Sunday, December 16, 2012

Gameday: Dallas Cowboys

Jerry Jones' 9th Wonder of the World
Radio: WDVE and other affiliates

What to Watch For

1. Steelers corners vs Cowboys receivers

This might seem like beating a dead horse at this point, but the Steelers ability to cover the Cowboys receivers will be the biggest matchup in the game. Keenan Lewis has been good this year, but without Ike Taylor and possibly Cortez Allen, the Steelers will be strapped to cover both Dallas' receivers. All signs point to Dez Bryant attempting to play through his broken finger, which is bad news for the Steelers. If Allen isn't able to go, Curtis Brown, the third round pick in 2011, figures to start opposite Lewis. Brown struggled against the Chargers, giving up 6 third down conversions. Behind Brown on the depth chart is Josh Victorian who made the practice squad out of training camp and dressed for the first time last week. Demarcus Van Dyke, who the Steelers claimed off waivers from Oakland, has been a penalty machine on Special Teams and could also see time in the secondary. All of these represent bad matchups for the Steelers and if they aren't able to get pressure on Romo it could be a long day for the defense.

2. David DeCastro

After suffering a knee injury in the third week of preseason, Steelers first round pick David DeCastro will finally make his first start of the year. DeCastro has dressed the last two weeks and played on the field goal team, but with the injuries along the line, DeCastro will finally see game action. The starting lineup figures to be Max Starks at LT, Ramon Foster who has played the whole year at RG moving to LG, Maurkice Pouncey at C, DeCastro at RG and Kelvin Beachum at RT. This is a bit of a concern as having Beachum, the rookie 7th-rounder out of SMU, beside DeCastro means there will be two rookies on the right side of the line.

3. Pressure Romo

Dallas has one of the worst rushing offenses in the league. They are 31st in rushing yards and dead last in yards per attempt. Additionally, they have the fifth-fewest rushing attempts in the league. Conversely, they have the third most passing attempts, which means the ball will be in Romo's hand for much of the day. If the Steelers are going to give their young, inexperienced corners any help, the front seven is going to have to get pressure on Romo and force him into some bad decisions. Getting LaMarr Woodley back on the left side should be a big improvement over Jason Worlids and James Harrison has been playing his best ball in over a year. Aside from Big Ben, Romo might be the best quarterback in the league at getting out of pressure and making plays down the field. He will try to fit the ball into tight spaces, so the Steelers need to be ready to try and jump some routes. Romo has actually been a better quarterback away from home this season. At home, Romo has only two fewer touchdowns but eight more interceptions and nine more sacks. This all adds up to a quarterback rating that is 17 points lower at home than it is on the road.

4. Run the ball

The Chargers stacked the box against us and made the Steelers rushing attack a non-factor. With Rashard Mendenhall's suspension, the onus is on Jonathan Dwyer and Isaac Redman to put this team on their backs. The Steelers biggest problem against the Chargers was their lack of rhythm on offense. They couldn't pick up first downs and couldn't stay on the field. Dallas has the 16th-ranked run defense in the league but has given up over 100 yards in each of their last four games and in seven of the last eight. In fact, only one team this year has run for less than 80 yards against the Cowboys defense. The Steelers should be able to attack the Cowboys up the middle with NT Jay Ratliff out and NT Josh Brent also out.

5. Turn Back the Clocks

At this point it might seem like I'm beating a dead horse, but the trend is so alarming that it bears repeating. In the Mike Tomlin era the Steelers are 67-34 overall, a 66.3% winning percentage. They are 62-21 in the Eastern Time Zone, a 74.7% winning percentage. Their biggest issues have been outside the Eastern Time Zone where they are a mere 5-13 (27.7%). This is a marked contrast to their overall road record of 27-21 (56.3%) and even their road record in Eastern Time of 22-9 (71%). The Steelers struggles outside of Eastern Time have not all been against superior opponents. They have dropped games to teams like Oakland and Tennessee on the road this season. The Steelers have not won outside of Eastern Time since beating the Chiefs on Monday Night last season and carry a 5-game losing streak into Dallas. Their losses were to San Francisco, Denver (playoffs), Denver, Oakland and Tennessee.

AFC Playoff Race

The Steelers came out last week and played a forgettable game where they didn't look like a team that wanted to play in January. Somehow, despite this lackluster effort, the Steelers still control their own destiny for the 6th and final playoff spot in the AFC. After Cincinnati's win over Philadelphia last night, the Steelers must win two of their last three, and will make the playoffs as long as one of those two wins comes against the Bengals. 

The Ravens dropped another game last week to the Redskins in overtime and still have not secured the division title. Baltimore has to play Denver, the Giants and Cincinnati to close out the year. The Ravens 9-4 record gives them the inside track for the division crown. The only way the Steelers can win the division is if the Ravens drop their last 3 games and the Steelers win out. 

The Colts have a firm hold on the first Wild Card spot with a 9-4 record and will be almost impossible to catch, though they do have two games left against the Texans. Houston can clinch the AFC South with a win over the Colts this week, so the Texans should come out guns blazing against Indianapolis.

The Bengals now hold a half game lead on the Steelers for the 6th Wild Card spot thanks to their win on Thursday which took their record to 8-6. The Steelers currently hold the head-to-head tiebreaker on the Bengals thanks to a mid-season win. If the Steelers complete the sweep next week, they will win any tiebreaker scenario with the Bengals. If the Steelers beat the Cowboys this week, they will have a chance to clinch a playoff spot next week against Cincinnati.

The Jets, despite all their problems, somehow only trail the Steelers by one game with a 6-7 record. The Steelers early-season victory over the Jets could prove to be huge down the stretch. As strange as it sounds, the Cleveland Browns (5-8) could make the playoffs if they win out and get some help from other teams. The Chargers, Bills and Dolphins are still mathematically alive at 5-8 but can be eliminated with a loss this week. San Diego plays Carolina, Buffalo plays Seattle and Miami plays Jacksonville. 

As strange as it sounds, the Steelers can still make the playoffs if they lose to Dallas this week. In fact, they would still control their own destiny, even with a loss. Ideally, we will go down to Dallas and out-duel the Cowboys which would give us a chance to wrap up a playoff spot next week. However, don't put this one in the bank with the Cowboys fighting for a playoff spot and two of the Steelers top three corners unlikely to play. According to the Friday Injury Report, Ike Taylor is out and Cortez Allen is doubtful with a groin injury. This means Keenan Lewis will start at one corner and either Curtis Brown, Josh Victorian or Demarcus Van Dyke will play the other corner spots. That isn't an ideal scenario for the Steelers against Miles Austin and Dez Bryant. 

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