Well, that game went exactly as everyone expected it to go. The Steelers defense made life miserable for Garrett Gilbert and the Cowboys got curb-stomped - wait, what’s that? They only lost by five? They led for the majority of the game? Well, that’s pretty impressive.
Obviously the loss still stings, but for the Cowboys to keep things as close as they did while playing behind a fourth-string quarterback against one of the NFL’s elite defenses is highly encouraging. So what prevented Dallas from pulling out the win? These five plays shine a light on that.
CeeDee Lamb’s fumble right before halftime shifts the pace of the game
The Steelers had just managed to finally score their first touchdown of the game and cut the lead to 13-6 after they missed the extra point. With just over a minute left in the second quarter and with Dallas set to get the ball to start the third quarter, the Cowboys had a shot at a two-for-one opportunity to extend their unlikely lead.
Garrett Gilbert started things off promising by hitting CeeDee Lamb, who would have picked up the first down with his run after the catch. But cornerback Cam Sutton managed to swipe his hand in from behind and punch the ball out. It flew right into Minkah Fitzpatrick’s hands, and the ball was suddenly Pittsburgh’s.
It’s unclear if the Cowboys could have actually scored on that possession, but they got the worst possible outcome by setting the Steelers offense up with great starting field position. Of course, their good luck continued by somehow benefitting from a false start to get a second chance at the field goal and making it this time around, cutting the Cowboys’ lead to 13-9 at halftime. This was a killer for the team, as it helped the Steelers keep the game that much closer.
Garrett Gilbert’s poorly timed interception kills Cowboys’ promising drive
After this inexplicable kickoff return from Rico Dowdle set the Cowboys offense up at the Steelers’ 36-yard line, it looked like Dallas was primed to get points on the drive. Up 19-15, a touchdown would have made things difficult for the Steelers, while a field goal would at least have given the Cowboys a seven-point lead in the fourth quarter.
But after marching it down to third and goal from five yards out, the Steelers pressure got to Gilbert. Instead of taking the sack and at least preserving the chance for a field goal, Gilbert tossed up a prayer and Minkah Fitzpatrick picked it off.
The replay later showed that Amari Cooper - Gilbert’s intended target - was blatantly held by the cornerback, and that played a part in this becoming a takeaway. But Gilbert still threw the ball where there wasn’t a receiver close by, and that’s dangerous. It’s even more dangerous when it’s this close to the goal line, taking away points.
Jaylon Smith’s penalty takes away Cowboys’ strip sack
An illegal blindside block by the Steelers during the interception return backed them up to the one-yard line to start their offensive drive, but Big Ben managed to push the ball down the field. On first down after having reached the middle of the field, Roethlisberger dropped back and was quickly surrounded by the pass rush.
Tyrone Crawford managed to knock the ball out of the quarterback’s hands, and Aldon Smith scooped up the ball, returning it for 22 yards and setting up the Cowboys offense with even better field position than Dowdle’s kick return. But there was a flag on the field.
Naturally, Jaylon Smith had been called for illegal contact after knocking a receiver to the ground. Instead of it being Cowboys ball just outside the red zone, the Steelers were gifted a first down on the Dallas side of the 50-yard line. They ended up kicking a field goal to make it just a one-point lead for Dallas.
Jaylon Smith gets called for roughing the passer, keeps Steelers drive alive again
Let’s get this out of the way: for the second week in a row, the Dallas defense looked pretty good. And for the second week in a row, Jaylon Smith continued to impede this unit’s progress. The illegal contact was definitely more egregious, but this penalty was also tough to swallow. Both mistakes led to points for Pittsburgh.
On third and ten at their own 21-yard line, Big Ben dropped back to pass and had to unload it before he was ready, as the defensive pressure was barreling down on him. It fell incomplete, and looked like Dallas would get the ball back up one point with just under four minutes left in the game. But there was a flag on the field.
Naturally, it was against Jaylon Smith again, this time for roughing the passer. It was definitely one of the more tame roughing the passer penalties, and certainly a reflection of how the NFL has wildly overcompensated in their well-intentioned desire to protect the quarterback, but either way you slice it, Smith once again hurt his team. Instead of getting the ball punted back to them, Pittsburgh got 15 yards and an automatic first down to extend the drive. Four plays later, they scored a touchdown to take the lead for the first time all game.
T.J. Watt gets away with slapping Garrett Gilbert in the face
For some befuddling reason, Mike Tomlin opted not to kick the field goal late in the game and instead go for it on fourth and short. After failing to pick it up, the Cowboys offense took the field at their own 19-yard line and promptly hit a CeeDee Lamb toe-tapper on the sideline to pick up 32 yards and give the Cowboys life.
After getting his pass tipped on the next play, Gilbert tried to hit Ezekiel Elliott on a quick out route. Zeke ultimately dropped the pass, as he was diving out of bounds for it, and brought up a third down. But the biggest impact was the officials completely missing T.J. Watt slapping Gilbert right in the face, something that Smith was called for a few minutes ago.
If the rules are enforced equally, then that’s a roughing the passer penalty and the Cowboys are given a free 15 yards and a first down. That would’ve placed the ball at the Steelers’ 36-yard line with 27 seconds remaining. That still may not have been enough to get a last-second touchdown to win the game, but it’s better than the reality where Dallas had to first convert their third and ten and then run up to the line of scrimmage to spike the ball.
With this game turning out to be as close as it was and in a crunch time situation like this, it’s disappointing to see a big penalty like that go uncalled. The fact that it was called for the Steelers on another pivotal play a few minutes prior just adds insult to injury in what could’ve been a huge upset win for Dallas. Instead, it’s the closest thing you’ll ever find to a moral victory.