This Sunday the Dallas Cowboys will host the Pittsburgh Steelers in a game where both teams are desperate for a win to keep their playoff hopes alive. The Cowboys have been decimated by injuries, particularly on the defensive side of the ball, whereas the Steelers will have a healthy Ben Roethlisberger for the 2nd week in a row after missing three games with an injury. The following is a list of some of the questions I will be trying to answer as I watch the game this week:
Will the Dallas Cowboys offense be able move the ball and score points on the Pittsburgh Steelers defense?
The Steelers defense leads the NFL in total yards given up per game (262.4), passing yards surrendered per game (169.2), and they are 5th in rushing yards allowed per contest (93.2). The Steelers defense is 7th in the NFL in points allowed at 20.3 per game.
The Pittsburgh defense is solid at every position. The secondary is led by All-Pro safety Troy Polamalu; both their CBs (Ike Taylor and Keenan Lewis) are over 6 foot and close to 200 pounds, so they can play physical and jam receivers at the line, but they can also handle single coverage effectively. The linebacker corps, historically the strength of the defense, is led by standouts James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley on the outside and Larry Foote on the inside. Their defensive line is anchored by NT Casey Hampton, one of the few true 3-4 NT’s in the NFL. The Pittsburgh Steelers defense doesn’t have any weak spots that you can game-plan to attack and exploit.
If the Dallas Cowboys are going to score enough points to win this game, it will almost certainly require QB Tony Romo to move the ball through the air. Given the stinginess of the Steelers’ run defense, it is extremely unlikely that the Cowboys will be able to just pound the ball with RB DeMarco Murray. Murray is talented enough that he will make a few big plays in the game, but the Cowboys offensive-line has not be able to dominate a game on the ground yet this year; none of the Dallas backs are averaging even 4 yards a carry.
If Tony Romo is going to have any hope of moving the ball and scoring touchdowns, he is going to need some semblance of a secure pocket to throw from. The Cowboys current offensive-line is never going to be able to give Romo a secure pocket that allows him to survey the field and progress through his reads on a consistent basis; the offensive line isn’t good enough to even hope that they could provide that type of protection, especially against a team like the Steelers. But, Romo is smart enough and agile enough to escape the vast majority of pass-rushers, even if they are completely unblocked, when they come at him from the edges. What no QB can do is complete passes when he has immediate pressure right through the middle of the pocket.
The Dallas Cowboys center Ryan Cook will be facing the 6′ 1”, 325 pound Hampton. Cook has struggled to maintain his blocks on defensive-tackles much less talented and powerful than Hampton.
Will Casey Hampton be able to collapse the middle of the pocket consistently?
Will Hampton be able to repeatedly drive Cook back into Cowboys QB Tony Romo’s lap?
If Steelers NT Hampton is able to continually collapse the pocket, will Dallas Cowboys Head Coach Jason Garrett replace him with back-up Kevin Kowalski or commit to double-teaming Hampton frequently?
Kowalski, at 6′ 3” and 304 pounds is considerably smaller than Ryan Cook (6 foot 6 inches and 325 pounds, but Kowalski has a lower center of gravity and therefore may have a better chance at not being routinely bull-rushed into Tony Romo by the 6’1” Hampton.
If the Dallas Cowboys have to double-team NT Casey Hampton, how vulnerable will that make them to the talented edge-rushers of the Steelers and/or delayed blitzes from the inside-linebackers?
There are several other important match-ups when looking at the Dallas Cowboys chances of moving the ball against the Pittsburgh Steelers, but if they cannot stop NT Hampton from quickly collapsing the middle of the pocket on a regular basis, the Cowboys offense will struggle all day and QB Tony Romo will once again be lucky to escape the game uninjured.