It's hard to pinpoint just one reason why the Pittsburgh Steelers fell to the Dallas Cowboys, 27-24, in overtime on Sunday. Mistakes abounded—turnovers and dropped passes among them—and mounting injuries in the secondary didn't help matters much.
In fact, for the first time this season, the Steelers gave up over 300 yards to an opposing quarterback.
Dallas' Tony Romo ended the day completing 30 of his 42 pass attempts, for 341 yards and two touchdowns, thanks to cornerback Josh Victorian (and not Curtis Brown) getting the start alongside Keenan Lewis, replacing Cortez Allen (who himself was replacing Ike Taylor).
Hurting the Steelers further was a late-game hip injury suffered by Lewis, which then necessitated Brown taking the field with the first team.
Victorian was tasked with shadowing Dallas receiver Miles Austin and it didn't go so well. Though Austin had no touchdowns on the day, he had more yards than any of Romo's receiving targets, with seven catches on 10 passes thrown his way, for 79 yards.
It's no surprise that 17 of Dallas' 23 first downs came via the pass.
With the Steelers' secondary stretched thin, Romo was able to spread the ball around, with five of his targets putting up at least 40 yards. Despite Pittsburgh's weakened secondary, they made the Cowboys offense look rather one-dimensional. They gained only 87 yards on 21 total rush attempts, with DeMarco Murray contributing 81 of those yards and 14 of those carries (and a touchdown).
Despite the Cowboys passing the ball so well, it could have been a fairly straightforward win for the Steelers on Sunday. However, mistakes ended up hurting the Steelers more than any of Dallas' passing yards.
Turnovers have been game-killers for the Steelers previously this season (see Week 12 and the eight they had against the Cleveland Browns) and they again cost them on Sunday. Immediately after scoring an important fourth-quarter touchdown that gave the Steelers a 24-17 lead, Antonio Brown fumbled a punt return that gave the Cowboys the ball back and resulted in Murray's touchdown run.
With the game tied to end regulation, the Steelers' only chance for victory was in overtime, and again they made a costly mistake. Ben Roethlisberger threw an interception on their opening possession, which was returned to the 1-yard line by Brandon Carr. This set up the game-winning field goal that dropped the Steelers to 7-7 on the year and desperately clinging onto their playoff lives.
Those turnovers aren't the only mistakes the Steelers made.
Dropped passes in the first half—Mike Wallace caught none of the five passes thrown his way, Emmanuel Sanders had only one target and no catches (and a near-fumble) before he left with a rib injury—and missed tackles throughout cost the Steelers dearly.
It was a sloppy, halting performance that saw the Steelers unable to make key plays when they were needed and unable to stop the Cowboys from making big gains of their own.
Perhaps the Steelers could have made fewer mistakes if they too weren't forced into one-dimensionality. Pittsburgh couldn't run the ball effectively, either, with just 69 total rushing yards on 17 carries, and their lead rusher, Isaac Redman, had 30 yards on a mere three carries only because one went for 22 yards. Jonathan Dwyer had more rushes—nine, in fact—but 22 yards are all he got out of it.
As such, Roethlisberger threw the ball 40 times, with just 24 completions totaling 339 yards, with two touchdowns and an interception.
Roethlisberger was sacked four times, with rookie guard David DeCastro seeing his first regular-season action. Pittsburgh's defense notched themselves just one sack—that belonged to Lawrence Timmons—and though James Harrison forced the ball out of Murray's hands and Brett Keisel recovered it, it wasn't enough.
The Steelers knew the importance of this week's game—and how much more it mattered after the Baltimore Ravens lost to the Denver Broncos earlier in the afternoon. A Steelers win would have made things far more difficult for the downsliding Ravens (they've now lost three straight) and put them in great position to take over the division with a win against the Cincinnati Bengals next week.
Instead, with Pittsburgh's loss, the Ravens have notched themselves a playoff berth by default, backing into the playoffs and backing the Steelers into a corner. The Steelers' entire playoff hopes now rest on their game against the Bengals next week, instead of having a bit of breathing room should they have defeated the Cowboys on Sunday.
The kinds of mistakes the Steelers made in this loss need to be erased quickly if they are to make the playoffs and then, should they do so, look like they belong there. Right now, the Steelers are erratic, flawed and a bit listless.
Those aren't three words that describe a playoff-caliber team, and right now the Steelers aren't in the playoffs.
The Steelers don't have the win-loss record to lose and make their way in, like the Ravens. Winning is the only way, and they did themselves a disservice on Sunday by playing an inconsistent game in a losing effort.