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Week 9 Primer: Cowboys vs. Steelers

Another week, another starting quarterback for the Cowboys.

Dallas Cowboys v Pittsburgh Steelers Photo by George Gojkovich/Getty Images

The Steelers have an idea of what the Cowboys are going through right now. Last year, Pittsburgh lost their star quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger, in the second game of the year to an elbow injury. They ended up alternating throughout the season between a second-year quarterback who had yet to throw a pass in the NFL and an undrafted rookie who had been on the practice squad to start the year. The offense wasn’t great, but the Steelers managed to finish the year 8-8 after inexplicably winning seven games in eight weeks.

Of course, the Steelers’ situation was very different from the Cowboys’ situation this year. Pittsburgh had a former third-round pick and Big 12 star passer at quarterback in Mason Rudolph, while former Samford Bulldogs star Devlin Hodges was essentially last year’s version of Ben DiNucci. While Rudolph, the Steelers’ top backup, went on the injured reserve in Week 16 he still played in 10 games that year, whereas Andy Dalton couldn’t even make it to the end of his second start. And Hodges played in eight games, whereas DiNucci is getting benched after one week of pretty poor play.

The Steelers also traded for star safety Minkah Fitzpatrick right after Roethlisberger went down, and he responded with five picks, two fumble recoveries, and two defensive touchdowns to lead a defense that powered the team to many of their victories; in games that the Steelers won, they allowed less than 14 points a game. Dallas hasn’t added any star players to their defense, instead cutting the guys they brought in during the offseason who underperformed.

Finally, and most importantly, the Steelers weren’t in the middle of a massive culture change or trying to change schemes in a shortened offseason. Head coach Mike Tomlin was in his 13th season there, with a firmly established culture and largely the same schemes in all three phases. Mike McCarthy, on the other hand, is in his first year in Dallas after not coaching during the 2019 season.

Either way, though, the Steelers know it won’t be easy for the Cowboys when they face off on Sunday. That’s before taking into account that the Steelers are the hottest team in the NFL right now, standing as the lone undefeated team at 7-0 after narrowly beating both the Titans and Ravens the last two weeks.

The return of Big Ben has helped - his 67.9% completion rate is eighth best among quarterbacks with 200+ attempts this year, and he’s thrown 15 touchdowns to just four interceptions - but the offense is not what’s carrying this team. They’re solid, ranking 14th in offensive DVOA, 17th in passing DVOA, and 15th in rushing DVOA, but the defense has been downright dominant.

Currently, the Steelers defense is second in defensive DVOA, sixth in pass defense DVOA, and second in run defense DVOA. No other defense has more sacks this year and they’re tied for second most defensive takeaways. What’s even scarier is how this group does it; there’s not one or two star players making plays, but everyone gets involved. Nine different players have recorded at least one interception, and while Cowboys Legend TJ Watt leads the team in sacks, they’ve had ten different players with at least one sack.

That’s enough to where the Cowboys would be in for a rough day even if Dak Prescott was still playing. But not only is he out, so is Andy Dalton. Even the Nooch won’t be suiting up for the game, as McCarthy and the Cowboys have opted to go with either AAF star Garrett Gilbert or Jason Garrett-confidant Cooper Rush. In other words, the bottom of the barrel has been thoroughly scraped.

It’s why the Cowboys are favored to lose by double-digits at home for just the second time ever in the Super Bowl era. The good news? The last time that happened was the 1989 season, when the Cowboys were led by a new head coach who was known for winning a championship with another team he coached, and they went on to win three Super Bowls a few years later. Now, the Cowboys are led by a new head coach who’s best known for winning a championship with another team he coached. In other words, the 2023 season is definitely going to the Cowboys’ year.

But first, Cowboys fans will have to eat their vegetables, and that comes in the form of watching Gilbert/Rush get absolutely obliterated by the best team in football on a Sunday afternoon. Viewer discretion is advised.