The National Football League has reached midway point and this Sunday, two teams on seemingly different trajectories meet in a must-win game for the Pittsburgh Steelers when they welcome the Dallas Cowboys.
After starting with four wins in five games, the Steelers have lost three straight games and face a turning point in their season if they do not win against their opponents. The Cowboys, on the other hand, have a 7-1 record so far this season and come into Pittsburgh on a run of six straight wins. This has the potential to be an epic encounter for any neutral who tunes in this weekend.
The wheels have come off for the Steelers after a fast start
After two games in this season, the bookies had the Steelers as a favourite to make the playoffs and quite possibly win their division but since that fast start, injuries and poor play have resulted in a loss of form that leaves the Steelers second in their division after losses to the Miami Dolphins, the New England Patriots and division rivals, the Baltimore Ravens.
As previously mentioned, injuries to key personnel have played their part in the Steelers poor form. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is still not fully fit after receiving surgery a few weeks ago, center Maurkice Pouncey has just come back into training this week and running back DeAngelo Williams did not practice this week at all. The Steelers need as many players healthy as possible if they intend to turn their season around. They also have to cut down the number of penalties they are incurring in each game. Those penalties have cost the Steelers valuable field position and it is something head coach Mike Tomlin has stated that he will address in this week's practice leading up to Sunday's game.
Prescott is still the man in Dallas
Quarterback Tony Romo is back in practice and getting repetitions but the story from the Cowboys coaching staff is that rookie Dak Prescott will continue under center until he gives them a reason not to start. Prescott has been impressive this season after bouncing back from his performance in the first game of the season against the New York Giants. His accuracy and calm behind the offensive line is partially the reason why Dallas has beaten the likes of the Cincinnati Bengals and an away win against the Green Bay Packers. Cowboys owner Jerry Jones may favor Romo but as of right now, all of Dallas is behind Prescott and many feel that he should continue as the starting quarterback due to his performances.
Alongside Prescott has been fellow rookie Ezekiel Elliott and the two have found a tandem that has worked for the Cowboys so far. Elliott leads the league in rushing at the moment and looks set to break Erick Dickerson's rookie rushing yards if he continues in this vein. The Cowboys running back has 891 rushing yards and seven touchdowns this season and against a Steelers defense that is susceptible in giving up big plays, expect the Cowboys to use Elliott as much as possible to also give Prescott a chance to make throws down the field using the play-action. Couple that with Dez Bryant being back to full fitness, the Cowboys now have a potent offense.
The game will come down to one side of the ball
Even with a 4-4 record, the Steelers are not far off and will prove a very difficult opposition for the Cowboys. The game will be decided on who wins the battle between the Steelers offense and the Cowboys defense. The Dallas defense has gone about their job quietly this season with little fanfare. Under defensive coach Rob Marinelli, the Cowboys are currently one of the top ten defenses in the league and one of the only two teams that have not allowed more than 23 points in any game so far. This defense also has not allowed a 100-yard rusher or a 100-yard receiver and when you look back at the teams they have faced, that is quite the accomplishment.
For the Steelers, it's all about Roethlisberger, wide receiver Antonio Brown and running back Le'Veon Bell. These three players will test any defense and the Cowboys will have a tough time keeping all three quiet. Brown currently has 677 receiving yards and six touchdowns and will probably end the year at the Pro Bowl once again while Bell has come back in good form and although he does not have a touchdown yet, Bell has managed 376 rushing yards in his time on the field. If those two targets are not enough for Roethlisberger, Eli Rogers is emerging as a great route runner with good hands for the Steelers and if Sammie Coates can go this Sunday, then the Steelers will have additional weapons to add to their offensive game plan.