It is no surprise that the Dallas Cowboys dropped the game to the Pittsburgh Steelers. What was amazing was that they only lost the game 24-19, and held a lead until there was just 2:19 left. This was perhaps the most difficult game remaining on the schedule, and while we don’t give a fig for moral victories, this one at least leaves us with some hope for the seven games after the bye. The Cowboys even had a last gasp when they had a defensive stop on fourth and one with just 38 seconds left. They would get to the Pittsburgh 29 before they finally fell, but they went down swinging.
It was expected to be a badly one-sided blowout. There was no way the Cowboys could even stay on the field with the Steelers. They were starting their fourth different quarterback of the season in Garrett Gilbert, who had never started an NFL game since entering the league in 2014. Ezekiel Elliott was nursing a hamstring injury and would be limited. And just before the game, Tyler Biadasz suffered his own hammy issue, putting Joe Looney in the lineup in his place.
But there is a reason they play the game. The Cowboys came out playing hard in all three phases of the game, got out to a 13-0 start, and went into the fourth quarter with a two score lead.
Rico Dowdle would come up with a stunning 64 yard return after the Steelers got to kick off form the 50 on a personal foul penalty, one of a series of big special teams plays including a blocked extra point just before the return. But Gilbert, after getting the team to third a goal, would throw an ill advised pass that was picked off, when even a sack would have let the Cowboys try a short field goal to push the lead back to seven.
The following drive by the Steelers could have given them their first lead of the game, and at times it looked like the defense was going to help them. Multiple penalties, including one where Leighton Vander Esch looked like the second guy involved in an exchange getting caught, helped Pittsburgh get to the Dallas 24, but a DeMarcus Lawrence batted pass forced them to settle for a field goal, and left the Cowboys clinging to a one point lead with 7:11 left on the clock.
It would take a penalty on Jaylon Smith to keep the drive alive on which the Steelers would take their first lead of the game, and it was not the only infraction that hurt Dallas badly. They played with tremendous effort, but sometimes it seemed they tried just a bit too hard.
The game had one important facet that we would rather it didn’t. With the results from the earlier games, this one put the Cowboys in a position to move up in the draft order.
Of course, it is not exactly encouraging to even have the word “tanking” associated with the season. But it is not like the team has to do anything to actually throw games. The quarterback and offensive line situations are likely to drive them to losses anyway.
However, the Cowboys were not in any mood for that to start the game, as they came out playing hard on defense, showed some surprising life offensively, and even pulled one out of John Fassel’s bag of tricks to set up a score. They wound up not hurting their draft position, but they certainly did the exact opposite of tanking.
Helped by an incompletion on a play where Jourdan Lewis may have gotten away with a hold, Dallas got off the field after the opening drive. Then Gilbert showed why he was the starter instead of Cooper Rush with a 32 yard rainbow to Amari Cooper to convert his initial third down of the game. Tony Pollard would add a 25 yard carry before things stalled out and the Cowboys had to settle for a field goal. But it still gave them the early lead.
Then after an exchange of punts, the Dallas defense put together a very strong series, with rookie Neville Gallimore leading the way. They held on fourth down and Dallas got the ball at their own 30. It was a drive that was really all Gilbert, as first he somehow evaded being sacked and scrambled for 15, then would get the next first down with an 11 yard run to his right. Then he went to work with his arm and found Dalton Schultz for 23 before hooking up for a 20 yard TD pass to CeeDee Lamb.
Another defensive stand, with a Ben Roethlisberger pass that was behind the receiver the key play, and Pittsburgh had to punt again. Jordan Berry, who was just booming kicks, looked like he was going to pin Dallas deep in their own end. But Cedrick Wilson lateralled across the field to C.J. Goodwin, who tried to earn an Oscar faking injury on his way down the field, and after bobbling the ball, Goodwin got all the way to the Steelers’ 21. A block in the back cost the Cowboys ten yards, but the field position was still enough to get another field goal after the offense stalled out. It had Dallas up 13-0 with 3:46 left in the second quarter.
Just like we all expected.
Then the Steelers finally came to life. Roethlisberger marched them down the field, despite nearly having to leave the field after getting sandwiched between Gallimore and DeMarcus Lawrence, on a play where he grabbed his knee. Visibly hurting, he still found James Washington for a 17 yard touchdown. Chris Boswell missed the extra point, however.
With 1:10 left in the half, it looked like Gilbert might be able to move them down the field for another shot at a score, but a pass to Lamb was stripped and grabbed in midair by Minkah Fitzpatrick. That bit of bad luck was followed by more. In a somewhat bizarre sequence, after Mason Rudolph, filling in for Roethlisberger, was unable to advance them far, they lined up for a 54 yard field goal attempt, a yard longer than Boswell had ever made. It was wide, but the Steelers were flagged for a false start and got another shot from 59. Perhaps because he had a practice kick, Boswell made this one, which is also the new franchise record for Pittsburgh.
The Cowboys had the ball to start the second half, and Gilbert again moved them into Steelers territory before the drive stalled. Greg Zuerlein nailed the 45 yard attempt and staked Dallas to a seven point lead again. It would stretch to ten after the defense forced another three and out from the Steelers and the Cowboys once again got into Zuerlein’s range.
The defense finally got burned by the pass, but they were nearly impenetrable on the ground. The Steelers largely gave up on running the ball before halftime, and frankly, that was not a good development for the Cowboys. Roethlisberger is just too canny and talented to force into throwing the ball all the time.
Part of the offensive success for Dallas came from Tony Pollard, who had multiple runs of more than ten yards. He looked far more explosive than the somewhat gimpy Elliott. He made a real argument for getting more touches as the season goes on. But the big story of the game was Gilbert, who didn’t look at all like he didn’t belong. Yes, he had a pick and missed some other passes, but Roethlisberger, perhaps at least partly due to his aching knee, had his share of off-target throws.
Now the staff has to decide if they bring back Andy Dalton, or ride with Gilbert. Frankly, Gilbert has earned the right to start again.