It's hard to watch good players put in lousy days at the office. It's even harder to watch them play good football for three quarters and then lose their snap in the fourth quarter. In the end Terence Newman and Tony Romo, two of the biggest names on the roster, missed chances in the late third and early fourth quarter that helped tip the game in Pittsburgh's favor.
Terence Newman had helped the corner unit shut down the Steelers wideouts completely. He had broken up a deep in in the second quarter that ended a Steelers drive.
Late in the 3rd, two plays after Nick Folk's field goal had put Dallas up 13-3, the Steelers faced a 3rd-and-16. They were going into a stiff wind. They had amassed just 96 total yards to this point. Steelers OC Bruce Arians called a go route to Santonio Holmes. Newman was playing ten yards off Holmes and the snap and was in good position to track him down the field. But Newman squatted for a split second at 18 yards, expecting a deep in or comeback at the first down mark. That brief hesitation let Holmes separate a step. He caught Roethlisberger's bomb for 47 yards.
The Cowboys stopped the Steelers on this drive with a salty goal-line stand, but the play changed the nature of the game. The Steelers were on their 20 yard line at the time. Dallas had scored 10 points on its two 3rd quarter drives. An incompletion here would have forced a punt into the wind, and neither Sam Paulescu or Mitch Berger could kick more than 30 yards into it. Dallas was looking at a start near mid-field with the wind and a chance for an early knockout.
What's worse, it helped the Steelers single out Newman as a target. Holmes beat him for 12 yards on the left sideline several plays later, when Roethlisberger was scrambing away from intense pressure and looking for a lifeline. Holmes burned Newman again on the following play but Roethlisberger overthew him in the left back corner of the end zone.
The Steelers went back at Newman two series later, after getting a field goal from a three-play, two-yard drive. After Nate Washington caught a hook for 14 yards in front of Anthony Henry, the Steelers went no-huddle, in part to prevent a review of Washington's questionable catch. Washington ran a square in away from Newman, who gave the Steeler a ten-yard cushion. Newman offered a tepid chase, as Washington cut through the secondary for 21 yards, to the Dallas 32.
80 late Pittsburgh passing yards came over and in front of Newman, who does not look like himself. When he's healthy, Newman has acceleration few can match. That zip is missing. He's not 100% right now and might never be this year. I would be surprised if the Giants don't test him early next week.
In Romo's case, he seemed to have overcome his first half yips. He was sharp in the third quarter, when he looked to the rookies Tashard Choice and Martellus Bennett. Both figured prominently in Dallas two second half scoring drives. It was Romo's inability to find his other new target, Roy Williams, which kept Dallas from pushing their lead to fourteen points.
One play after Tashard Choice ran a circle route and sliced through the Steelers secondary for 50 yards, the Cowboys lined up on the Steelers' ten. Jason Garrett placed Witten and Owens on their right. The Cowboys ran a flood of the Pittsburgh zone, as Choice ran a flare wide of the two Pro Bowlers. Romo could not find a target on his right and dashed left away from pressure.
Romo finally found Roy Williams in the back left corner of the end zone, but he was running too hard to his left and was too close to the sideline to attempt an across his body throw. Romo switched hands and tried to shot put the ball left handed, but his heave flew out of bounds.
To be fair, Williams was Romo's fourth option, but he was wide open from the beginning of the play. Had Romo glanced left he would have found an easy target for a 17-3 lead.
Romo lacked the touch Roethlisberger showed going in either direction. Any throw 15 or more yards up field sailed on him. Two of his final throws showed how his loose grip and tunnel vision cost him a chance to pull Dallas back into the game.
Romo managed a quick first down two plays after his throw for Witten was picked off by Deshea Townsend and returned for a score. On 1st and ten from the Dallas 28, Garrett called the same circle route for Choice that had worked so well a quarter before. Choice again blew past a Steelers linebacker and had room to run in the middle of the field. Romo was not pressured yet his soft toss sailed yards beyond the RB.
Three plays later, on 4th and 10, Garrett made an inspired call. He put Dallas in three wide, with Choice and Witten flanking Romo in the backfield -- Choice on Romo's left and Witten on his right. Patrick Crayton was flanked wide right with T.O. in the right slot.
Owens ran a corner route. Witten ran a seam up the right hash mark from the running back position and Crayton ran a square in right at ten yards. Witten's route cleared out the right zone; three Steelers chased him. Owens cleared Deshea Townsend, and made his cut wide. Crayton was wide open running his pattern underneath Witten. What's more, he was running right to left, away from the Steelers' safeties, both of whom were locked in on Witten.
It was an easy toss for Romo and had Crayton made the catch he had clear sailing to the open side of the field. I can't say he would have scored but Crayton would undoubtedly have run deep into Steelers' territory. This could have been a replay of the Cardinals game, where a short toss to Marion Barber turned into a long TD that drew the Cowboys even in the final seconds of regulation.
Romo didn't wait. He was facing some pressure from James Harrison, who was crashing inside Flozell Adams, but he had another count to let Crayton clear. Romo hurried his throw towards Witten, who was not expecting the toss.
It's easy to assume Witten misjudged the route. I did in my initial writeup. Witten is the target visible from the sideline angle. Romo threw the ball exactly where it needed to be, but two steps before Crayton got to the target point.
Having looked again at the tape, I'm now convinced that Garrett crossed up Pittsburgh, calling a key play for an ancillary Cowboys target. He did this in a similar situation last year against the Giants, when he called a 3rd and long for Sam Hurd with Dallas clinging to a three point lead late.
The difference is that Romo ran the play that time. Hurd beat his man and scored a long catch-and-run to ice that game. Yesterday, Romo didn't wait for his 3rd wide out, adding to a long day of missing Bennett, Choice and Williams.
These guys are all still new. Bennett has been around all year but is only getting heavy reps since the bye. Williams was obtained just before the trading deadline and Romo's hand injury limited their work. Choice made his first start today.
It doesn't matter. They've all shown they can produce -- if Tony will get them the ball. Bennett won the Redskins game with a late catch. Choice had as good a day against the Steelers as any back has this year. Williams is a breakout waiting to happen.
Romo will simply have to trust them more going forward. The season depends on this.