Opponent Preview: A Historic Foe Returns to Heinz Field


I grew up in New Mexico, where you pretty much had to be either a fan of the Cowboys or the Broncos, if you were going to be a fan at all. Or at least a fan who ever got to watch the team you rooted for. My father chose the Cowboys. The Lions were his natural affiliation,  being from Michigan and all, but he wanted to watch the games.

My dad was fond of sports of any description, and when the ABC Wide World of Sports debuted in 1961, allowing you to watch sports (although sometimes the term was used rather loosely) for practically the whole weekend, he was over the moon.

But still the NFL reigned supreme in our house, even edging out Major League Baseball, featuring his beloved Detroit Tigers. And he didn’t just root for the Cowboys, he loved them. He had a deep admiration for Tom Landry, as did, apparently, Landry Jones’ father. Fortunately for us, none of us were named Landry, or Roger, or after any other of the iconic players of that era. I suppose it helped that only one of us was a boy, and he was named after my dad’s father.

After my husband and I moved to Pittsburgh my parents visited us, and my dad wanted to go to a steakhouse for his birthday, which was on November 11. I was a rather gullible child, and my dad had me convinced for a long time that the Los Alamos National Laboratory, his place of employment, gave everyone the day off for his birthday. But let’s return to Pittsburgh in 1995 (you may note the significance of the year). We were new in town and didn’t know anything about the local steakhouses, so my husband asked around at work and was advised to take him to the Hoss’s.

When dinnertime arrived we duly headed out to Penn Hills. My father was arrayed in his dress-up clothes—his Cowboys hat, jacket, and if I recall correctly, even a belt buckle. I thought nothing of it, as he dressed like that as often as possible. But when we walked into the place I noted Steelers paraphernalia dripping from every available surface. I also noticed that most of the patrons appeared to be wearing Steelers gear of some description, and thought to myself “We’re going to be killed.” But we weren’t, or even harrassed. I can’t help but think it might not have gone so well had we gone three months later.

My father has long since passed away—fortunately, long before I became a Steelers fan, because I don’t know if he could have borne it. His love for the Cowboys was only matched by his hatred of the Steelers, something I didn’t realize until my youngest informed me of this a few years ago.  (Dad thought the Steelers were dirty and mean.  I can’t imagine how he would have felt about Hines Ward, who was only beginning his second season when Dad died.) He would definitely have relished this weekend’s matchup.

I’m guessing lots of Cowboys fans are also looking forward to the game. My brother is a fan, and I’m at least dimly aware of how he has suffered through the Tony Romo years. The guy is a really gifted quarterback who, through being rather fragile, I guess, has never lived up to his promise.

And now the Cowboys, and their fans, have a bit of a dilemma—they have the hottest rookie quarterback in the league, and Tony Romo is probably ready to return.. What would you do if you were Head Coach Jason Garrett? I know what Clint Hurdle, the manager of the Pirates, would do—as he says, “you play the hot hand.” I suspect most of the fans would agree.

But it isn’t just the quarterback my dad would enjoy. Dallas also has arguably one of the most gifted running backs to enter the league in recent years. Mike Tomlin said at his press conference on Tuesday “There’s simply nothing he can’t do. He simply does all the things that encompass the running back position, and he does it like breathing. It’s probably second nature to him.”

As anyone who has listened to Tomlin sum up his opponents knows, he is given to gilding the lily on occasion, or at least to discussing at great length all of the positive attributes of the opponent. And it’s certainly a good thing to have a healthy respect for all the ways your opponent can hurt you, although, given the Steelers’ rather dismal record against sub-.500 teams, you have to occasionally wonder whether he really believes what he’s saying.

But there should be no such problem this week. The Cowboys are a genuinely impressive team, and they have rattled off seven wins in a row by way of proving it. Their sole loss came in the opening game. That was also the last time Ezekiel Elliott had less than 80 yards in a game. The following week was the last time he has had less than 100.

I’m sure you’ve all heard about their offense and their amazing offense line headed up by three first-round picks. So let’s talk about their defense, because however well the Steelers’ D manages to play, the Cowboys are going to get their points. The question is, can the Steelers’ offense get just as many, or hopefully a few more?

The best-known player on the Cowboys’ D, at least here is the Burgh, is Sean Lee, who hails from the South Hills. He is the guy the Steelers could have taken instead of Jason Worilds, and there have been some fans who have bemoaned this ever since. And they have a point, as Worilds retired after never particularly impressing anyone, and Lee is still going strong. (To be fair to Jason Worilds, he was better, especially his last two years, than most Steeler fans gave him credit for being.)

So how strong is Sean Lee going? Well, Pro Football Focus likes him a lot. Pretty much better than anyone else on the Cowboys D, for what that’s worth.On the other hand, they hate the defensive line, except for Terrell McLain, whom they feel is decent.

But what about the defense as a whole? Football Outsiders ranks them No. 14, and considers their run defense just slightly better than their pass defense. There are lots of other figures, but generally speaking the defense appears to be good but not spectacularly so.

None of this means anything, of course, unless the Steelers’ defense clamps down and unless Ben and his cadre of merry men are back to their winning ways. Is there any chance of that? Well, surprisingly, I’d say there’s probably a decent chance, considering it’s a really good team they are facing. A win (especially a win in spectacular fashion, which is admittedly highly unlikely) would set a much more hopeful tone for the remainder of the season. An embarrassing loss will have everyone mired in the Slough of Despond.

Which is silly, really. As I was researching for my first Ben Roethlisberger’s Rust article, I ran across a post called Chronicles of FailureHere is the beginning of it:

Life as a Bills fan is rough. You all know that. You know all of the negative stats – Buffalo’s never won a Super Bowl, Buffalo lost four straight Super Bowls, the Bills haven’t been to the playoffs since 1999, etc.

Losing stinks, and the Bills have done quite a bit of it in their history.

But it’s not just that the Bills lose. It’s HOW the Bills lose. This team finds a way to lose in a way that just   rips out your guts, stomps on your heart, and makes you never want to watch football again. (But you always come back.)

As it happened, the post focused on the Bills’ loss to the Steelers at the end of the 2004 season. But one thing reading something like this does is give you some perspective. Here’s another bit of perspective, from Joe Bryant’s Week 10 Random Shots:

I’m not saying that the misfortunes of others (as in other fans) excuse the shortcomings of this season’s Steelers. But it does give one pause.

So here’s hoping we don’t need all this perspective as we celebrate a win against one of the hottest teams in the NFL. Whichever quarterback we see…

Update: I was so swept away by a tide of nostalgia that I forgot the injury report.  For the Steelers it appears Darrius Heyward-Bey will be out, along with DAngelo Williams and Jordan Dangerfield.  Markus Wheaton has also re-entered the injury report, so it looks like Cobi Hamilton will have more chances to show what he can do. Maurkice Pouncey, despite sporting a big bandage on his surgically-repaired thumb, claims he’s a go..

for the Cowboys the two names of particular interest are Tony Romo and Dez Bryant, both of whom were full participants at yesterday’s practice. Perhaps of more actual impact, (not that I’m saying you’re not an impactful player, Dez – please don’t get me wrong) is that both the left tackle and his backup were on the list. Tyron Smith, the starter, didn’t practice at all, and his back-up, Chaz Green, was limited. It would certainly help out the Steelers D if there was a bit of vulnerability there.


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