The Cowboys and Steelers, the two most storied franchises in football history, will face off in a battle with major playoff implications for both teams. Ben Roethlisberger appears to be back healthy enough for his team at the right time, while the Cowboys continue to piece together their roster on a weekly basis due to the rash of injuries this team has sustained.
Both teams enter the game with a 7-6 record with little-to-no margin for error if the postseason is going to be a reality. More specifically for the Cowboys, the opportunity they have been waiting for is once again within their grasp.
The question is whether they are up for the challenge or will it be another December of fading into obscurity.
For the Cowboys, the keys in this game might appear simple in nature, but the execution and the root of it stems from fundamental football. And sometimes that's not so simple. This is a winnable game for the Cowboys; let's look at the best way for them to get there.
The Cowboys Will Have to Throw The Football
The return of DeMarco Murray has made an immediate impact on this offense in a number of ways. He's gotten the tough yards, he's keeping defenses honest and he's creating more opportunities for Dez Bryant and the passing game. But with Bryant's broken finger certainly a weakness the Steeler secondary will exploit, Tony Romo has to spread the ball around and let coverage dictate the target.
The Cowboys won't be able to funnel the passing game through Bryant so that means that route running, use of expanded personnel, attention to detail and communication will be paramount.
The Secondary Will Have to Step Up
The Cowboys might not have Morris Claiborne available for this contest and that could pose major problems in being able to cover Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown. Speed kills and that is something that both of those receivers possess. Todd Haley will most certainly want to take more than a few shots deep against Mike Jenkins, Brandon Carr and Sterling Moore.
If Claiborne is not available, the next-man-up theory will become more prevalent. Communication, pre-snap reads, route recognition and focus will factor even more into the game plan. The Cowboys must not allow big play opportunities based on blown assignments and miscommunications.
It could be the nail in the proverbial coffin if Wallace goes streaking through the secondary.
The Cowboys Must Protect Tony Romo
The Steelers no longer boast the best defense in the league but they still have capable pass-rushers like James Harrison, LaMarr Woodley and Larry Foote. They can provide pressure from anywhere on the field; they are physical and will look to confuse Romo.
The Cowboys, like any other team, won't be able to accomplish much without protection. The Doug Free/Jeremy Parnell rotation will certainly be on high alert, but the entire offensive line must function as one cohesive unit.
Tackle, Tackle, Tackle
No, I'm not referring to Doug Free but rather the Cowboys ability to wrap up Jonathan Dwyer, Heath Miller, Mike Wallace and Antonio Bryant. Yards after the catch and yards after bouncing off of defenders will be key in this game. The Cowboys have to be able to get the Steelers off the field on third downs and tackling will help get them there.
The Cowboys do a fair job of getting after their opponent in the tackling department but you often see players like Danny McCray take bad angles, defensive linemen get blown off the ball and the linebackers getting into the gaps a tad bit late. The Steelers have some impact players on offense but they will try and be physical and bust through tackles.
The Cowboys Need to Start Better and Protect the Football
The Cowboys and Steelers aren't the greatest teams in terms of taking care of the football, but turnovers can change momentum. Brandon Carr's interception before halftime last week was a momentum changer for the Cowboys and an overlooked play in the game.
Getting pressure on Big Ben will be the key but the opportunities should be there.
The last time I can remember the Cowboys getting off to a decent start to a game was against the Ravens. To put in the simplest of terms, this team needs to get off to a good start. The injuries, lack of depth, and the emotional and physical strains this team has gone through makes it tough to have to crawl out of a fox hole every week. This falls on Jason Garrett and it needs to be corrected right now.
The playoffs hang in the balance as do the future of a lot of members of the roster and coaching staff. It's just that simple.