Is this the most stressful undefeated season ever?! I wasn’t around for the Dolphins 1972 season of dominance. However, I’ve been reliably informed that heart rates remained mostly steady through an offensive explosion. The Steelers are doing their very best to provide all the drama no one asked for. After narrow wins against title contenders Tennessee and Baltimore, the match up with the Cowboys was supposed to be a comfortable march onward. But Dallas had other ideas.
Week nine review: Pittsburgh Steelers 24 – 19 Dallas Cowboys
An undefeated AFC North powerhouse with a historically ferocious pass rush. A franchise in disarray after seeing their entire offensive line plus their all pro QB, starting TE and competent back up QB sidelined. A match made in heaven or hell depending on your team affinity.
Who is the offensive co-ordinator?
Yes, yes. It’s all very entertaining that when Big Ben takes over the play calling, the Steelers go to “back yard football”. It’s interesting watching him pick apart defenses and tell each receiver what to do each play. This resulted in some fantastic route running by JuJu and a pretty run and catch by Ebron. The highlight was a beautiful pump fake deep ball to Washington for another TD. But there is in fact a person that is supposed to be doing this exact job from the sideline.
However, watching Randy Fitchner call failed screen after failed screen, followed by vanilla and deflating consecutive run calls is nothing less than depressing. The Cowboys did a good job stifling the productive Steelers rushing attack. Holding the combo of Conner, Snell and McFarland to 30 rushing yards total.
Ben did a great impression of a future Hall of Famer in the fourth quarter. He completed countless precision zone piercing strikes that Brady spent years dissecting the Steelers with. Ben finished with a 29 for 306 and three TD’s statline on the day. Importantly avoiding key turnovers and taking control when it mattered most.
But overall, the clear distinction between the five receiver, precision strike offense of Ben and the vanilla, conservative approach of Randy is troubling. The Steelers cannot afford to waste whole halves of football falling behind in games.
Zone heavy defense spells trouble
The Steelers seemed to be content to allow Garret Gilbert to throw strikes into extremely soft zone coverage through the entire game. At one point, Amari Cooper found himself SO wide open after a short hook, he fell after trying to avoid an imaginary defender. A bold tactic by the defense.
The issue here is that zone coverage is not playing to the strengths of the Steelers current roster and it shows. There are two solutions here. More plays in the nickel package (five DB’s on the field). Or playing to their historically successful advantage and rush the passer with five. This would mean trusting the likes of Minkah Fitzpatrick and others to make the tough plays with the QB under pressure. But a solution must be found.
The solution is not allowing the LB’s to run in man coverage against such an accomplished WR corps. I tweeted early on about Alex Highsmith and TJ Watt’s smooth movement in coverage. However, the Steelers were playing a risky game allowing the still dangerous Cowboys WR’s to run free. Especially in zones covered by rush linebackers or those same LB’s in man coverage.
CeeDee Lamb quickly exploited this on a out and up “chair” route, which pushed TJ’s coverage ability to it’s limit, allowing the speedy rookie to gain easy separation down the sideline for a TD. Joe Haden turned his hips to the inside to cover the post, giving the all pro LB no deep help in man coverage against a top WR.
Playing down to the opposition
As a Steelers fan for over a decade, it has been a hallmark of the “normal” Steelers seasons that the team loses easily winnable games mid season. In past years, this has included embarrassing losses within the AFC North. Aswell as games dropped to an average Raiders team and a frustrating inability to beat Blake Bortles.
So, the eventual victory on Sunday to a previously hapless Cowboys team was actually slightly refreshing. But the fact that the only undefeated team in the NFL was down at the half to Gilbert and a terrible defense that ranks near the bottom of the NFL in all major categories is and was concerning.
Of all the hugely positive habits and hallmarks of the Mike Tomlin era, the most unfortunate is the tendency to play down to the level of the opposition. Make no bones about it, this will come back to bite the Steelers.
Next week: bungled or Burrowed?
Jack is an NFL nerd with a passion for player stories and watching too much draft coverage. He's a DB coach with the Exeter Demons University team in the UK and a Steelers fan.