Sunday, December 16, 2012

Week Fifteen: Pittsburgh Steelers vs. Dallas Cowboys Preview

Yes, it is already the fifteenth week of the NFL season and it is one of those years where fans of the Pittsburgh Steelers are going to be sweating it out until the final snap. The playoffs are far from a sure thing and currently, they actually find themselves temporarily on the outside looking in after the Bengals' throttling of the Eagles on Thursday night. The Steelers also will be squaring off against an NFC East foe and it's a familiar one. It's a rivalry that's old enough to remember when calling the Dallas Cowboys "America's Team" wasn't a laughable statement. It's not the Super Bowl but this one has playoff implications for both teams.

Steelers Offense vs. Cowboys Defense: You are rarely ever going to see the Steeler offense look as flat as it did last week against the Chargers. Ben Roethlisberger was making his return from a potentially life threatening injury and was still the only one that came to play. They have to come out with more energy and more focused today. Continuous drops by the wide receivers is something that is unacceptable.

It is not an option to take Mike Wallace off of the field when he starts dropping balls because he is still an asset because of the way he stretches the field. But don't be surprised to see his role be a bit more limited. After the game last week, Roethlisberger seemed to be hinting towards wanting Plaxico Burress on the field more often. While that's far from a game changing strategy given Burress' age and place on the depth chart, it could add a different dimension to the offense. Especially with Morris Claiborne out for the Cowboys with an injury.

The offensive line needs to have a better performance against the Cowboys as well. They have been solid for most of the year but last week was a poor show. Given, they were on their third string right tackle and Willie Colon went down with his annual injury, but it was still bad. We're going to see a different group out there today. Kelvin Beachum will still start at right tackle and by his side will be another rookie, the highly touted David DeCastro making his season debut. Ramon Foster is going to move to the left side to replace Colon. In pass protection, they may be helped by the fact that DeMarcus Ware is nursing an injury but he will still be a handful. Expect Jonathan Dwyer to make an impact in this game though. He's a bruising between the tackles runner and the Cowboys are on what feels like their 35th string nose tackle. Pounding the rock right at that weakness could give this makeshift offensive line some much needed confidence.

Steelers Defense vs. Cowboys Offense: If you want to talk about injuries, look no further than this side of the ball for the Steelers. The defense that has been tops in the NFL for most of the year is likely to drop a spot or two thanks to a gaggle of injuries in the secondary which has been a big reason for that top ranking. They finally got the oft injured Troy Polamalu back a couple of weeks ago but with that, everyone else seemed to go down. Ike Taylor is going to miss another game and he'll be joined on the sidelines by Cortez Allen who is also injured. Even Keenan Lewis is a bit banged up but he is going to play.

So what do all of these injuries mean for the Steelers? It means that Lewis and either Curtis Brown or Josh Victorian are going to be starting. Lewis has been solid for most of the year but the Cowboys have a very talented group of receivers. The Steelers should be helped by the fact that Dez Bryant will be playing injured but he's still playing which causes problems. We're going to see Robert Golden and Demarcus Van Dyke likely activated. It's going to be a group effort. Someone is going to have to step up to prevent this from turning into a shootout.

Prediction: Both teams are beat up and both teams are 7-6 and fighting for their playoff lives. The game probably means more for the Cowboys in the extremely competitive NFC and that's probably a good thing for the Steelers since we all know how well Tony Romo plays under pressure. While winning would be nice for the Steelers, the game that really matters for them is next week against the Bengals. Win or lose, they'll still basically control their playoff destiny. The Steelers should be feeling no pressure. They should be loose and willing to take advantage of Romo's tendency to crack under pressure. Don't expect much defense in this game but expect a splash defensive play to end up being the difference. Steelers 31, Cowboys 27.

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