For at least the fourth time this season, the talk was all about how the Dallas Cowboys were facing their biggest challenge of the season. This time, there was little question that the Pittsburgh Steelers were actually a team that was able to push the Cowboys to the limit. It was a real slugging match, marred by frequent penalties and both big hits and big misses on defense for the Cowboys. But there were also some fairly obvious mistakes made by the home team as well, and they largely averaged out, which was part of how close this game was. In the end, it was the rookie duo in the Dallas backfield that outdueled the veteran players of the Steelers for an exciting 35-30 victory that propelled them to an 8-1 start on the year and preserved their lead in the NFC.
It all came down to the end, after the Steelers took a one-point lead with 7:51 left in the game. The Cowboys took the ball at their own 25, and then Dak Prescott led them on a tremendous, time-eating drive. With a third and long, he found the seemingly ageless Jason Witten to keep the drive alive. Then Ezekiel Elliott finally broke through the defense on a fourteen yard run on the first play after the two minute warning. The Cowboys failed on a two point conversion (rather a theme for the game) and had five point lead as they prepared to kick the ball away. The question was whether 1:55 was too much time to give the Steelers. It would perhaps have been better to have used up clock and forced Pittsburgh to burn timeouts.
Instead, the Steelers marched immediately donfield and scored their own touchdown, getting it on a fake spike by Ben Roethlisberger that victimized Leon McFadden, who was filling in for Orlando Scandrick after the veteran was put into the concussion protocol following a collision with Sean Lee. It left the Cowboys down by one (following the fourth failed two-point conversion by Pittsburgh) and only 42 seconds to work with, but with all three timeouts.
And they also had Dan Bailey. But it turned out they didn’t need him, as Elliott broke through the middle of the line for 32 yards, scoring the winning touchdown and finally going over 100 on the ground. That left only 9 seconds on the clock, and this time, it was good enough (although it also featured a failed two point conversion, which, if you lost count, was SIX for both teams).
What was important was that the Cowboys never let the Steelers build a big lead on them during a first half when they seemed to be fighting a little to get their footing. Despite Pittsburgh having a 17 to 6 advantage in first downs before halftime, Dallas was still in it, trailing by just two points. Although the Steelers would be the first team to score more than 23 points on the Cowboys, they also went for two point conversions on all their touchdowns in the game, which would be one factor keeping the game close.
One big development for Dallas was that this was the best game of the season for DeMarcus Lawrence, and it wasn’t even close. He got a crucial sack in the third quarter and absolutely destroyed Antonio Brown on an attempted end around, resulting in a ten yard loss that helped stop the drive. It was good to see him show up in a big way.
Elliott was not the force rushing the ball we are accustomed to seeing until the final two minutes of the game, as the Steelers had an excellent game plan to limit his damage, but he made up for it catching the ball. And Dez Bryant was over 100 yards again with a touchdown.
The first half was one that the Cowboys were lucky to get through only trailing by two points. Dak Prescott was stripped of the ball, setting the Steelers up for a short touchdown drive. Dallas was only able to get a field goal on their next drive. Then the Steelers marched down for another touchdown, with Le’Veon Bell constantly making plays. But Mike Tomlin elected to go for two on both touchdowns, as mentioned above, and they failed both times. Dallas finally got a big play with a nearly perfect screen to Elliott that went 83 yards for a touchdown, after the Cowboys had gotten themselves into a first and 25 hole due to penalties on Tyron Smith and Zack Martin. Dallas would take a one-point lead on a 53 yard Dan Bailey field goal, but Pittsburgh would retake the lead on their own field goal to go into half up 15-13. The half was marred by multiple penalties, but the Cowboys were able to put up enough resistance to keep the Steelers from breaking away.
Things started off badly in the second half as well, with the Steelers connecting on a deep pass on the first play right out the gate, and getting a first and goal at the seven yard line on a pass interference call. But the D stiffened, holding them to three points.
Then the Cowboys started leaning on Zeke, giving him the ball six consecutive plays and getting the ball into Pittsburgh territory. They had gotten away from Elliott at the end of the first half, going with Lance Dunbar inside of two minutes, and it may have contributed to the three-and-out that ended their final possession before halftime. Prescott wold convert a third and seven to Dez Bryant, who was certainly more involved in the offense this game than last. The drive would stall on a sack, but Dan Bailey got it back to a two point deficit. His role was significant, given that the Steelers’ Chris Boswell missed a 55 yard attempt at the end of the first half.
What the Cowboys needed was a big defensive play, and they got in with about four minutes left to go in the third quarter when DeMarcus Lawrence finally got home on a sack of Ben Roethlisberger. That was immediately followed by a 39 yard punt return by Lucky Whitehead, where the old “outkicking the coverage” may have come into play. It set Dallas up at the Steelers’ 49 yard line. Then Prescott would get the ball to Dez Bryant streaking down the left sideline, after the Cowboys had been set back by a holding call that wiped out an Elliott first down. It gave Dallas a 23-18 lead, their biggest of the game.
And from their they would go on to one of the more exciting and satisfying finishes since, oh, the comeback against the Philadelphia Eagles. This team just keeps finding ways to win. It is so much fun to watch it unfold.