By Dwain Price
As far as the major statistics from Sunday’s game against Pittsburgh go, the Dallas Cowboys checked most of the important boxes. The Cowboys had more yards rushing (146-44), more total yards (364-355), more plays (71-63), and also had a better percentage on third down plays than the Steelers.
But untimely costly penalties and a pair of turnovers were keys in the Cowboys being unable to check the only box that really natters – the final score. The Steelers scored the game’s final 15 points – all in the fourth quarter – and rallied to upend the Cowboys, 24-19, at AT&T Stadium in Arlington.
For the Cowboys, the loss was simply devastating considering that they led for most of the way against the NFL’s only remaining unbeaten team. But crucial penalties in the fourth quarter kept a pair of Pittsburgh drives alive, costly turnovers stymied a pair of Dallas drives, and that combination ultimately wound up costing the Cowboys a chance at pulling off the biggest upset in the NFL this season.
“I felt that we had contributions from all three phases, and I thought that was clearly our best team football that we’ve played this year,” head coach Mike McCarthy said. “I thought our players did enough (Sunday) to beat an excellent football team.
“We had some tough calls, and the timing of it was a real challenge.”
Leading 19-18, the Cowboys were prepared to get off the field with under four minutes remaining in the game when the Steelers failed to convert on third-and-10. However, linebacker Jaylon Smith was flagged for making contact with the face mask of Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, thus giving the Steelers a fresh set of downs.
The Steelers took advantage of that unfortunate mishap by Smith and marched down and scored the winning touchdown with 2:14 remaining in the game.
Smith said: “I was just trying to pressure the quarterback and press the pocket, put my hands up when the ball was coming out and that’s what it was.”
In addition, Smith was whistled for an illegal contact on wide receiver Chase Claypool – also on third down – that kept a Pittsburgh scoring drive alive.
“They thought that I hit him and I was just crazy over the top holding,” Smith said. “Really, he just ran into me. That’s really what it was.”
Defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence expressed his displeasure in the 50/50 calls that went against the Cowboys.
“The frustrating part is that it wasn’t in our control,” Lawrence said. “I’m not one to complain, but that was total BS on that last call. Hopefully the NFL can take that into account and we get better from it.”
The Cowboys started Garrett Gilbert at quarterback, making him their fourth starting quarterback in the last five games. An NFL journeyman, Gilbert actually attended Austin Lake Travis High School with McCarthy’s daughter, and also played college football at Texas and SMU.
A sixth-round draft pick by the St. Louis Rams in 2014, Gilbert was signed by the Cowboys just four weeks ago off the Cleveland Browns’ practice squad. And he earned a starting berth following a season-ending ankle injury to Dak Prescott, a concussion to Andy Dalton and the total ineffectiveness by Ben DiNucci during last week’s 23-9 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles.
“Obviously it’s been awhile, but that’s what you live for as a quarterback, that’s what you live for as a football player,” Gilbert said. “I’ve been fortunate enough to be behind a lot of guys who have done it for a long time. That’s something that I always draw on when I’m preparing is just my time watching those guys.
“It’s just tough when all of us together put everything into that thing and then come up short. We didn’t find a way to finish that one off and get a victory, but I certainly enjoyed the preparation aspect of it and getting this opportunity. Like I said, I wish we could have finished it off and gotten a victory.”
Gilbert was 21-of-38 for 243 yards, and also fired a 20-yard touchdown to CeeDee Lamb. Not bad for a guy who had just three days of practicing with the Cowboys’ first team while having the difficult task of facing one of the league’s top defensive units.
Still, with the Cowboys ahead, 19-15, and at the Pittsburgh, 5-yard line, Gilbert tossed an interception that cost Dallas at least three points.
“I was just trying to throw the ball over Cedric (Wilson’s) head out of the back of the end zone, and somebody got underneath my ribs and the ball kind of fluttered,” Gilbert said. “Good play by them.”
Despite having their journey to the winner’s circle derailed, the Cowboys turned in some solid play all-around, especially from their special teams. Wilson received a punt, ran a few yards, and tossed the ball clear across the field to C.J. Goodwin, who darted 73 yards and deep into Pittsburgh territory.
Also, Rico Dowdle ran a kickoff return back 64 yards.
‘You’re seeing the continuity that is so important in this game, and that is clearly the one part of our team that has been able to play consistently with the same similar lineup week-in and week-out,’ McCarthy said. “History will tell you that your young players will contribute in November and December.
“Just the fact that (Dowdle) was ready, you love it when you see a young guy get an opportunity and makes a play like that.”
The loss dropped the Cowboys to 2-7 going into a bye week this coming weekend. The Cowboys, who have lost four straight games, don’t play again until they face the Vikings in Minnesota on Nov. 22.
“We need to continue to focus on the things that we can control, the plays that we can control,” McCarthy said. “We clearly understand that it comes down to only so many plays each and every week that determine whether you win or not.
“Everybody knows what our record is, so we need to get going. We need to start stacking wins.”
The Eagles lead the NFC East with a 3-4-1 record. So, despite their numerous challenges, the Cowboys know they’re still clearly in the race to win their division and advance to the playoffs.
And taking the 8-0 Steelers – they were favored to win by 14 points — down to the wire showed the Cowboys what they’re really capable of.
“There are no moral victories here,” said running back Ezekiel Elliott, who rushed for 51 yards in 18 carries. “We’re still here to win football games and we’ve got to figure out ways to win football games and we’ve got to get back to the lab and get better.
“We still have seven games left, we still have to play everyone in our division. Our division is really not doing that well this year, so I think we still have a shot. We just got to just keep getting better.”