USA TODAY Sports
With both teams fighting to stay in the playoff race, the winner of Sunday's pivotal game may come down to who can put the most (reasonably) healthy bodies on the field.
Trying to sort out matchups for the upcoming game against the Steelers is less a case of looking at statistics than reading through casualty lists. Although Pittsburgh has not had the rash of injuries that has worse than decimated the Cowboys (seriously, they are way past the one-in-ten meaning of the word), recent weeks have seen that start to change for them. Now, they have suspended Rashard Mendenhall for a game, although he was not providing much offensive impact for the game.
The Steelers have also lost their left tackle Willie Colon to surgery, for at least this game. This means that Dallas will get a chance to find out if David DeCastro, a fan favorite leading up to the 2012 draft, is anything like what many of us thought he was. Well, maybe we will. DeCastro is coming back from a MCL tear in preseason, and has only seen some special teams action the past two games. The team hopes to work him in, but they are not committed to the move yet. If he is not ready to go, it could force the team to move center Maurkice Pouncey to guard.
There is a big question mark about CB Cortez Allen, who suffered a hip flexor injury against the San Diego Chargers that caught a lot of people by surprise. He is day to day at the moment, but if he is not able to go, it would be a blow to the Steelers. His replacement, Curtis Brown, had a particularly bad day against Philip Rivers and his receivers.
And there is at least some question about just how well Ben Roethlisberger has recovered from his dislocated rib. His performance against the San Diego Chargers was much worse than the 34-24 final score would indicate, with pressure getting to him a lot in the early part of the game, and most of his yards coming after the outcome was decided. This was compounded by a rushing attack that would look very familiar to Dallas fans. It was highly ineffective, with almost half the yards coming on Roethlisberger scrambles. Jonathan Dwyer only managed 32 yards on 8 carries, although the fact that the Steelers had to go into a catchup mode very early in the game may have been mostly to blame for that.
The Steelers are trying to find their way after a string of losses and have at least a hint of turmoil in the Mendenhall situation. Of course, the Cowboys are reeling from a deep, rending tragedy and, despite having won four out of their last five games, they are still scrambling to find enough healthy players to fill the roster, the problems of offensive line continue to be the scariest things since the advent of Honey Boo-Boo and Gangnam Style, and now question marks hover over a couple of the remaining stars.
Dez Bryant has a broken finger, had several visits with doctors about it, and looks to be a day to day decision. So does Morris Claiborne, who took a blow to his face after his helmet came off, and was held out of practice early in the week with a reported concussion. Both are players the Cowboys can ill afford to lose, with a defensive secondary that is almost down to the point of calling for volunteers out of the stands (maybe they can bring some Aggies in for the game) and Bryant being the one consistent scoring threat for the last several weeks. One of them being out would severely hamper the team. Both would push the concept of next man up to the absolute limit. Fortunately, as the week progressed, both saw limited action in practice, so there is some reason for optimism. But there was not a lack of bad news, either, as Jay Ratliff had surprise surgery and is likely out for at least the rest of the regular season.
It creates a game where the outcome is going to be decided by who shows up, both literally and figuratively. Not only are the teams dealing with the injuries, but they are very much trying to find consistency. Pittsburgh has to find a way to be more like the team that has been a force in the AFC for years. Dallas is trying to find a steady, winning identity after some very rough years. Both teams are 7-6.
A win guarantees nothing for either, but a loss may be one too many for any realistic playoff hopes. Where the Steelers are hoping to turn themselves around, Dallas should be looking to maintain the determination and grit that won them a narrow but desperately needed victory under huge emotional strain last week. Now they face a week that is in many ways harder, because they have to go into game preparation on the heels of a doubtlessly wrenching memorial service for Jerry Brown. They have to find out if their victory then was a one-time rallying together against adversity, or if it was the start of a determined run to reach the postseason.
Neither team is in a very comfortable or certain place right now. One of them will possibly have a much clearer picture of itself after this game, but that is more likely to be the loser, who will have a pretty good idea they aren't going anywhere this year. In this case, a little uncertainty would probably be a good thing.