Week 10 brings the third and arguably most formidable AFC North opponent that the Cowboys will face this year as the team heads to Pittsburgh to take on the Steelers. Let’s take a look at the strengths and weaknesses of their offensive personnel.
The Steelers are led by 13-year veteran Ben Roethlisberger, a 2-time Super Bowl Champion and 4-time Pro Bowler. This will be Roethlisberger’s second game back after a knee injury suffered only four weeks ago, an injury that was supposedly going to keep him out anywhere from three to six weeks. As everybody knows though, Roethlisberger is a quick healer who is more than willing to give it a go at less than 100%, although it seems like he may have rushed back a little too quickly this time. Last week against the Ravens Roethlisberger looked very shaky and did not seem to have his usual mobility, and while his final stats for the game looked decent, most of that was accumulated in garbage time as the offense was totally ineffective for the first three quarters while the Ravens built a 21-0 lead. However, for the season, Roethlisberger has an impressive 17 touchdowns to just seven interceptions.
Generally speaking Roethlisberger started his career as a game-manager, although over the years he has evolved into one of the more dangerous quarterbacks in the league, both in and out of the pocket. He has the arm to challenge defenses at every level, he is extremely accurate, and is at his best when extending plays with his legs. Unlike some quarterbacks Roethlisberger will fight to stay on his feet while absorbing a hit from a defender with the hope of making a play downfield, so it will be important for the Cowboys defense to play through the whistle, even if he isn’t 100%.
When healthy, Roethlisberger is one of the best quarterbacks in the league, a likely future Hall of Famer, and he has plenty of weapons at his disposal. No matter what the situation with his health is, the Cowboys will have to get pressure on him and play assignment-sound football on the back end if they want to win, and if Roethlisberger isn’t at 100%, that’d be fine too.
Running Backs, Wide Receivers, and Tight Ends
You’d be hard pressed to find a better duo at running back and receiver than Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown. The only potential challenger may actually be the Cowboys duo of Ezekiel Elliott and Dez Bryant. After being suspended for the first three games of the year Bell has picked up where he left off, averaging 4.5 YPC, while also being one of the best receiving backs in the league with 36 catches for 283 yards in just five games. Bell has terrific size at 6-2, 230 lbs., but also great vision, balance, agility and straight-line speed. Basically, he’s the complete package and the argument for who is the best running back in the league likely comes down to him, Elliott, and maybe David Johnson. The Cowboys will have to be especially aware of Bell out of the backfield with Roethlisberger not being at full strength. The Steelers also have a very capable veteran backup, similar to Alfred Morris, in DeAngelo Williams. Since Bell’s return Williams hasn’t received many touches but he is fully capable of taking over as a full-time starter if necessary.
The receiving corps is led by Brown, a player who, despite being listed at just 5-10, 180 lbs., is the best receiver in the league by most accounts. Brown has put up over 400 receptions, 5,700 yards and over 35 touchdowns since 2013, and is on pace for 110 catches, over 1,300 yards, and 12 touchdowns this season. He may be the best route runner in the league, while also being blessed with explosive straight-line speed and side-to-side agility; he is nearly just as fast side-to-side as he is straight ahead. He has great hands and an innate ability to track the ball in the air, which allows him to make contested catches despite not having the size of a Bryant, Julio Jones, or A.J. Green. The Steelers will move Brown all across the formation in order to scheme him open and there isn’t much the Cowboys can do to shut a player of his caliber down, they’ll just have to hope to contain him.
The good news is that there isn’t much behind Brown in the Steelers receiving corps with the suspension of Martavis Bryant. Second-year player Sammie Coates has started to emerge a bit lately, although at this point he isn’t a player you have to scheme to stop. He is a big-play threat, has impressive size (6-2, 213) and good speed, but he is not consistent, week-in, week-out. Rookie Eli Rogers is the team’s third receiver after Darrius Heyward-Bey’s injury and the fact that Markus Wheaton has seemed to fall out of favor with the coaching staff, although Rogers will mostly be an afterthought with just 238 yards and one touchdown on the year.
The starting tight end is Jesse James, a fifth-round pick in 2015 out of Penn State. He had a quiet rookie season sitting behind long-time Roethlisberger favorite, Heath Miller, although he was elevated to the starting spot this year after Miller retired. James has managed only 172 yards on the season, although he does have three touchdowns. James isn’t much of a threat in the passing game and there isn’t much behind him. There have been rumors that free-agent signing Ladarius Green would return over the last few weeks, although that hasn’t happened yet. He is certainly more physically gifted than James and more productive over a few years in San Diego, although I can’t imagine he would be too effective playing his first ever game with the team after missing several months.
The Steelers line is anchored by two elite interior linemen; 2-time First Team All-Pro and 4-time Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey and 2015 First Team All-Pro and Pro Bowler David DeCastro at right guard. Both Pouncey and DeCastro were first-round picks and have lived up to their billing, developing into two of the best players in the league at their respective positions. Each has the ability to anchor and play with power, while also having the athleticism and agility to pull in space. Former first-round picks at center and right guard who have each turned into two of the best at their position league-wide, sounds familiar doesn’t it?
It must be noted that Pouncey suffered a thumb injury last week against the Ravens and had surgery on it early in the week. Supposedly he could play according to head coach Mike Tomlin, although that could just be gamesmanship. If Pouncey can’t play it would be an absolutely huge blow to the Steelers offense.
The starter at left guard is veteran Ramon Foster, listed at 6-5, 338 lbs., Foster plays with impressive power on the interior, although he can struggle at times with athletic interior pass-rushers. The Steelers welcomed right tackle Marcus Gilbert back last week after he missed the previous three games with an ankle injury. Gilbert is another long-time starter for the Steelers and he is actually one of the more underrated linemen in the league, as I believe he is one of the better right tackles in the league.
The one potential liability on this unit is left tackle Alejandro Villanueva, a player who only joined the Steelers in 2015 after a tour of duty in the military. Villanueva stepped in last year after Kelvin Beachum was injured and hasn’t given up the starting job yet. He does a good job of playing assignment-sound football within the system, but ultimately he is an athletically limited player. It will be difficult to single Villanueva out considering how good the rest of the line is, but this is probably where the Cowboys should look to attack an otherwise excellent unit, pending what happens with Pouncey.
Where The Cowboys Can Take Advantage:
- Lack of depth at receiver behind Brown
- Average at best receiving tight ends, this could free up safeties to double cover Brown
- Average left tackle
- Roethlisberger may not be 100% and not as mobile as usual
- Pouncey’s absence would be a huge blow to the offensive line
What The Cowboys Must Fear:
- One of the best and most complete offenses in the league
- Arguably the best RB/WR duo in the NFL
- One of the better offensive lines in the league, especially on the interior
- Future Hall of Fame veteran quarterback who has as good a supporting cast as just about any quarterback in the league