By Christina Rivers
With so much on the line, the Pittsburgh Steelers looked flat against the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday in Arlington, Texas. Going down 10-0 early in the first half, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger executed two drives to tie the score at halftime. In a back and forth match up, ultimately it was execution errors that cost the Steelers the game, watching Dallas kick a field goal in overtime and win, 27-24. The Steelers fall to 7-7 on the season, losing for the fourth time in five games and now trail the Cincinnati Bengals by one game in the hunt for the second wild card spot in the AFC and are two games behind a free-falling Baltimore Ravens who lead the AFC North.
You could see it on the faces of every player wearing Steelers colors Sunday night. The first half was not going the way they wanted, their faces blank of emotion, the spark missing from quarterback Ben Roethlisberger’s eyes. For the third game in a row, the Steelers’ offense could not put points on the board in the first quarter. They didn’t get much momentum going on offense until late in the second quarter when they got a field goal and Roethlisberger went to the hurry-up and marched into Cowboys territory. In a play that only Roethlisberger could orchestrate, he wiggled free of defenders to keep the play alive and used three pump fakes before finding tight end Heath Miller free along the right sideline for the tying touchdown at halftime. In the fourth quarter, the protection he’d seen for 45 minutes of the game broke down and Roethlisberger would find himself roughed and then sacked three plays in a row before he threw the interception in overtime that allowed Dallas to win by a field goal. Roethlisberger finished the night with 339 yards and two touchdowns and gave the best individual performance of all players on the Pittsburgh team.
As predicted, the rushing game was going to be hard-fought. Dallas held Pittsburgh to just 69 net yards rushing. Jonathan Dwyer led the squad with nine touches. Isaac Redman had a nice 22-yard run that helped set up the Steelers’ first lead of the game. The effort was lackluster all-around. Having knowledge of this before the game, the Steelers should have been prepared then to go to the air, one would think. Antonio Brown saw the most tosses with eight and one touchdown, but was responsible for execution errors, including a catch he made in the fourth quarter that should have remained in-bounds, yet he stepped out and forced the Steelers to punt. Miller was second-most active with seven catches for 92 yards and a touchdown. There remained too many dropped passes and thus, missed opportunities. There is no doubting that the Steelers gave what they had, but they beat themselves.
Offense grade: D+
The defensive line did not shut down the Cowboy’s rushing game early, allowing 87 yards on the ground. They were able to close the gaps a bit more in the second half of the game, although DeMarco Murray was still able to get extra yardage. Most of this was due to poor tackling and a lot of second-effort by Murray. With little pressure up front, the defensive backfield that was fully expected to be picked on by Romo saw just that. James Harrison came up with a big forced fumble in the first quarter to force Dallas to a field goal, and he was able to nab Romo on a third-and-1 that helped the defense give the ball back to Roethlisberger and company. Lawrence Timmons also logged a sack.
With little help from their front seven, Romo seemed to find every seam and killed the defensive secondary with precision passing. In 20 games, Romo became the first 300-yard passer against the Steelers. Josh Victorian was the biggest victim of the night, playing for an injured Cortez Allen. Arm-tackling instead of wrapping up rushers and receivers doesn’t work in the NFL, and it hurt the Steelers in a major way on defense.
Defense grade: C-
If it weren’t for Antonio Brown’s fumble after a 22-yard return, the special teams unit would have received a much higher grade. His fumble resulted in the Cowboys being able to score the tying touchdown in a game that the Steelers could have put away. He later opted not to make the catch on a short punt and the bounce pinned the Steelers offense deeper in their own territory. Even with good returns, the offense hasn’t been able to capitalize on the field position. Shaun Suisham and Drew Butler both had good nights, but Suisham was never put in the position to be able to win the game for the Steelers due to poor defensive and offensive execution.
Special Teams grade: C-
The fact that fundamentals are still not being emphasized or exercised by players makes one wonder about the coaching that is taking place from week to week. Receivers were still guilty of holding balls too loosely in their arms after catches. Poor on-field decisions took their toll. The Steelers were in the right position at the right time to win the game only to see a mental breakdown on offense and special teams. It’s December, and they’re all saying the same thing they did at the beginning of the year. There comes a time when excuses are just hot air.
Coaching grade: D+
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Christina Rivers is freelance journalist and photographer with a life-long love of the Pittsburgh Steelers. Credentialed with the organization, Christina provides a unique perspective gained through her knowledge and understanding of Steelers history, the Rooney family and relationships with past and present players. Her work can be found on Examiner.com.