3TFO: Steelers @ Cowboys, Week 15
After picking up a huge win as time expired in Baltimore the week before, the Pittsburgh Steelers missed the opportunity to close the gap at the top of the AFC North with a disappointing loss against the San Diego Chargers last week. Still, with the Ravens facing three tough games in the coming weeks, they know all is not lost yet.
After beating Pittsburgh’s divisional rivals in Cincinnati on a last-second field goal last Sunday, the Dallas Cowboys head back to Texas to take on the Steelers knowing they are still very much in the hunt for the NFC East crown. With four wins in their last five games, they’ll be confident that they can knock off the Steelers at home to keep pace with Washington and New York.
With both teams fighting to stay in the race for the postseason, this game has plenty of matchups to keep an eye on. With that in mind, here are three key areas to focus on in Dallas this Sunday.
Pittsburgh’s Offensive Tackles vs. Dallas’ Outside Linebackers
With an offensive line that has seen plenty of shuffles to account for injuries this season, the Steelers are tied for 19th as a unit in terms of Pass Blocking Efficiency (PBE), allowing 139 total pressures on 524 passing plays. At left tackle Max Starks has allowed four sacks, five hits, and 31 hurries from 523 snaps as a pass blocker, giving him a PBE Rating of 94.1; 39th among all offensive tackles. Filling in for the injured Mike Adams at right tackle, Kelvin Beachum has allowed a sack, three hits, and six hurries on just 105 pass blocking snaps in his rookie season, giving him a PBE Rating of 92.6.
That should be enough to concern Steelers fans but it becomes even more of an issue with one of the better pass rushing tandems waiting for them in Dallas. With 13 sacks, nine hits, and 28 hurries — mainly from the right side — from 346 snaps as a pass rusher in 2012, Cowboys’ outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware is fourth among players at his position with a Pass Rushing Productivity (PRP) Rating of 11.8. Opposite him, Anthony Spencer hasn’t been too far behind with a PRP Rating of 10.8, sixth among 3-4 outside linebackers, with eight sacks, a hit and 20 hurries coming on 220 pass rushing snaps. With Steelers’ quarterback Ben Roethlisberger already missing time through injury this season, Pittsburgh will have their work cut out for them keeping Spencer and Ware away from their signal-caller this week.
Pittsburgh’s Cornerbacks vs. Dallas’ Wide Receivers
Once ranked as low as 96th among all cornerbacks, the play of Steelers cornerback Keenan Lewis recently has seen him climb to No. 32. Allowing just two touchdown receptions this season, no cornerback has broken up more passes than Lewis’ 14. With 511 yards given up on receptions in his coverage, coming on 439 snaps in coverage, he has allowed an average of 1.16 Yards Per Snap in Coverage. Opposite him, Ike Taylor has allowed 1.23 Yards Per Snap in Coverage but, with just 30 receptions allowed from 361 snaps in coverage, is giving up a reception just once every 12 coverage snaps.
Given that only Denver wide receiver Demaryius Thomas has seen a higher QB rating on passes thrown to him than Cowboys’ receiver Dez Bryant, it’s safe to say that he’ll be a big loss should he indeed miss Sunday’s game. With 1029 yards coming from 543 snaps in route, Bryant currently ranks 21st among wide receivers, averaging 1.90 Yards Per Route Run. Opposite him, Miles Austin averages 1.72, coming from 819 receiving yards 475 snaps in route. Should Bryant miss out, look for Dwayne Harris to take over opposite Austin, with last season’s sixth round draft pick seeing 18 passes thrown to him in the past four games.
The Importance of Big Ben
Despite winning in Baltimore with Charlie Batch at the helm, it’s obvious that the Steelers best chance of reaching the playoffs, and making some noise when they get there, is with their two-time Super Bowl winning quarterback Ben Roethlisberger under center. In the three games he missed, Batch and Byron Leftwich combined to complete just five of 23 passes 20 yards or more downfield. And while he may have gone just 2-for-7 on deep passing plays against San Diego, that’s still a higher percentage than his backups, giving Pittsburgh’s playmakers the chance to make plays downfield. His ability to extend plays and avoid the sack in the pocket helps limit the impact of an offensive line that has been up and down all season.
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