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Five things to watch when the Cowboys host the Steelers

A football game is still happening, so what will you be looking for on Sunday?

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at Tennessee Titans Steve Roberts-USA TODAY Sports

The Dallas Cowboys return from their two-game road trip to host the leagues only remaining undefeated team, the Pittsburgh Steelers. That’s not really the what the Cowboys were hoping to see coming off a three-game losing streak amidst all kinds of disarray, but hey - that’s the way the cookie crumbles. And this cookie is going to be doing a lot of crumbling on Sunday as this Cowboys team is no match for the Steelers. Pittsburgh has one of the most ferocious defenses in the game, and the Cowboys offense hasn’t scored a single touchdown over the past two games. That’s alarming.

The last time these two teams met was back in 2016 during Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott’s rooking campaign. And what an exciting game that was as a back-and-forth affair ended with a 35-30 victory for Dallas as they reached 8-1 on the season. Dak threw for over 300 yards and Zeke scored three touchdowns in the win.

Things are much different now. Not only is Dak out for the year, but the Steelers have a new cast of characters. On offense, once led by Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown, Pittsburgh features a new assortment of weapons. This week’s game won’t bring forth that same level of excitement, but here are five things to watch when these two teams meet up on Sunday.

1. Who’s playing quarterback for Dallas?

The Ben DiNucci experiment may be one and done for the moment as it appears the Cowboys will being going with a new option this week. It was believed that the team’s regular backup quarterback, Andy Dalton, might be back in action after spending last week in concussion protocol. Unfortunately, the veteran QB is now on the Reserve/COVID-19 list, meaning he’s unavailable to play this Sunday.

The Cowboy will look to either Cooper Rush or Garrett Gilbert to start at quarterback. That’s a tough spot for a new quarterback to be in, especially considering what awaits them on the other side of the ball. The Steelers defense is the best in the league at getting after the quarterback with an astounding 11.5 sack percentage. For reference, the Washington Football Team is second in the league, and they sacked the Cowboys six times when they faced off in Week 7. Expect destruction. A lot of destruction. Which brings us to...

2. Watt a mistake that was

For years we have been hearing about what a horrible mistake it was to pass on Wisconsin’s edge rusher T.J. Watt in favor of Michigan’s Taco Charlton. Part of it was because Charlton wasn’t very good. The Cowboys released him after just two seasons with the team. Charlton has since been picked up and released by the Dolphins only to find his way on the Chief’s roster this year. He hasn’t started any games for them this season, but he’s still good enough to work into the Chiefs’ pass rushing rotation.

But the bigger part of this is the type of player Watt turned out to be. Scheme fit or not, the guy has been a force to be reckoned with the moment he entered the league. Watt has had two straight seasons with at least 13 sacks, and he’s right on pace to do that again this season.

We’ve heard all about how great he is for a while now, but Sunday will mark the first time Watt will square off against the Cowboys. And considering the state of their offensive line combined with an inexperienced quarterback being thrown into the fire, Cowboys fans will have a front row seat to re-live the pain all over again.

3. Terminate Sarah James Conner

The Cowboys run defense did a lot better on Sunday night against the Eagles as their 119 yards allowed was a breath of fresh air considering they had surrendered 200+ in three of their previous four contests. Granted, the Eagles seemed more interested in letting Carson Wentz lead their team to victory, so the Cowboys defense wasn’t smothered with a lot of rushing attempts. And with the Eagles starter Miles Sanders missing the game with an injury, there wasn’t a huge rushing threat to deal with.

That will change with the Steelers James Conner. Since taking over for Bell, Conner has been a very effective as a runner. He’s had some struggles staying healthy, but other than exiting the season opener with an ankle injury, Conner has been healthy this season. And when he’s on the field, you can count on him seeing work. In fact, Conner has at least 15 rushing attempts in each of the last six of the Steelers’ games. He hasn’t had any huge games this year as his largest rushing total is just 109 yards, but he’s an elusive runner than can really hurt defenses when he gets some room to maneuver. The Cowboys defense has shown they can put themselves in precarious situations, and if they’re not careful, it will be hasta la vista, baby.

4. Cooking with Big Ben

While stopping the Steelers rushing attack will be important, Pittsburgh is real crafty at getting their receivers open in space. While JuJu Smith-Schuster is the big name we recognize, Ben Roethlisberger loves to target his younger guys as well. Second-year receiver Diontae Johnson and rookie Chase Claypool have each taken turns exploding for big games. Between those two and the veteran Smith-Schuster, they’ve all had multiple touchdown games this season.

This is going to be a problem for the Cowboys secondary. It would be nice if Chidobe Awuzie was back and healthy enough to help out, but even at full strength, the Cowboys corners will be tested by the Steelers receiving weapons. Between deep vertical threats and big plays after the catch, this is going to be a tough challenge for the Cowboys defense.

5. Draft positioning watch

Witnessing a crushing defeat on Sunday is never enjoyable as the rock bottom of this 2020 Cowboys season continues to drop lower and lower. And while sadness hovers over our football watching experience, there does exist a silver lining in all this, and that silver lining is draft positioning.

Right now, the Cowboy sit at two wins. Currently, there are seven other teams in the league with two wins or less. With each new week that comes and goes without a Cowboys victory, this team inches closer and closer to a top five pick in next year’s NFL Draft. And while most teams in this position aren’t feeling all that great, this Cowboys team should be poised to make a big turn around next season. They’ll get Dak Prescott back as well as what we hope is a healthier offensive line with the return of Tyron Smith and La’el Collins. And when you consider there’s a lot to love with some young defensive talent including but not limited to Trevon Diggs and Trysten Hill, adding some primo new college stars to the roster will have fans excited about the possibilities of the 2020 season.