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Cowboys vs. Steelers: What we know, don’t know, and will find out

What’s in store on Sunday afternoon for the Cowboys?

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

Mercifully, we’ve reached the halfway point of the Dallas Cowboys 2020 regular season. In what’s been one of the most disappointing Cowboys’ seasons in recent memory, things have a chance to get much worse on Sunday.

Dallas gets the treat of attempting to end their three-game losing streak against the only remaining undefeated team in the NFL, the Pittsburgh Steelers.

The Steelers have the best defense in the NFL, and the Cowboys have a cratering offense. This one could get ugly.

Before Sunday’s matchup, here’s what we know, don’t know, and will find out.

We know T.J. Watt will dominate this matchup

Let’s step in the time machine and take a trip back to the 2017 NFL Draft. Dallas is on the clock at pick 28, needing some defensive help. They have a choice between T.J. Watt and Taco Charlton. As we all now know, Dallas, in particular Rod Marinelli, felt despite Watt being the better prospect, Charlton worked better in their system. Dallas selected Charlton, and two years later he was off the team.

What happened to the guy they passed on? Oh, not much, he just went on to become one best defenders in all of football. Since entering the league in 2017, T.J. Watt has been dominant. Watt has recorded 41 sacks, 91 QB hits, and 48 tackles for loss in 54 career games. Last season, Watt was named a First-Team All-Pro, finishing fourth in the NFL with 14.5 sacks.

Dallas sure could use a pass-rusher like Watt on their side, and this weekend they’ll have to face the star for the first time since passing on him in the draft. Watt is not the only guy who can get after the quarterback on the Steelers’ defense. Pittsburgh leads the league with 30 sacks on the year, and Pro Football Focus ranks them as the best pass-rushing team in all of football.

Watt may not be the only threat, but he certainly is the best, and he’s going to have a field day on Sunday. The All-Pro gets to go up against the depleted Cowboys’ offensive line that has allowed 24 sacks on the year, fifth most in the NFL. PFF ranks Dallas as the seventh worst line in all of football. Watt will spend most of his time going up against rookie Terence Steele, the weakest link of the unit. Steele has a PFF pass block grade of 48.8 on the season and has allowed seven sacks, most in the NFL.

It’s going to get even more difficult on Sunday to fathom why Dallas, and 28 other teams, passed on Watt. He’s set up to have one of the best games of his career, and there’s a good chance he could walk away from this game with double-digit sacks on the season.

We don’t know if Ezekiel Elliott should play in this game

It’s been a tough year for the Cowboys running back. Elliott has gotten off to the slowest start of his career, failing to record a 100-yard rushing game through eight weeks. You can’t put a majority of the blame on Elliott, anyone would struggle running behind this beaten down offensive line.

News came out during the middle of this week that Elliott popped up on the injury report with a hamstring injury. According to Mike McCarthy, Dallas will monitor Elliott’s situation up until kickoff, and make a decision then.

If we know one thing about Elliott, it’s that he’s an ultimate competitor. Regardless of the 2-6 record, there’s no way Zeke wants to sit out of this game. As hard as it would be, the smart decision may be to hold him out.

Now that, for all intents and purposes, the 2020 season is over, Dallas needs to shift their focus to 2021. Elliott has already shown signs of some wear and tear this season, and seems to be lacking a little bit of the burst we used to see. Is it really smart to throw him out there against the best defense in football in a game that means nothing? Plus, playing on a bum hamstring could force Elliott to compensate in others ways, and worst-case scenario could result in him suffering a more serious injury.

It doesn’t hurt to let Tony Pollard take Elliott’s role for one week. Let Pollard get some playing time, and don’t take an unnecessary risk and potentially make 2020 even worse than it already has been.

We’re about to find out if the improvement on defense was a fluke

There’s no way to say the Cowboys’ defense did not play better last week. For the first time, virtually since Week 1, the defense did not gift the other team scores. Dallas was able to get some pressure on Carson Wentz, which resulted in forcing three turnovers.

Obviously they weren’t facing a “top of the league” offense, but it would be hard to argue that Washington, who they got dominated by, has a better offense than Philly. Leighton Vander Esch and DeMarcus Lawrence both had huge games, and Lawrence was graded as the best edge defender of the week, according to PFF.

Look, they are no where close to even an above average unit, but a performance like last week could win you a game. They just happened to be starting a rookie at quarterback, a seventh-round pick, who took his first snaps in the NFL two weeks ago.

This week, the defense faces a much better offense. At his age and coming off injury, Ben Roethlisberger’s limitations hold Pittsburgh back from having a great offense, but they are top five in points per game and have a ton of weapons. The Steelers and Roethlisberger get the ball out as quick as any team in the NFL, so tackling will be huge for Dallas in this game.

There’s no suggestion that the Cowboys defense has to pull out a historic effort and lead them to a win, but they need to build on what we saw last weekend. No more busted coverage, fly to the football, and force some turnovers. If they can hold this offense around 20-24 points, that would be another step in the right direction.