One way to know your football season is going very well is when you leave with a win despite someone shredding your defense for more yards, points, and big plays than anyone else had all season long.
That is almost too good to be true, but it is.
The Steelers scored 30 points after none of the Cowboys' first nine opponents scored over 23. They rolled up 448 yards when only Washington had exceeded 400 all season (432). Ben Roethlisberger passed for 400 passing yards when only Washington (350) and Chicago (312) exceeded 300 to this point.
And then the big plays: Only Washington went for five plays of 20+ yards all season, yet Pittsburgh got to 6. That is a very large number and one that usually translates to a loss. And when you allow your opponent four different touchdowns and six different scores, including two touchdowns inside the final 4 minutes - each time to take the lead - you almost always lose.
But somehow, the Cowboys won.
On Wednesdays we examine the defense and try to do it in a way that is not "who cares, they won!" The result is important, but our exercise is always based on asking each side of the ball to handle their business. The defense looked a lot more like what we thought they would look like back in the summer.
They were attacked repeatedly down the field and while we did see plenty of fight and some pretty big plays along the way, the sum total of the day in Pittsburgh is mostly: "You got away with it with the win, but let's try to avoid that in the future."
WEEKLY DATA BOX
Again, when you win a game like this, you have to wonder if it is your year. Of course, you could also wonder if it is a sign of things to come. But, 30 first downs, zero takeaways, six explosives, and 80% in the red zone is generally not the recipe for a great day.
Let's take a look at some of these big plays that the defense allowed.
This is what happens when you mistime a blitz (Orlando Scandrick) and then ask Byron Jones to close the gap against a quick receiver, a request a veteran QB knows exactly how impossible it is. When someone is running at you, the idea of running past them with a little hip movement (especially if they cannot contact you) makes a big gain pretty easy here. The Cowboys tried to cross Roethlisberger up and he wasn't having it. +22.
First play of the 2nd half, it seemed clear the Steelers decided at the half to start attacking more. Remember, the Cowboys are down Mo Claiborne and Barry Church, so they are seeing far more of J.J. Wilcox and Anthony Brown than they ever imagined earlier in the year. So here, it looks like Cover 1 with J.J. Wilcox on the opposite hash mark in center field. Great protection and time for the QB. That is why Roethlisberger sees Hamilton with inside leverage on Brandon Carr and gives his man a chance to make a play with no safety close. +39 here to start the 2nd half. The Steelers will absolutely throw to guys and just believe that they can make something happen downfield.
Here, Ben sees 2-Deep, man-under, so it is time to free up Le'Veon Bell in space with getting DeCastro over to pick off Sean Lee in a marginally legal play and then it is open field for Bell. Once Durant slips it is another big gain on a short pass. +23.
You have to love this design. Now, they run the same look and the Cowboys jump up. Of course, it is all a trap and the Steelers slip their TE in to space for another easy +24 as the Steelers had the Cowboys thinking it was another quick pass into the flat. Anthony Brown and Leon McFadden are now being attacked on this key drive repeatedly. The quicker pace doesn't allow the youngsters to collect themselves between attacks.
One more and this is McFadden again #23, stuck in a trap in the zone where you can actually see his indecision as Ben waits for him to choose shallow or deep and then will throw to the other guy. Easy over/under concept where you make that outside corner wrong either way. Of course, Ben would prefer the bigger gain so he looks at the underneath guy before he throws it over his head and in front of the safety for another +20.
The Cowboys have done great this year against the big pass and are currently 3rd in the NFL in the category of "Opponent Passer Rating on 21 yard+ passing" by allowing just eight completions on 36 attempts for a passer rating of 46.9, but Roethlisberger had quite a day.
You won't win after allowing six explosives very often.
ROETHLISBERGER THROW CHART
Let's remember though, you won't face very many offenses with that ability to spread the ball around and seek out your weaknesses. It is a concern, especially if Claiborne and Church are out for a long time, but very few teams have that much talent.
Now, let's get to some good:
SPLASH PLAYS - PITTSBURGH
Like we said, the defense made many big plays, too. One of the best developments of the game was that DeMarcus Lawrence looked like DeMarcus Lawrence again. He has been back for a month now, and it is time to start showing his tools that make him a guy I really believe in.
The right defensive end is a very key spot on a defense. You must have a guy who can trouble a left tackle and make dynamic plays in the backfield. For years, DeMarcus Ware filled this gap as well as any player in the league, but those days are gone. Lawrence was drafted to fix that. He has at times but nowhere near Ware's level. However, on Sunday, Lawrence showed that he can really pop off the tape. He had 4.5 splashes himself on this day, easily leading the team as the most impressive defender on the field for either team.
This first one is just defeating a block and making the play in the gap to stop a run right in its tracks. One thing you like about Lawrence - which was undersold during draft season his year - is his ability against the run. He is tenacious as heck on run plays. Very impressive player.
This one is just silly. Look at him run this play down from the backside. He is faster than anyone on the screen as a defensive end. That is how the ball comes loose as he forces a fumble with his hustle. This is what you pay for. Elite level play here. You don't see that every Sunday.
Now, what you do want - pass rush. Here he is flipped over to take on the right tackle, and Lawrence demonstrates that 10-sack upside with a big win around the edge and then arrives at the QB with a vengeance. Great stuff.
Finally, a play that really stuck out was the first snap of the fourth quarter. He is sitting on this end around and knows the play. He does not buy the run fake to Bell and does not let DeCastro get in his path. He knows Brown is about to get the ball and will destroy this 10 yards in the backfield. That is a day of "wow" plays from Lawrence.
A very good sign because he needs to be a factor every week. Let's hope it is happening.
Good starts don't guarantee quality holds up for four or five months. Not every week is the same. To roll through the Bengals and Packers offense like they did, the Cowboys were due for a rough go of things in Pittsburgh.
They keep fighting and scrapping and you have to hope that is enough. They have four real studs on this defense right now with Sean Lee, Tyrone Crawford, DeMarcus Lawrence and Byron Jones. All have been paid handsomely and put in place to make a difference. There are others, too, but these are the four that will need to lead them down the stretch.
Depth will decide this. Opponents will continue to attack those young players trying to replace your injured.
In other words, the Cowboys are 10th right now in "fewest explosives allowed" and that is as high as they have been ranked in any season since Wade Phillips. To go where they want to go, this will be a stat to watch. Must limit the yards in big chunks to win down the stretch.