Each NFL game is made up of about 125 to 135 plays, usually the ones that get all of the attention are the headline-grabbing touchdowns or game-deciding plays in the last few minutes, but what about all of the crucial plays that led up to those moments? What about the overlooked plays that had a significant bearing on the direction of the game but are usually forgotten in favor of flashy highlights? Here is a look at five plays that may get lost in the wash, but ultimately were critical in shaping the Cowboys 35-30 victory over the Browns.
Play: Four Failed Two-Point Conversions By Pittsburgh
Impact: Listing all four failed conversions is definitely cheating on my part, but I’d be remiss if I did not mention them as they played a huge role in the game, and there’s no way to single out just one since each failed conversion basically led to the next. The domino effect of these missed conversions was significant. Had the Steelers kicked (and presumably made) their extra points the score would’ve been 27-23 Steelers before the first Ezekiel Elliott rushing touchdown with about two minutes remaining, the Cowboys wouldn’t have went for two following that score and would’ve led 30-27 going into the final Steelers drive. Following the Antonio Brown touchdown it would’ve been 34-30 Steelers, and the Cowboys would’ve needed a touchdown and not a field goal on the final drive with just :42 remaining. Of course they ended up scoring a touchdown but needing seven and not just three would’ve completely changed the play-calling for both the Cowboys offense and the Steelers defense. Now, this is all butterfly effect stuff, and nobody knows exactly how things would’ve went had they simply kicked their extra points, but what is clear is that the Steelers were left chasing points all day long thanks to these failed conversions. It also made things much easier for the Cowboys as the bottom line is that the Steelers left four points on the field.
Play: Le’Veon Bell 2-Yard Rush
Situation: Third and 1 from the Pittsburgh 30
Score: Steelers lead 12-10
Time: 15:00 remaining in the second quarter
Impact: The good news here was that it was the first time the Cowboys defense was able to get off the field all day, the bad news is that it could have been far more than that. Orlando Scandrick made a great play to beat the tight end’s block to stuff Bell five yards in the backfield, he didn’t finish the tackle but him beating the tight end was the key to the play. Once Bell’s momentum had been stopped the rest of the Cowboys defense rallied to the ball and Demarcus Lawrence laid a nasty hit which forced the ball out. The ball bounced around for what seemed like an eternity, both on the ground and in the stone hands of Byron Jones, before Jones ultimately bobbled the ball out of bounds, never fully gaining possession. Had Jones cleanly fielded the ball this could have been a scoop and score, or at the very least the Cowboys would’ve been set up somewhere around the Steelers 20. The Cowboys did manage a long 53-yard field goal following the Steelers punt, but the potential for much more was lost.
Play: Lucky Whitehead 39-Yard Punt Return
Situation: Fourth and 11 from the Pittsburgh 31
Score: Steelers lead 18-16
Time: 3:45 remaining in the third quarter
Impact: Catching the punt inside his own 15, Whitehead did a fantastic job of flipping field position with his longest punt return of the year, which set the offense up just inside Steelers territory. Four plays later Dak Prescott showed fantastic pocket presence to sidestep the blitz, reset his feet, and make a perfect pass to a streaking Dez Bryant for a 50-yard touchdown on third and 11. It was the confidence boost the Cowboys needed.
Play: Jason Witten 14-Yard Reception
Situation: Third and 8 from the Pittsburgh 28
Score: Steelers lead 24-23
Time: 2:50 remaining in the fourth quarter
Impact: This felt like the biggest play of the day at this point in the game. Facing a third and long, the Cowboys were not yet in chip shot field goal range and were clearly hoping for far more than just three, which would’ve allowed the Steelers to win it with just a field goal. Prescott showed amazing accuracy here to find Witten in a window that was closing quickly and was not particularly huge to begin with. On the very next play Elliott capped off the drive with a 14-yard touchdown, and what many thought was the game-winner. Of course we know that wasn’t the case, but it doesn’t change how huge of a play this was.
Play: Incompletion to Jason Witten
Situation: First and 10 from the Cowboys 25
Score: Steelers lead 30-29
Time: :42 remaining in the fourth quarter
Impact: This may be one of the savviest plays you’ll ever see out of the old veteran. The Cowboys needed to go about 45 yards to set up a game-winning attempt by Dan Bailey and were armed with all three timeouts but just :42 on the clock. On the very first play of the drive Prescott felt pressure, was flushed out of the pocket, and looked for Witten in the flat. The pass was low but Witten clearly did not make an attempt to catch it, most likely because he felt the Steelers defenders converging on him and knew the two or three yards gained were not worth having to burn a timeout. On the next three plays in a row Prescott completed passes in the middle of the field where the receivers had no chance of making it to the sideline, had the Cowboys been forced to burn a timeout on that first play would he have felt comfortable enough to make those passes? The facemask penalty was clearly huge, but on that play would Prescott have even made the throw to Witten in the middle of the field for just a five yard gain with no timeouts remaining as opposed to one? Probably not.