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The Vent: Cowboys show fight but fail to finish upset against Steelers

The Dallas Cowboys are 2-7, but they came within a fourth quarter comeback of defeating the unbeaten Pittsburgh Steelers despite a fourth starting QB in five games.
Credit: AP
Dallas Cowboys quarterback Garrett Gilbert (3) escapes a tackle by Pittsburgh Steelers defensive tackle Henry Mondeaux (99) during an NFL football game, Sunday, Nov. 8, 2020, in Arlington, Texas. Pittsburgh won 24-19. (AP Photo/Brandon Wade)

The Dallas Cowboys were beaten by the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday, just like everyone thought. How the game played out and the eventual final score of 24-19, however, were surprises that no one expected. Such is the existence of the Cowboys these days. They just never quite live up to expectations.

At least this week not living up to expectations meant almost defeating the now 8-0 Steelers. But that leads to the obvious question: Where has this team been all season long?

It took Dallas being on their fourth starting quarterback, and playing the role of David against the AFC’s undefeated Goliath, to put forth a total team effort. In their ninth game of the year, despite the loss, the Cowboys played their best game of the season.

There are no moral victories in professional football, but there is something called confidence. There are things called optimism and promise. In a losing effort, the Cowboys provided all of those things. It’s a sign that this team hasn’t quit and is capable of playing better over the remainder of the season.

Those are all positives from the Cowboys, but finding positives to feel good about wasn’t the objective. Dallas desperately needed to leave this game with a win, and they didn’t get it done. Although they played a smart game for most of the contest, in the end, they reverted to the issues that have them sitting with a 2-7 record as they enter their bye week.

Turnovers and penalties have plagued the team all season long, and they reared their ugly heads at the wrong time against the Steelers.

For three quarters, the Cowboys performed admirably. They had committed only one turnover and they had kept the dumb mistakes to a minimum. Those factors, and better overall play, contributed to a 19-9 lead heading into the final quarter. 

For a team labeled an extreme underdog, Dallas was in control for most of the afternoon, and they were playing a clean game.

While the other players on the team were finally performing like most thought they could leading up to this season, the offense put in a commendable effort with a fourth string quarterback. Garrett Gilbert was leading the way after only being announced as the starter on Saturday.

The veteran QB with minimal game experience was making his first career NFL start and wasn’t turning the ball over. That was critical as the former University of Texas QB made plays with his legs and came up with big third down throws. Gilbert was assisted by a rushing attack that gashed the Steelers’ vaunted defense for 144 yards and kept Dallas’ beleaguered defensive unit on the sideline.

The Cowboys, who have played from behind for almost the entire season, led for almost the entire game and even enjoyed the first double-digit lead of their entire season in a contest that no one was giving them a shot to win prior to kickoff.

All of those positives went out the window in the final 15 minutes. The fourth quarter was when the ghosts of the 2020 season arrived for the Cowboys. Perhaps they were just late following the end of daylight savings, but the mistakes appeared just in time to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

Penalties and turnovers popped up at the wrong times in the fourth quarter. A red zone interception from Gilbert was a killer, but there were three penalties that helped seal the Cowboys’ fate along the way.

An unsportsmanlike conduct penalty by Leighton Vander Esch was a foolish mistake and a microcosm of the team’s season. The penalty was a thoughtless, unforced error that came midway through the fourth quarter on the drive that saw Pittsburgh pull to within one point.

The bigger penalties came from linebacker Jaylon Smith, who just can’t seem to do anything right these days. Nevertheless, Smith’s illegal contact penalty was extremely questionable and wiped away a turnover that could have given the Cowboys the ball deep in Steelers territory with a chance to extend their lead.

The next mistake from Smith came on the eventual game-winning drive from the Steelers. With a 19-18 lead and under four minutes left to play, on a third and 10, the Cowboys forced an incompletion and likely a punt. 

However, Smith’s arm appeared to graze Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger’s helmet and roughing the pass was called. It was another brutal call, only this time the Steelers cashed in with a touchdown to take the lead for good.

Dallas ultimately self-destructed at the wrong time against the Steelers, and it cost them the game. The Cowboys kept what should’ve been a lopsided game close, but scoreboards don’t show moral victories.

For Dallas, despite an unexpected fight, the number of wins stayed at two and the losses went up to seven. And while they made it more difficult for the Steelers than anyone expected, the Cowboys are way past accepting brownie points.

Do you think the Cowboys showed enough grit on Sunday to expect a turnaround going forward? Share your thoughts with Ben on Twitter @BenGrimaldi.