Crushed by the Cowboys: A Week 15 Analysis

Just in any case any Steelers fan thought that last week’s loss to San Diego would be the most frustrating defeat of the second half of the year, yesterday’s excruciating loss to the Cowboys ensured that there was plenty of heartbreak left in this season.

Now, I understand that winning a road game against a decent Dallas team might’ve been a tall order for this particular Steelers squad, but despite some frustrating miscues, it still seemed like Pittsburgh could pull this off going into the fourth quarter.

And then the Steelers showed that they’re just not done making these childish mistakes that have plagued them all year long, despite Mike Tomlin’s many assurances that these mental errors are a thing of the past.

There were certainly deeper issues at fault for this loss, which I’ll get to in a minute, but, if not for two absolutely agonizing plays, this would still have probably been a win for the team.

Instead Antonio Brown, a guy that I have praised in this space many times before, pretty much handed the game to the Cowboys.

After catching a touchdown to give the team a 24-17, his fumble on what should have been a long punt return was just a killer. Given how well the offense was playing, it seems like a near certainty they could’ve made it a two score game to really put things out of reach.

But that’s not where it ends for Brown. With 1:47 left, the defense had gotten a much needed stop, and the Cowboys punted it away from their 20. Brown read the kick as being considerably longer than it actually was, and allowed the ball to roll an additional 17 yards, turning what should have been good field position near the Steelers’ 40 to bad field position on their 24.

Although it didn’t end up mattering, Brown continued to slip up when he ran out of bounds on the final play of the drive, giving Dallas the chance to mount a drive without using one of their precious timeouts to stop the clock.

However, as frustrating as those plays were, the core problems that have plagued this team all year long surfaced once again to really do the Steelers in.

I’ve really liked what Todd Haley has done at points this year, but the playcalling these last few games has been rough. Ben is clearly unhappy with it, which is never a good sign, and it just baffles me that Haley so completely abandoned the run game despite its early season success.

This offense was so dangerous in the middle of the season because guys like Jonathan Dwyer and Isaac Redman were pounding opposing defenses into oblivion, giving Ben the time he needed to make big plays downfield.

In this game, no runner had more than nine attempts, and the team totaled just 17 rushes on the day. Perhaps I could excuse this discrepancy once the team went down 10-0, but practically the whole first quarter was scoreless. Haley barely called any runs at all, so when it came time for Ben to look to the play action on the fateful drive with 1:47 left, Rob Ryan’s defense saw right through it.

Seriously, in that situation, why on earth would you abandon the no-huddle, something that resulted in yet another score at the end of the half, to run a play action pass out of the I-form when you’ve been running shotgun plays all day? It shouldn’t come as a shock to anyone that Ben got sacked on those consecutive plays given how poor the play selection was.

There’s also the Heath Miller mystery. It really seemed like Haley understood his value in the offense, and all the guy does is come up with big first downs, yet Ben said after the game that few calls went in his direction.

Hasn’t he figured out by now that Wallace isn’t the safety blanket? He was better in this game, but I’d trust Miller, and even Brown despite yesterday’s struggles, over the mercurial Wallace any day, yet it seems as if he keeps forcing things to his side of the field.

As much as I’d like to criticize the defense as well as the offense, I just don’t think I can. To play with as much heart as they did after losing their top three cornerbacks? I can barely fathom it.

Sure, the pass rush is still anemic, but when you have to drop Troy and Clark back in coverage every play to cover for the Josh Victorians and Curtis Browns of the world, Dick LeBeau’s zone blitz isn’t going to produce the same results.

Lawrence Timmons was a monster in this game, particularly in coverage, and I can only hope that the defense gets some kind of relief in these next two games.

Overall, it was a thoroughly disheartening game that was, sadly, pretty indicative of what this team has been this year.

Believe it or not, though, the Steelers still control their own destiny. They just have to win these two, and they’ve got that sixth seed.

Can this flawed, flawed team really do it? I don’t know, but as a fan, I have to believe.

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