The Dallas Cowboys were close to waltzing back to the Star with unabridged control over second place in the NFC East on Sunday - and with an alpine-caliber win over the NFL’s lone remaining unbeaten squad, the Pittsburgh Steelers.
They were stalwarts throughout much of the tilt’s opening sequences, diffusing Pittsburgh’s normally high-potent offense to a near standstill, while Garrett Gilbert capitalized on a number of key defensive stops (and buoyant spirited special teams play) to methodically lead his troupe to their highest point total in three weeks.
But old habits have a funny way of reemerging, and like clockwork, Dallas’ lead began to painfully wane away like an old car on its last sputtering legs.
Pittsburgh drudged right back into contention as fourth-quarter play got underway, and before you could wishfully call out for “Dak!”, the Cowboys had resorted back to their redundant normalcy: playing from behind.
Gilbert though, remained gutsy, and attempted to parry the onslaught by bringing his team back downfield in their final possession. He connected on a few hookups as time dwindled, but his famed AAF heroics were aught to the Steel Curtain D, and they swatted away a last-second touchdown prayer as the scoreboard flashed four zeroes.
Nonetheless, any type of lead from Dallas - let alone one that stretched through three quarters - was the last expectancy on any of our minds heading into the slate.
The team sent shockwaves through their fanbase as the nation came to grips with the possibility of them actually beating the Steelers.
And despite the loss, the message that echoed from their performance was loud and clear: we’re not going down that easily - at least not without a fight.
Here are your three stars from the ‘Boys surprise outing vs. Pittsburgh.
3. Garrett Gilbert
The St. Louis Rams. The Patriots. Lions. Raiders. Panthers. Browns. And oh yeah, can’t forget about the almighty Orlando Apollos.
You can say that Garrett Gilbert’s been around football.
The 29-year-old journeyman QB has suited up for a new team every 273 days (on approximate) since being drafted by St. Louis in 2014, and although Sunday was his first career NFL start, the tread of his residency in the game is undeniable.
That doesn’t mean that much success was presumed of his initial go-round, and the previous showings of Dalton/DiNucci, coupled with a barren offensive line, and mixed in with Pittsburgh’s staunch defense had all the makings of calamity for Gilbert’s forecast.
But like a seasoned meteorologist, Gilbert was thoroughly equipped for the anticipated flood, and even received some extra trench coating from the big guys inside. That blockage did begin to wear off as the game persisted, but Gilbert’s fight or flight response remained brisk as his own running ability opened a number of avenues for escape.
Gilbert’s stat line for his first start was solid: 243 air traffic yards on a 55% completion clip and one touchdown - good for a 72.6 total QB rating.
It wasn't entirely pretty, but the display should have been enough to seduce McCarthy away from his previous two quarterback experiments in favor of Gilbert - at least, in my opinion.
2. CeeDee Lamb
CeeDee Lamb solidified his top-notch Madden “awareness” rating before he ever stepped foot in D-Town (his draft-night phone concurrence will forever be one of the event’s most memorable).
Sunday though, Lamb flashed an on-field football brilliance beyond his years.
He’s no stranger to big-play gains and spider web catches as evidenced by his time in Norman, and forming allegiance with Dak Prescott only vaulted his receiving presence.
But the true testament of Lamb’s proverbial greatness surfaced after the other half of his star-studded tandem was smitten with injury.
He’s had to up the ante tenfold in #4’s absence, and while his troupe’s previous two showings have been marred by incompetent quarterback play, the Gilbert-Lamb tag-team proved worthwhile, producing one of Lamb’s best displays yet.
Lamb has an inherent cunning knack for diverging from his routes to find open grass when plays break down, and Sunday produced more of the same as Dallas’ offensive line slowly began to falter into disgrace.
His route-extension ability led to several significant catches in key drives as his team tried to steal one from under Pittsburgh’s nose, and he’s already established himself as a tremendous YAC (yards after catch) threat.
He averaged 17.75 per target: finishing with four receptions for 71 yards, and a huge TD grab to boot. Yes, he had a big fumble, but his star flashed throughout the evening.
Dallas’ passing game gradually wilted following Lamb’s score, but if only they could find a passer to dependably reciprocate Lamb’s skills.
1. John Fassel
Everyone who’s played even a shred of football in their life knows that anyone can be a potential threat on any given play, especially on special teams.
And even if you haven’t, there are enough highlight montages on YouTube of unbeknownst lineman rumbles, punter passes, and other trickery to suffice one with knowledge of said theme.
Any team that’s been beaten by a trick play knows all too well the hoarded shrouds of embarrassment that have enveloped sidelines in the moments that followed.
Pittsburgh was the victim of that inescapable dread Sunday.
And special teams coordinator John Fassel was the villainous culprit behind their grief.
His mastermind-esque play call came on a Steelers punt just over halfway into the second quarter. After forcing two three and out’s on Big Ben’s brigade, Steelers’ punter Jordan Berry sent a skyrocket careening towards returner Cedric Wilson, who awaited the football near the 10-yard line.
Wilson coddled it in a reverse sprint racing towards his own end zone, before quickly flipping position to start his dart in the direction of Pittsburgh’s oncoming army.
Or so they thought.
Wilson took a few steps — stopped — and whirled around to hurl the ball across the pitch to teammate C.J. Goodwin, who was faking an apparent ailment as he hobbled down the other side of the field, successfully diverting any attention that would’ve come his way.
Goodwin briefly bobbled the reception, and then - well, see for yourself:
John Fassel has had some questionable moments so far, but wow, this was impressive.— RJ Ochoa (@rjochoa) November 8, 2020
It’s this type of coaching and the three points it yielded that make the tiny differences. pic.twitter.com/XNKwUoMlQJ
That wouldn't be the last splash the team made in that area.
After the Burgh’s second TD, Tyrone Crawford busted through Pittsburgh’s line on the ensuing extra point attempt to thwart the field goal try.
Then on a kickoff, Rico Dowdle managed to buzz his way through a nest of yellow and black, breaking away and blazing down the sideline to the near-40-yard line and earning his team excellent field position in the process.
Now, the latter two instances may have held more player responsibility than coaching prowess, but since Fassel’s the guy instructing them in that area, this star is an all-encapsulating one with his name stamped right in the middle.