As we enter week 15 of the 2012 NFL Season, the Dallas Cowboys will try to keep their playoff hopes alive against the Pittsburgh Steelers, yet another team who also needs a win to have a realistic shot at making the playoffs. A loss for either club will reduce or eliminate their respective playoff aspirations.
The New York Giants currently lead the NFC East at 8-5. The G-Men face the Atlanta Falcons this week inside the Georgia Dome, so it is very possible that the Giants will be 8-6 on Monday. The Washington Redskins and the Cowboys trail NY by one game (both at 7-6). The Redskins have a winnable game this Sunday against the Cleveland Browns; the Cowboys face a Steelers team that is no longer missing their starting QB Ben Roethlisberger. As Greyson has pointed out in his posts (click here for that), the Cowboys have a better chance of winning the NFC East than getting a wildcard spot. One of the Dallas Cowboys remaining game is against the Giants (in Dallas).
The Pittsburgh Steelers’ Playoff Picture:
The Baltimore Ravens lead the AFC North at 9-5; the Cincinnatti Bengals are in second place in the division at 8-6; and the Steelers are 7-6. They don’t have a realistic chance at winning the division. The Steelers do have a reasonable chance at earning a wildcard spot. The AFC wildcard race is led by the Indianapolis Colts (9-7) and the Bengals (8-6). The Steelers are only one game behind the Bengals. More importantly, they get to play the Bengals next week. If they beat the Cowboys, their game against the Bengals will have much more meaning.
Things I will be watching for and asking this week:
Can the Dallas Cowboys defense continue to keep the team in games?
It is no secret that the Cowboys defense has suffered a ton of injuries that have robbed Dallas Defensive Coordinator Rob Ryan of many of his most important players. CowgirlCas wrote an article explaining that Ryan must be an incredible coordinator if he can get a defense made up of so many 3rd stringers, practice squad guys, and free agents off the the street to hold a team like the Bengals to 19 points; the Bengals, after racking up 34 points on the Philadelphia Eagles this week, are averaging over 25 points a game (5th in the NFL).
Will Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger be able throw to his TE Heath Miller over the middle at will?
Miller is one of the more underrated TE’s in the league; he averages over 11 yards a catch, and he has 61 receptions through 13 games. When the Steelers have Big Ben at QB, Miller is even more of a threat. The Dallas Cowboys, over the last couple seasons, have been vulnerable to passing attacks that target the center of the field. To make things worse, the Cowboys have suffered so many injuries at ILB and safety that they may have to bring Dexter Coakley and Darren Woodson out of retirement to play this week.
How will Dallas Cowboys DC Rob Ryan try to stop Steelers TE Miller?
Rob Ryan will need the Cowboy defense to defend so many different threats against the diverse Steelers offense that is it hard to imagine them also being able to shut down Health Miller.
Say whatever you want about Pittsburgh being a passing offense now, but Steelers’ Head Coach Mike Tomlin, like most coaches, will run the ball at the defense until that defense proves it can stop it. Although he may not be as explosive as Benjarvus Green-Ellis who the Cowboys faced last week, Steelers RB Johnathan Dwyer should not be taken lighly. At 5’11 and almost 230 pounds, Dwyer is not an easy man to tackle. The Dallas Cowboys defense, particularly their depleted LB corps and safeties, are not exactly renowned for their tackling prowess. To make things worse, Steelers RB Dwyer is fairly quickly and shifty, especially for his size.
For Dallas Cowboys DC Rob Ryan, priority number one has to be stopping the run. Steelers RB Dwyer is not a home-run threat: his longest carry this year is under 40 yards, but he is averaging a respectable 4.2 yards a carry. More importantly, he will pound the ball and wear out and sometimes eventually demoralize a defense. Dwyer has yet to carry the ball more than 20 times in a game, but the Steelers have played a ton of close games; if they get a lead, they won’t hesitate to try to pound he
In addition to scheming to stop the Steelers’ rushing attack, Dallas Cowboys Rob Ryan also has to worry about Steelers WR Mike Wallace. The Dallas offense doesn’t score enough points to win games if the defense gives up long quick touchdowns. Mike Wallace is a burner. It is doubtful that any of the Dallas DB’s can handle Wallace without help over the top. Wallace is a threat to go long on almost every play and with the ability of Big Ben to extend plays, trying to contain Wallace with a single DB is a gamble.
So this is Dallas Cowboys DC Rob Ryan’s dilemma: if the Cowboys inside-linebackers (without Sean Lee, Bruce Carter, and even Orie Lemon) can’t stop the Steelers running game without safety help (Bengal’s Green-Ellis gashed the Cowboys defense for 89 yards on just 12 carries last week) AND you need to provide deep support to stop Wallace from running fly patterns for touchdowns, how can you also protect the middle of the field from Steelers TE Heath Miller?
If the Dallas Cowboys expect to beat the Pittsburgh Steelers, the defense will have to post another solid performance. DC Rob Ryan may be able to contain Dwyer and Wallace, but the cost of containing those players could leave TE Heath Miller open for much of the day. If Big Ben is able to make easy passes to Miller over the middle on a consistent basis, it will be a long day for the Dallas Cowboys defense.