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Steelers-Cowboys pregame stretch

December 14, 2012 - Ray Eckenrode

Pittsburgh Steelers (7-6) vs. Dallas Cowboys (7-6)

Sunday, 4:25 p.m., CBS

Weather – or not?: Partly sunny, temperatures falling through the 60’s. Like the spoiled rich kid driving a Jag, of course, there’s a retractable roof at the palace Jerry Jones built for his underachieving football team, but we don’t think whether it’s open or not will have any impact on this game.

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Announcers: Jim Nantz and Phil Simms

Annoyance factor: If there’s one thing worse than listening to Nantz and Simms, it’s listening to Nantz and Simms while losing to the Chargers/Cowboys/Bengals/Browns so it could be an ugly December. One possible version of hell: Your favorite NFL team is comically bad and the Nantz and Simms STILL get all of their games. For the record, this is the fourth Steelers game the duo have done this year (and the third in six weeks). Seriously, couldn’t we all use a little Rich Gannon in our lives?

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Referee: Clete Blakeman

Competence factor: Blakeman and his crew have been solid in the last three Steelers games they’ve done, so hopefully that will continue this Sunday. The crew is middle of the pack as far as calling holding and pass interference.

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Blogger’s note: After some Twitter sniping last weekend, it seems like a good time for our annual officiating disclaimer: We write (and sometimes whine) about officiating (and especially bad officiating) because we’re interested in it. But all of our discussion about it should be framed in this context: We do not believe officials EVER should be blamed for deciding a game. Officiating is just another human element in a human game. Officials make mistakes, just like players and coaches make mistakes. Officiating (and officiating mistakes) should be openly discussed with a goal of improving the game as a whole (and helping us understand it better as fans).

The line: Steelers -2

Smarts say: This line provides a prime opportunity to remind ourselves that betting odds aren’t necessarily about the respective strengths of the team, they’re about the tendencies of bettors, with the goal being to get nearly an even amount placed on either side of the line. In that context, there’s no way the Steelers should be favored to win this game in Dallas, but because this is a big “name” matchup, a lot of public (aka amateur) money gets plunked down by people betting with their hearts and not their heads. The over/under of 44 would mean something like 24-21 Steelers.

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Key matchup: Ben Roethlisberger vs. Cowboys pass defense

Because: Conventional wisdom is that Ben Roethlisberger was “rusty” last week but warmed up as the game unfolded. While that might be true in terms of the accuracy of his passes, it definitely was not true in terms of his rhythm (and the rhythm that’s needed to make Todd Haley’s offense work). Quite simply, Ben held the ball too long on just about every pass play. Remember the “dink-and-dunk” throws (1-2-3-throw’s out) that resulted in dominating ball control early in the year? They were absolutely absent from Sunday’s debacco (< ---worse than a debacle), and a big part of that is on the quarterback. The second part of that equation is that quick, rhythm throws are the No. 1 strategy NFL teams use to combat poor offensive line play, so it’s no coincidence that the Steelers offensive line looked horrible against the Chargers. So keep time in your head early in this one. After the snap, if you can’t say “1-2-3-throw” for at least half of Pittsburgh’s pass plays, it’s going to be another long afternoon.

Quick hits:

+ Amazingly enough, the Steelers could lose this game (too!) and still control their own destiny in the AFC playoffs. It’s just insane how mediocre the league is this year after the top 5 teams (New England, Houston, Denver, San Francisco, New York Giants, sorry Atlanta fans). Anyway, if Pittsburgh falls today, wins over Cincinnati and Cleveland at home would leave them at 9-7 and controlling head-to-head tiebreakers over the Bengals and Jets, the only other teams that could finish 9-7. But, the Bengals win over the Eagles last night also means that no matter what Pittsburgh does versus Dallas, they’d be eliminated from playoff contention with a loss to Cincinnati. Interestingly, there are still three scenarios where Pittsburgh can actually win the AFC North. The most obvious is by winning out while the Ravens lose out, but if PIT beats CIN and wins one other game while the Ravens lose out, the Steelers would control a three-way 9-7 tiebreaker with BAL and CIN. And, if you really want to dream, if the Ravens lose out and PIT and CIN win out but tie each other, PIT wins the division, CIN gets the #6 seed and BAL goes home.

+ Were we right about Plaxico Burress last week or were we right? And reading between the lines, it seems fairly clear to us now that Ben Roethlisberger is lobbying behind the scenes to have Burress active and likely to give him a bigger role in the game plan.

+ With Rashard Mendenhall’s flameout, the Steelers 2008 draft – graded an A by every expert alive (including us, although we’re not an expert) the day after – has now moved into the “historically bad” category. Without recounting our whole five-year history with Mr. Mendenhall in this blog, we’ll just summarize by saying he was a player who showed only flashes of the “athletic ability” everyone declares that he has but never showed any flashes of being a winner, which is much more important.

+ OK, so LaMarr Woodley appears ready to return and we take back everything we said last week about Jason Worilds making us forget about Woodley, who certainly has the pedigree to become a game changer down the stretch if he’s healthy.

+ If case you haven’t noticed, two “busts” from the Steelers 2009 draft class have become major NFL contributors ... for other teams ... and both are offensive linemen. If that doesn’t make you go, “hmmmmmmmm,” nothing will. Of course, we’re talking about guard Kraig Urbik in Buffalo and center (and Penn State grad) A.Q. Shipley in Indianapolis. We’re noting this, of course, as Steelers offensive line coach Sean Kugler prepares to leave the team for a college job. Depending on whom (< --- proper use of “whom”) you listen to, Kugler’s departure either spells doom for Pittsburgh or is a blessing in disguise. We don’t know enough about the intricacies of offensive line play to have a strong opinion on Kugler’s merits as a coach, but we think it’s safe to say someone screwed up somehow in the cases of Urbik and Shipley. Either someone drafted two NFL-quality guys who weren’t a fit to succeed in the Steelers combo blocking scheme (man block run, zone block pass) or coaches failed to get the most out of two guys who are excelling in primarily zone blocking schemes elsewhere. In some instances, you might say they weren’t good enough to start in Pittsburgh but are good enough elsewhere, but that can’t be the case on the offensive line, right?

The pick: Fool us once, shame on you. Fool us twice, shame on us. Uh uh. No way are you sucking us in again this week Steelers with your “potential” to be a tough out in January and your “talent” and “championship intangibles.” Nope, we’re paraphrasing former Cowboys coach Bill Parcells when we say “you are what your performance on the field says you are.” And right now, you are not very good. If Dez Bryant isn’t able to contribute, we think Pittsburgh will hang around in this game, but if he does, and he’s fully functional, look out. Pittsburgh’s backup corners couldn’t handle San Diego’s marginally-talented big receivers last week so what in the world will they do against a beast like Bryant? ... Cowboys 28-24.

Last week: When you start your own pick by announcing you’re violating your own rule of picking, that should be red flag. But it wasn’t. All week long, we listed every possible trap door we feared the Steelers might fall into (Steelers history of playing poorly vs. poor teams, Phillip could play well with no pressure on him, Norv Turner had nothing to lose, makeshift offensive lines often play well) but when it came time to make the pick we weren’t smart enough to pull the trigger on the upset we saw coming. That leaves us at 8-5 on the season against the spread.

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