Labriola On

Labriola on the win over the Cowboys

They did enough things wrong to justify a loss at AT&T Stadium, and had it turned out that way there was a list of culprits long enough to satisfy everybody interested in a pound of flesh.

Why that didn't happen will go into the books as some combination of the Dallas Cowboys finally remembering they were a 2-6 team when the weekend began and then doing enough of the things that got them there to get to 2-7; some penalties in critical situations down the stretch that fell in their favor; a quarterback who is a master of applying streetball concepts to the NFL; a group of playmakers sprinkled throughout the roster who refuse to allow the team to lose; and of course, a dose of blind luck.

A little of each of those contributed to what ended up being another victory, the eighth in a row to open a season, which set a franchise record by besting the 1978 team's 7-0 start. But Steelers 24, Cowboys 19 didn't feel the same, not even the same as those other wins that were achieved by admittedly less than complete performances.

This likely was due to a combination of the Cowboys looking like the worst team on the Steelers schedule to date and an uptick in expectations for a team that in its three previous outings had hammered the Browns and then posted back-to-back victories on the road in Tennessee and Baltimore. Certainly the Cowboys, that lethal combination of a bad team now playing without its top two quarterbacks, would be nothing more than a speedbump for a Steelers outfit that had spent the previous seven NFL weekends building a reputation as a resilient, battle-tested, never-blinks team that is a physical chore for every opponent on its schedule.

But that wasn't the case in Dallas, certainly not at the start of the game and then not consistently through the final three quarters. It's not as though the Steelers were their own worst enemy with turnovers, needless penalties, mental errors, missed tackles and other self-inflicted wounds, but they also were unable to match the Cowboys' intensity through the early portion of the game.

And to people who had seen the Dallas football team play more than once this season, the simple phrase "Cowboys intensity" was a contradiction in terms. The Dallas defense was allowing an average of 33.3 points per game, an average of 5.1 yards per rush. Opponents were converting 49.5 percent on third downs. Dallas quarterbacks were sacked more and intercepted more than the competition, and the Cowboys committed more penalties and more turnovers. They allowed 49 points to the Browns at AT&T Stadium for goodness sakes.

"How 'bout them Cowboys" had become a joke rather than a rallying cry, but as soon as they saw those Steelers helmets in the tunnel it became the 1990s for them all over again.

"We're the Pittsburgh Steelers, everybody knows what that means," said Coach Mike Tomlin. "We get everybody's best punch, regardless of record. I think people respect our brand and they respect our franchise and its history. That's been my experience over 14 years here. Regardless of our record, people know when they are playing the Pittsburgh Steelers and a certain responsibility that comes with our reputation. We're going to get people's best shot."

And so it was on.

With no Dak Prescott or Andy Dalton, Dallas had decided upon Garrett Gilbert as the starting quarterback over Cooper Rush after a week of practice, and against the Steelers he played way beyond his minimal NFL experience and above his modest professional statistics. Gilbert had the Cowboys converting third downs at a 47 percent rate, but he wasn't quite so efficient once the offense moved into the red zone. The Steelers defense forced the Cowboys to settle for field goals on two separate first half possessions, which left them with 13 points at halftime instead of the 21 that would've put the game on an entirely different track.

But because the Steelers defense was hanging tough if not shutting down the Cowboys, the problem became their offense. Despite working against a unit that came into the game ranked last in the NFL in both rushing yards allowed and points allowed, it took the Steelers five possessions and 29 minutes of game time to cross the goal line. Once again, the running attack never gained any traction, even as the Steelers tried James Conner and then Anthony McFarland and then Benny Snell with no appreciable uptick in production or consistency.

And in the meantime, special teams was a disaster, and a disaster to the degree that it would influence a late-game decision by Tomlin.

As the second half unfolded, the Cowboys wouldn't go away, and their confidence grew with every possession, but whenever it seemed as though the game was on the verge of getting away from the Steelers, somebody would step up. Most of the time it was Ben Roethlisberger, but JuJu Smith-Schuster took a turn with four catches over a stretch in the second half, one of which converted a third-and-10 and the other covered 31 yards for a touchdown.

Then it was Minkah Fitzpatrick, whose interception 5 yards deep in the end zone robbed the Cowboys of at least three points. Then it was Eric Ebron, whose final catch covered 8 yards and accounted for the go-ahead touchdown once he hurdled a Cowboys defender close to the goal line. A shared sack by Cam Heyward and T.J. on fourth-and-8 with 1:45 remaining seemed to ice the outcome, but a subsequent fourth-and-1 on the Cowboys 15-yard line and Tomlin's memories of his team's inability to prevent Tyrone Crawford from busting through the line on every placement attempt had him do what Chuck Noll once did in a game against this same franchise.

In Super Bowl X, after tiring of the way the Steelers punt team was unable to get kicks off throughout the game, Noll eschewed a punt on fourth-and-9 from the Dallas 41-yard line while protecting a 21-17 lead with 1:28 left before the trophy presentation. Rocky Bleier was stuffed after a 2-yard gain, Dallas took over, and Noll turned the game over to his defense.

Tomlin did the same on fourth-and-1 from the Cowboys 15-yard line with 43 seconds left and the Steelers clinging to a 24-19 lead. Like Bleier, Conner was stuffed, and Tomlin turned the game over to his defense.

"We had struggled so much with our field goal group early in the game, I just didn't feel good about it," said Tomlin said about his decision to run the ball on fourth down instead of attempt a field goal that would've increased the lead to 27-19. "They were beating us to the punch pretty much for the better part of the day in special teams. We missed the extra point. They blocked the field goal attempt. We skyed a kickoff trying to pin them down in their territory and they flipped the field with a big kick return. I had just seen enough from them in (special) teams."

Super Bowl X ended when Roger Staubach's pass into the end zone for Drew Pearson was intercepted by Glen Edwards; the Steelers franchise-record eighth straight win to begin a season ended when Fitzpatrick broke up a pass in the end zone for CeeDee Lamb.

"Thankfully we've got a group that sticks together, that's mentally tough, that's able to persevere," said Tomlin. "I am thankful for that. We can't keep having these conversations every week because one of these weeks we'll be doing it with an 'L' if we're not careful."

That could be next Sunday against the 2-5-1 Cincinnati Bengals. If this continues, it very likely will be.

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