Quarterbacks the focus for Cowboys and Steelers
It's been almost four years since Dallas and Pittsburgh last went toe-to-toe and in that game, Dallas eventually won, 27-24.
While many of the main characters in that 2012 drama remain, these two bluebloods have traveled a far different path to where they are today.
Forget that the Cowboys and Steelers have made 16 Super Bowl appearances and won eight Vince Lombardi Trophies between them. The two franchises are among the most winning, the most proud and most popular, and nothing short of winning is tolerated or expected.
And winning is what the 7-1 Cowboys have been doing this year since dropping their season-opener to the New York Giants.
And while their record might not be a good indication, the 4-4 Steelers aren't far off the Cowboys heels, even though they have dropped three straight.
So when Pittsburgh and Dallas collide, bragging rights — at a minimum — are at stake, and on Sunday at 4:25 p.m. in Pittsburgh it's no different.
The Cowboys have been the brightest surprise in the NFL this season having reeled off seven straight wins, including last week's shellacking of the Cleveland Browns. But despite having two of the league's most prolific weapons in rookie quarterback Dak Prescott and rookie running back Ezekiel Elliott, the Cowboys are 3-point underdogs to the Steelers.
Elliott leads the NFL in rushing and is on pace to break Eric Dickerson's rookie mark of 1,808 yards.
Prescott has filled in for Tony Romo, who suffered a compression fracture in his back two months ago, before the season started. Prescott has been stellar: 2020 yards thrown, 12 touchdowns, two interceptions.
But this week, Romo finally returned to practice and owner/general manager Jerry Jones and coach Jason Garrett said his workload would be ramped up as the team is encouraged by the 36-year-old's progress.
“We just have to see where he is,” Garrett told reporters Wednesday. “Tony's practiced four days over the last couple of weeks and has been involved in part of practices on each of those days. We'll do something similar with him today. He'll start in individuals and see how he does. He'll be working some scout-team reps like he did last week.
“We'll just take the situation day-by-day. We have a number of guys who are injured on the team, and that's what we do. We see how they do in individual and maybe they roll and get more into practice. We do anticipate Tony getting some good, positive work today. We will evaluate his situation day-by-day.”
Even if Romo is cleared, it appears unlikely Jones and Garrett will bench Prescott.
“I know how bad he wants to compete,” Jones said. “Any time he's limited because of injury, I hate that. It's always has been the biggest downer for a competitor.
“On the other hand, for Tony, there isn't anything more important than being on a team that is capable of winning and competing for the big prize.”
On the Steelers side of the ball, there aren't any questions about who the quarterback is. When healthy, Ben Roethlisberger is going to be slinging the ball across the field. Even when he isn't 100 percent, Roethlisberger is Pittsburgh's man.
He returned last week after knee surgery on Oct. 17 and was rusty at the beginning of a 21-14 loss to Baltimore. Roethlisberger overcame a slow start and completed 23 of 45 passes for 264 yards with a touchdown and interception.
His teammates didn't help as they committed 13 penalties. Head coach Mike Tomlin promised to fix the penalty problem before the Cowboys come to town.
“We haven't been good at that in the last several weeks, and probably more disturbing than the fact that we are being penalized is some of them are procedural things, pre-play things. In play things sometimes happen, a facemask penalty in an effort to make a play. False starts, offside, delay of game, covering up eligible receivers. Those things are very much in our control and we have to eliminate.”
Roethlisberger also admitted the need to be better.
“I put it on myself. I need to be more accurate. Give them credit — there were times I was going to make throws and their guys jumped in front of things. … I just need to be better.”
The Steelers' offense is averaging 32.6 points per game in the three home games Big Ben has started this season. In those games, he has thrown 12 touchdown passes and only two interceptions.
“It's always a little easier to play at home,” Roethlisberger said. “But that's the first half of the season. I'm not thinking about the good or bad with anything in the first half of the season.
“We're strictly moving forward. We need to be the best football team we can be at home and on the road.”
On Sunday, he faces a tough task against a Dallas defense that flies under the radar.
Rod Marinelli's defense is the only one that hasn't allowed a 100-yard rusher or 100-yard receiver this year. It now ranks among the top 10 in total defense, yielding 332.9 yards per game. Dallas also is one of two defenses in the NFL that have allowed no more than 23 points in any game.
And they're doing this without safety Barry Church and cornerback Morris Claiborne who remain sidelined.
Big Ben and the Pittsburgh offense will provide a stiff test. Roethlisberger has another week under his belt to strengthen his knee and more practice time with All Pro wide receiver Antonio Brown.
Brown had a game-high seven receptions for 85 yards and a 23-yard touchdown against Baltimore. But for the Steelers' offense to be clicking, Roethlisberger need to find another receiver to take the double-team pressure off Brown.
Roethlisberger might have found his man on Sunday. Eli Rogers registered six receptions for 103 yards.
Running back LeVeon Bell will try to match the Cowboys' Elliott stride for stride on Sunday. With 70 yards against the Ravens, Bell surpassed Willie Parker for the second most yards from scrimmage by a Steeler in his first four years.
Bell is hoping that Maurkice Pouncey will be ready to go on Sunday. The three-time Pro Bowl center dislocated his thumb on the second play from scrimmage on Sunday and had surgery.
“He's going to have the ability to snap,” Tomlin said on Tuesday, according to the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. “We'll give him a couple days to let it calm down from the procedure.”
But Pouncey sat out practice on Wednesday and his status is uncertain.
The Steelers did get some good news on the injury front when outside linebacker Bud Dupree, who had surgery before the season to repair a sports hernia, practiced Wednesday for the first time since training camp.
“It's going to be a process,” Dupree said after practice. “I'm excited to be back on the field.
Running back DeAngelo Williams, who has been dealing with knee inflammation, did not practice Wednesday. He did see action against the Ravens and could be a game-time decision.