Five Steelers to watch in Week 9 against the Dallas Cowboys

Before every game of the 2020 NFL regular season, Steel City Underground will do a full-roster analysis to find five Pittsburgh Steelers players to keep a special eye on when watching on game day. This week we focus on the Steelers we think will make a difference in the game against the AFC North rival Baltimore Ravens.

The 7-0 Pittsburgh Steelers will be on the road in Texas this weekend, finalizing a three-game road stint, where they will face a Dallas Cowboys team that has seen its share of misfortunes this 2020 NFL regular season. The Steelers, coming off of a win over their AFC North rival Baltimore Ravens, may have taken a lead in their division but will need to maintain focus in order to continue adding to the win column. Heavily favored to win, the Steelers may have an edge in Vegas odds but that means absolutely nothing for a team that has yet to win a game this season by a wide margin on the field. Here are five Steelers we believe will be key in how successful the team will be against the Cowboys.

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Continuing to function, adjust in-game

While the entire coaching staff obviously contains more than a single person, ultimately the shot-caller for what the team does on the field is head coach Mike Tomlin. In the past few weeks, as Pittsburgh has played challenging team after challenging team, especially ones with a history of fielding a grinding, punishing ground game, they’ve found that adjustments in-game were not only necessary but critical.

The Cowboys have battle-tested Ezekiel Elliott, who stated this week that he and the Dallas offense understand that he is being asked to have high production to take the pressure off of the quarterback(s); the emphasis won’t be on making the highlight reel but getting the Cowboys back on track. When asked what was important, Elliott said, “Not trying to do too much. Staying disciplined… Just have a chop-wood mentality; just chip away.”

After struggling on offense last weekend, until Ben Roethlisberger was allowed to do a little at-the-line improvisation late in the game, the Steelers defense was forced to not only dig deep but make adjustments to give the offense opportunities. They met the challenge and momentum swung favorably for Pittsburgh as a result. That required sideline help from the coaching staff and execution by the players. The ability to adjust remains critical as far as Tomlin is concerned. “More than anything it’s about how we function and the state that we are in and us doing the things we need to do to produce victory,” Tomlin said this week, “in spite of the challenges that attrition and the game of football oftentimes presents teams. That is the challenge for us this week.”

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Keeping Dallas QBs in check

Defensive end Stephon Tuitt was a surprise pick for some for the AFC Defensive Player of the Week award for his performance against the Ravens. For those who’ve been keeping close track of Tuitt’s production, the award made perfect sense. Tuitt finished the Week 8 game with nine tackles (eight solo), three tackles for a loss, three quarterback hurries, and two sacks (for a combined loss of 15 yards).

The Cowboys placed Dak Prescott on injured/reserved, were forced to put Andy Dalton on the COVID-19/reserved list this week, and head coach Mike McCarthy has ruled rookie quarterback Ben DeNucci out as the starting quarterback against the Steelers. That means that either Cooper Rush or Garrett Gilbert will get the nod and be the fourth starting quarterback Dallas has fielded this season.

Although Tomlin said that the defense will be focused on containing Elliott and his breakout ability, Tuitt could have an even bigger game this week than he did against the Ravens. His efforts will give the Steelers an edge in keeping any quarterback the Steelers face in the game in check.

Playing heads-up, eyes-on ball

While it goes without saying, Robert Spillane continues to be a guy to watch when the Steelers defense is on the field. He has proven to be a gift for Pittsburgh in place of injured Devin Bush. He, too, will be asked to play a major role in keeping Dallas’ signal-caller of choice guessing while adding his athleticism to limiting Elliott from literally running away with the game.

On offense, the Steelers have no room for self-pity and expect to step up to the challenge. “Everyone has to do what we can. We can’t sit back and say, ‘woe is us’.” Roethlisberger said. “We have to keep rolling with it and understand when we get on the field on Sunday, it doesn’t matter where we are. We have to play our best.”

While he’s had to share the responsibility of giving ‘Big Ben’ open targets to throw to, JuJu Smith-Schuster is a guy to keep an eye on after his performance last week. He led the team in Week 8 with seven catches for 67 yards, making defenders pay and fighting for the sticks every chance he got. “I love doing the dirty work, I love going inside, bang-bang catches,” Smith-Schuster said this week. He’s not letting one game go to his head, however. “You have to stay humble… Although the Cowboys don’t have their quarterback, you never know. They have the opportunity to beat an undefeated team.”

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Competing for and maintaining control

Whether it will be Chase Claypool, James Washington, or Dionte Johnson who gets moved to the wideout spots remains to be seen. Trevon Diggs is ready to make them earn receptions. “It’s going to be a good matchup,” Diggs said in an interview this week. “It’s going to be a good test for everyone going out there and competing.” Last week, Diggs grabbed two interceptions. A win against a hungry Dallas defensive backfield will require the Steelers receivers to make sure they compete for and maintain control of their catches and communicate with Roethlisberger on routes.

As for competing and maintaining control of the game, the Steelers offense would be wise to continue feeding James Conner, our final Steelers player to watch this week. The Cowboys may be used to Elliott being their ‘bell-cow’ but Conner is a different type of rusher and not one they see every week in practice. Conner has also been effective in adding to the mix of passing targets for Roethlisberger. A good balance of the run would give Pittsburgh an advantage in maintaining the game; giving their defense more time on the sideline between series and controlling the time of possession in Week 9.

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