career, but now with the spotlight on him and this system asking him to be more versatile, it has been more noticeable.
Plaxico Burress wasn’t signed to be a starter, but he probably is the team’s best option for the third receiver position. Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown can play the outside and be on the field every down.
Burress needs to be the next option instead of Wallace.
All Burress has done in the ridiculously limited chances he’s received since his arrival is to be a sure-handed threat with the height and hands to take a defender out of the play.
Mike Wallace hasn’t done much for his contract value this year. A benching won’t help that situation, but it might be what this team needs to get into the playoffs.
It might also be what Wallace needs to get back on track. It’s clear he’s trying his best. He just is in a slump.
Pittsburgh has spent the entire season with a patched-together offensive line. Somehow, the Steelers have done well with that for years.
This pass rush is going to be vicious in Dallas, however. With a quarterback that is still recovering fully from a rib and shoulder injury, keeping him upright and giving him time to throw will be essential to success.
The biggest area of concern is at left guard. Maurkice Pouncey has been adequate there since Willie Colon’s injury, but he’s better suited at center.
It may be finally time to see if first-rounder David DeCastro has what it takes to start in the NFL. The Steelers should slot him at right guard and move Ramon Foster to the left guard position. That’s the best line combination available.
If the Steelers can find a way to keep Ben Roethlisberger on his feet, they can win the game. If they can’t, they won’t have a prayer.
Pittsburgh’s offense has spent far too much time horizontal in the last few weeks. Passes and runs go east and west instead of north and south. The results have been rather hideous.
In fact, the Steelers have gone from a team that could score frequently and with some decent regularity to a group that couldn’t find the goal line with a GPS.
The return of Ben Roethlisberger should have fixed those issues, but the plays called by offensive coordinator Todd Haley have allowed them to continue. The Steelers have robbed themselves of their punch.
It’s time to bring the power of this offense back to life.
Pittsburgh’s receivers, as a group, are the fastest and most versatile in the NFL. It’s time to send them out on deep routes and to let Roethlisberger use his arm to beat teams.
Short passes and a ball control offense are great, but they have to be supplemented liberally with a quick strike offense that can gobble up yards in one play. The Steelers have leaned far too much in one direction.
Against Dallas, the Steelers need to open it up and unclog the running lanes so that they can have those long, clock-killing drives. If they don’t, their offense will stay stuck in reverse along with their playoff aspirations.
Since the injury to Ben Roethlisberger, the Steelers have largely abandoned passing on first and second down. Their commit to the run on these early downs has been borderline insane.
The effectiveness hasn’t been there at all and Pittsburgh is giving away drive after drive by getting stuck in third down situations deep in their own territory.
This has to end immediately.
A big reason the Steelers have gone from an effective offense to a raging dumpster fire is that the play selection has been pitiful. A throw on first down keeps a defense off guard and forces them to respect both pass and run.
Do you think Jonathan Dwyer might be more effective on the ground if the entire defense opposite him wasn’t completely sure he would be taking the ball?
Even a deep pass that is incomplete on first or second down will back away the defenders from the line. This diminishes pass rush and opens rushing lanes. Both are essential if Pittsburgh wants to win in Dallas.
Beyond Ben Roethlisberger, the team’s best MVP candidate might be tight end Heath Miller. Miller was having a brilliant season before the injuries at quarterback. Since then, he’s been missing most of the time.
That needs to change. Dallas will not hesitate to work their passes to Jason Witten. The Steelers must do the same with Miller.
Miller creates a mismatch for a defense because it is impossible to cover him while covering the team’s dynamic corps of receivers. Someone has to be left open. A few passes to him will clear space for the receivers.
Miller was one of the missing elements against San Diego last week. The lack of targets kept the receivers in coverage all day. When Miller finally caught a pass, he was wide open.
Pittsburgh fans like to think they have cornered the market on mobile quarterbacks who can make plays after leaving the pocket, but the truth is Tony Romo isn’t bad at doing it either. He just doesn’t have the same level of skill.
With Ike Taylor missing once again, the Steelers must do more up front than they did against San Diego. Pressure, when effective, can disguise the problems the team will have covering Dallas’ receivers and tight ends.
Keeping Tony Romo in the pocket is an excellent way to decrease his effectiveness as well. The Steelers need to work on the weak Dallas offensive line and force Romo to throw quickly and off balance.
If he’s allowed to escape, he’s going to be just as deadly as Roethlisberger.
The easiest way to defeat the Cowboys, who aren’t very effective with the run, is to shut down their quarterback. In games that Romo has been forced into mistakes or kept from making plays, the Cowboys have tanked.
Just as it is important to get Heath Miller into the game in a big way, Jason Witten must be removed as a threat. With Troy Polamalu healthy and on the field again, Pittsburgh must use him to keep Witten from becoming a problem.
Dallas may be without Dez Bryant, nominally their best wide receiver. That means that removing Witten would force things to Miles Austin, the team’s other starting receiver.
That is much easier to defend.
Witten is also a beast to bring down with the football, so keeping him from catching it will be essential. He’s Tony Romo’s hot read on most pass plays. That’s going to be especially true if Bryant is out. If Witten is covered, Romo will have to go through a progression.
The longer he takes to find a target, the more effective pressure will be at sacking him or forcing a mistake that turns into a turnover.
Witten is the key to the passing offense. Remove him and it will crumble.
Everything about the Pittsburgh game plan needs to be about the word short.
The Steelers need to shorten the game with both an early lead that is extended and effective ball control once they are in a comfortable driver’s seat.
They’ll need short drives that end in the end zone to get that quick lead. A few well-thrown deep balls that the receivers can get their hands on (which has been a problem) will do just that.
Removing Dallas’ game plan from the equation will fix a lot of issues.
The Steelers need to get the short field as much as possible. They’ve operated almost exclusively on a long field the last several weeks. With their current offensive style, they cannot possibly compete that way. The defense must end drives deep in Dallas territory and force them to play the long field.
If the Steelers can focus on the short things, they will win this game.
More than once this year, Mike Tomlin and his staff have been out-coached by the competition. It happened in Cleveland and it was particularly evident against San Diego last week.
This has to stop.
The biggest problem with a team that loses to bad teams is motivation. The Steelers haven’t looked motivated against a losing team in a long time. As a result, they are almost always getting beaten in those games or winning them in overtime.
Do you think that Bill Belichick would allow his team to be trounced by a 4-8 team that was on a four-game losing streak? He especially wouldn’t allow that to happen in his own house.
The Steelers haven’t been a great road team this year. To win this game against a team gunning for the playoffs, the Steelers will have to be road warriors and Mike Tomlin and his coaches will have to put together a motivated, functional game plan.
If they can do that, finally, this team might just get back on track.
At least the Cowboys have a winning record. Losing records seem to be of little concern to Pittsburgh.