Monday, November 14, 2016

The Morning After - Week 9 - Steelers

That is why we follow the sport.  That Cowboys-Steelers game is one of the few that will stick out when you look back at any season.  To know a classic from just another Sunday, you ask yourself if you will remember this day in a decade. 
Well, as far as I am concerned, I am going to go out on a limb and suggest you will remember where you were when the Cowboys, led by their rookies (again), walked into Pittsburgh, traded body-blows and haymakers for three hours, and then left with the coveted win. 
This was not your typical win.  This was an extraordinary back-and-forth effort that will be given the "instant classic" label and perhaps require a second viewing over watching Monday Night Football this week. 

Pittsburgh threw a lot at the Cowboys and got superb efforts from many -- including their star QB Ben Roethlisberger, not to mention Le'Veon Bell and Antoino Brown who all were able to do some pretty impressive things in a home game where they needed to stop the bleeding to their season.  They rallied the troops and whipped their home crowd into a frenzy.  It was a late game on a November afternoon where the whole football nation would be locked in, wondering if this upstart squad from Dallas was worth all of the hype.
Oh, sure, there were many things the Cowboys could have done better on this day in Pittsburgh.  There is no doubt that the defense has to be better and that the health of their secondary was exposed when Roethlisberger threw for over 400 yards and had the team backed up against the wall as the Steelers took the lead in the final minute.  It was the first time a Cowboys opponent had passed for 400 yards in the Rod Marinelli era (since 2014).  In fact, it reminded us of that Monte Kiffin year in 2013 when Dallas allowed 400 yards three different times to Matthew Stafford and both Manning brothers. 
The offense found itself getting a bit frustrated because it could not put much together in the first half beyond an unbelievable 83-yard screen play where Dak Prescott timed a throw to Ezekiel Elliott, who then hit the turbo and followed a convoy of the two guards and the center who were clearing out Steelers in the path.  Elliott needed one last nudge from Terrance Williams at midfield and it was over.  This young talent can take any play to the end zone, and this one quickly served notice to those in attendance that this was going to be a ballgame.  That pulled a 12-3 game back to 12-10, and the afternoon of intrigue was underway.
This season continues to be about a player who has yet to even play a snap -- Tony Romo.  He helped lay the foundation for this season and so many people in these parts regard Romo as the only hero at QB they have ever known.  There is nothing like your first love, and if you are a Cowboys fan of a certain age, you may only go back to the very end of Aikman, all the retreads in between, and that glorious day when they finally put Tony into the game in 2006.  Since then, you have been debating people on his behalf against Eli Manning or Donovan McNabb and were certain the Cowboys had their version that, simply lacking the appropriate supporting cast to ever go as far as he deserved.

Now, just as it appears his help has come, it also appears his time is vanishing.  Football isn't about fair.  It is about seizing whatever moment you have, because the future is not promised.  And this makes the "Romo loyalist" uncomfortable.  Instead of enjoying this remarkable surprise that has been dropped in Dallas -- the dynamic duo of a rookie RB and a rookie QB who together look to be too much for opponents to deal with in their first few months together and a promise of a new exciting era that could be awfully special -- the Romo loyalist is looking for details that make a win in Pittsburgh less impressive from a QB standpoint. 
They point to missed throws.  They point to Zeke as an unfair advantage.  They want their guy back as soon as possible because this new guy is just on a hot streak.  Surely, you aren't suggesting Romo is not better than this guy, Bob.
I really don't get it. 
Dak Prescott just stood tall and dueled against Roethlisberger on his turf.  You may recall he just did the same with Aaron Rodgers on his turf.  The last thing this guy needs is people to make excuses for him.  Prescott is busy beating blitzes and staring down linebackers to make throws to move the chains.  I don't think he needs to answer about the details along the way.
This sport is amazingly difficult, and the way the Cowboys executed in the second half and down the stretch of that game to pull a win out in the most hostile of circumstances was something that Aikman, Romo, or just about any QB should be proud of.  A win in Pittsburgh in the Roethlisberger era is a rare treat for a road QB, let alone a rookie QB. 
And let's not undersell the degree of difficulty.
Late in the third Quarter, the Cowboys faced a third-and-1, but just when you thought Elliott had moved the chains, Ron Leary was flagged for a holding that made it a third-and-11 from midfield.  They were down 18-16 at the time, and they were now well out of field goal range.  So, your options are to play it safe and punt or to trust your rookie to decode the blitz and find the right place to go to try to extend the drive.  In other words, this is asking a rookie QB to pass a test that franchise QBs are expected to pass.
The Steelers sent their best pressure in a layered attack.  Both inside linebackers and a safety head up the middle to try to get Prescott.  Then, two of the front will fade back into the shallow passing lanes, because a rookie QB will dump it short and they can get an easy interception if they step in the path.  Lance Dunbar was asked to step in front of the truck that is Ryan Shazier and just push him enough to let Prescott slide over. 
Here is the moment.  Prescott is doing the calculations in his head.  He knows they can't send a safety and have anything beyond Cover 1 behind it.  That means if he spots the safety that he can throw away from it into a safe spot.  He has to buy a split-second as chaos happens around him.  He now knows that Dez Bryant is the best option and he lays out a pass to Bryant that flies 50 yards in the air and lands right on the stride.  It couldn't have been more perfect.  Touchdown.
It required pocket presence, astute reads, and the a perfect throw.  There are many ways to screw that up against a big blitz on third-and-11 in a game that is on the road in a loud stadium. 
Instead, it gave the Cowboys a lead.  This kid is good. 
Again, I think it bears pointing out another time that this isn't about Prescott alone.  It is about what the coaching staff tells us about him.  There seems to be no harness where they pull back and ask him not to try this throw or this situation.  This conservative coaching staff appears to no longer believe in conservatism.  They have crossed the aisle into aggressiveness and going for the throat.  What better example than that moment late in the fourth quarter?
Down 24-23, they are squarely in field goal range.  Second-and-2 turns into third-and-8 when Shazier blows up a running play.  We are also one play from the two-minute warning.  The Jason Garrett I know plays it safe and asks Dan Bailey to give his team the lead, even if he knows that Roethlisberger will not fear a 2-point margin with another chance at the ball.
Instead, they allow this rookie to make a throw on third-and-8 and perhaps risk the entire game on his arm and decision.  How does he repay that faith? 
Steelers send pressure, Cowboys put five receivers out.  Easy math.  Five Pitt rushers and five Dallas receivers means that the Steelers can only be in one coverage.  It also means that he won't have long to get the ball out. Single-high, man under.  So, Prescott waits for Jason Witten to get to the top of his stem on that Y-Option, has Shazier pinned to the inside and heads to the sideline where Prescott puts the pass right on his hands at the sticks. 
That is a big-boy throw and a great catch.  It likely converted the game from a loss to a win, although so much happened after that.
Roethlisberger did drive the Steelers down, but also might have scored too soon. 
One last test for the two rookies was getting the ball into Bailey's range in just 42 seconds from the Dallas 25.
It might have been more complicated had the Steelers not generously grabbed two facemasks.  We will never know if Bailey was going to make a long kick, because, of course, Zeke had one more absurd run left in him.  Touchdown Cowboys.
Game.  Set.  Match. 8-1.  
I am really out of explanations or descriptions.  All I know is this train continues to not only roll, but to accelerate.  I also know that Cowboys fans are split right now on how they feel about who is playing and who is under a blanket on the bench. 
But, given that this is my 19th year covering this team, I will confirm that special seasons are increasingly rare around here.
I recommend getting on board.  This team is very good and looks like they will have a thing or two to say about who is holding the Lombardi Trophy at the end of the year. 
It would be a shame to waste this run with bickering about who isn't playing.  Trust me, the coaches clearly believe in who is on the field right now.  And if they have bought in, you might as well, too.
The writing is all over the walls and the field. 
The future appears to be now.


sharky6865 said...

Bob, I always enjoy your analysis. I have been a cowboys fan since 1970. I must say I am very biased as Tony is my current favorite player, so you are exactly right I am not enjoying this year as much as I should. I wish nothing bad to happen to Dak, but I sure hope to see Romo playing full-time time at some point before the season is over. I can't help but think about how he keep this team going with very little talent around him for many years. Anyway, keep up the great analysis 😊

Cowsfan1960 said...

Cowboys fan since Meredith. This team is fun, winning with traditional values plus a large dose of athleticism and youth.

Terrific content here from Sturm.