For years, a physical, run-heavy offensive attack was synonymous with “Steelers football”; today, not so much. Throwing the ball on 60.2 percent of their plays and 61.3 percent through first three quarters, the Pittsburgh Steelers have evolved into an offense that attacks defenses both horizontally and vertically through the air.
CB Brandon Carr versus WR Mike Wallace
The Steelers have multiple big-play threats on the outside, none more potent than Wallace. The receiver who has averaged 17.1 YPC over the course of his career is stuck at only 12.3 this year, due in large part to his declining productivity on deep routes. Wallace is ranked only 18th in the league in deep ball rate, and he’s seen only seven catchable passes of 20-plus yards all year. Despite the lack of looks, Wallace has converted four of those seven passes into touchdowns, i.e. he’s still very much a threat to beat defenses over the top.
The Cowboys could probably benefit from playing far more press coverage, but Sunday might not be the best time to pull it out. There’s a prevailing myth that it’s easy to press small receivers, but many cornerbacks tell you it’s difficult because they’re too quick to jam coming off of the line. The Steelers don’t run many timing routes—Ben Roethlisberger typically hangs in the pocket and lets his receivers run a scramble drill—so an effective press won’t provide the same benefits it might against a team like the Giants. Missing on a press against receivers like Wallace, Antonio Brown, and Emmanuel Sanders can and will lead to bad things for the Dallas defense, though; it’s simply an unnecessary risk.
Look for Carr to play a press-bail technique against Wallace and the Steelers this week—lining up in a press position to stop the Steelers from running their patented wide receiver screens, but bailing at the snap to minimize the risk of jamming. Carr, who played magnificently last week in Cincinnati after allowing a 77.8 percent completion rate and two touchdowns in the previous three games, plays best when he can mirror receivers as opposed to playing off-technique.
OLB Anthony Spencer versus RT Kelvin Beachum
The easiest way to limit the impact of Pittsburgh’s explosive wide receivers is to get to Roethlisberger in a hurry. The Cowboys have an excellent chance to do that this week. DeMarcus Ware will likely draw a double-team against left tackle Max Starks on most plays, forcing tight end Heath Miller—one of the league’s premiere blockers—to the left side of the Steelers’ offense. That will leave Anthony Spencer—who plays only 10.3 percent of his pass-rush snaps over the left tackle—matched up primarily with seventh-round rookie Kelvin Beachum.
Beachum, substituting for fellow rookie Mike Adams, has gone through the growing pains you’d anticipate for a late-round rookie thrust into the starting lineup. He’s given up only one sack but allowed pressure on 6.6 percent of passing plays in his two starts; that’s nearly as high as Doug Free’s pressure rate (gasp!). Spencer should be able to consistently win his individual battle against Beachum, and that’s something Dallas needs; it will really be the defense’s most significant advantage on the field.
Jonathan Bales is the founder of The DC Times. He writes for DallasCowboys.com and the New York Times. He's also the author of Fantasy Football for Smart People: How to Dominate Your Draft.