Which of these fringe playoff teams owns the superior squad in 2019, and has positioned themselves better for the next year’s playoffs?

Skill Building

Cole Beasley, Terrance Williams, Tavon Austin, Allen Hurns, and Michael Gallup. A tight end battle that pitted unknowns Geoff Swaim and Rico Gathers. Looking back to 2018, the Cowboys’ underwhelming receivers-by-committee approach was early identified as one of their biggest weaknesses. This approach translated into a disappointing start to the year, where the Scott Linehan-led offense failed to break 30 points in a game until playing the struggling Jaguars in Week 6.

It was only when Amari Cooper was added to the receiving corps before their Week 8 bye, that the Cowboys offense finally woke up and bounced back from a 3-5 start to a 7-1 finish. While concerns remain about Cooper’s drop rate , the fifth-year man out of Camp Saban posted a career best 80.6 yards per game in his nine appearances with Dak Prescott. In 2019, Cooper will partner with pro bowler Randall Cobb and Cowboys great Jason Witten, who hopes to have a better season on the field than he had in the booth . Cowboys fans hope that the Cooper-Cobb duo, supported by Witten, translates into a faster start in 2019.

Steelers skill players are headlined by emerging superstar JuJu Smith-Schuster, who totaled 1,426 yards on 111 receptions opposite Antonio Brown in 2018, and is primed to become a top five wide receiver in 2019. Smith-Schuster’s downside risk is that he may suffer more from increased double coverage than benefit from the greater number of targets. The Steelers’ wide receiver corps will be bolstered by new acquisition Donte Moncrief , who interviewed with a substantially less decorated resume than departing Antonio Brown. Former second rounder James Washington, 2019 third-rounder Diontae Johnson, and tight end Vance McDonald are key supporters after Jesse James’ hefty four-year, $22.6 million contract with the Lions.

The Cowboys improved receiving group creates a formidable comparison for the Steelers, and we can give the edge to the Cowboys on the skill position front by taking running back into account. While James Conner had a very strong 2018 and seems to have thrived in a favorable running game environment, he can expect increased pressure this year with a greater focus from defensive gameplans, and fewer options at wide receiver to share the offensive burden. Ezekiel Elliott remains one of the league’s elite backs and hopes to return to All-Pro success with a healthier offensive line, and greater lift from the passing game. There does remain some risk of him failing to show up for the Cowboys’ Week 1 opener against the Giants, but the Zeke situation seems more like hard fought contract negotiations than a Le’Veon Bell repeat.

Rookie Impact

Devin Bush headlines a strong class of rookies for Pittsburgh. The highest drafted Steeler since 2000’s Plaxico Burress, Bush recorded a 4.43 40 time at the inside linebacker position and has received early mentorship from Ryan Shazier. When the biggest concern about the rookie is Cam Heyward’s “needs more bass in his voice” and compliments include “he’s flying around” , year one looks bright for the former Wolverine. Fans expect him to have a solid contribution for an elite unit that includes TJ Watt, Vince Williams, and Bud Dupree.

Pittsburgh will also hope to leverage Diontae Johnson , a receiver out of Toledo with auspicious Antonio Brown comparisons. Justin Layne will serve as the Steelers’ third corner behind Joe Haden and Steven Nelson, while Bennie Snell Jr. plans support a crowded running back group. However, none of these three rookies are expected to have outsized first year impact, primarily because of the Steelers’ depth at their respective positions.

Due to the trade that brought Amari Cooper to Dallas, the Cowboys did not draft in the first round this year, which brings them class without a much-hyped prospect like Devin Bush. Most immediately, Dallas expects to see usage from third-rounder Connor McGovern, a former Nitanny Lion who may slide into the rotation if Travis Frederick struggles to return from auto-immune disease. The Cowboys also may see some immediate impact from second round Defensive Tackle Trysten Hill, but it is more likely that he does not become a full time contributor until 2020 .

Given the immediate expectations around their first round stud, and support for a weaker wide receiver position, the Steelers expect to get more out of their rookie class in year one. We give them the nod in this regard.

Playoff Path

To give them recent historical credit, the Steelers have won the AFC North three of the last five seasons, and nearly added another division title to the trophy case until a nail-biting Ravens Week 17 win pushed them out of the playoffs. However, in 2019 the Steelers face two key threats in the North, from the defending champion Ravens and the upstart Cleveland Browns. Lamar Jackson and Baker Mayfield should both improve in their sophomore years, and Baker has a new target who fans seem to be excited about. The Steelers will look to claw their way to another AFC North title, but will face greater divisional competition than in previous years, as the 2019 Browns should certainly be more dangerous than any past Bengals team that Marvin Lewis rolled out.

If this Odell Beckham Jr. Instagram story foreshadows the Browns’ locker room after Week 17, the Steelers may have to sneak into a Wild Card spot in the AFC. The AFC Wild Card spots looks to be a difficult ask this year, as we don’t expect a 2017 re-run of the 9-7 Bills and Titans. Wild Card competition is much more likely to come from the AFC West and AFC South, which produced the 12-4 Los Angeles Chargers and the 10-6 Indianapolis Colts as second place finishers last season. The Chargers have faced a torrent of injuries this preseason, and the Colts will now be starting Jacoby Brissett, but both teams present significant Wild Card threats on top of the AFC North competition.

The Dallas Cowboys face a different set of hurdles on their path to the playoffs, but a road that provides slightly more opportunities than the AFC playoff picture for the Steelers. The Vegas favorite to win the NFC East remains the Philadelphia Eagles, a team that doubles as a strong Super Bowl contender. But after the Eagles, Cowboys fans should expect four wins against the rebuilding Giants and Redskins. A reasonable head coach should prefer a battle against a front running Eagles team to a two-front war against Cleveland and Baltimore.

As for the Wild Card spots, the NFC should present more issues than the AFC. 2018 Playoff outcasts such as Green Bay, Atlanta, and Carolina should be back with renewed energy, as well as the Wild Card holding Seahawks and Matt Nagy’s Bears — currently suffering from kicker PTSD . While the Wild Card field is strong in the NFC, the increased opportunity to win the division, and likely wins against weaker in-division opponents give the Cowboys a slightly less difficult playoff field to compete with in 2019.

Out of Division Schedule

While they probably hate the idea of sharing anything, the Cowboys and Steelers share a divisional pairing with the AFC East. For the Cowboys, the top-heavy AFC East and tough NFC North will keep them busy, as well as matchups with defending divisional champions LA Rams and New Orleans Saints. The Steelers, on the other hand, will pair the AFC East with a resilient NFC West, and will face dangerous second-place finishers in the Chargers and Colts.

Schedule difficulty is front-heavy for the Steelers, who open the season with a visit to New England, a home matchup against the Seahawks, and a Week 3 trip to San Francisco, where Jimmy Garroppolo is “good to go” returning from ACL surgery. Pittsburgh’s season will close on an easier note, where the team can hope to ride wins in Weeks 14-16 against the rebuilding Cardinals, Bills, and Jets before visiting Baltimore for a potentially decisive Week 17 game.

The Cowboys, on the other hand, expect to start the season with three wins against a fading Eli Manning, an inexperienced Dwayne Haskins, and the winner of the Fitzpatrick-Rosen QB competition. Dallas will need to ride this momentum down the rest of their bumpy road, which includes grueling stretches against New Orleans and Green Bay (Weeks 4-5), and against the Bears, Rams, and Eagles (Weeks 14-16).

If the Steelers can emerge from their first three games with a win or two, their schedule is much easier than the Cowboys. The Steelers’ pairing with the NFC West is not as challenging as the Cowboys’ NFC North, and the Cowboys’ matchups with the Rams and Saints are more formidable than the Chargers and Colts. The edge goes to the Steelers on an easier out-of-division schedule.

Pass Rush Potential

In 2018, Pittsburgh tied Kansas City for the most team sacks in the league with 52. Here’s a prediction: they’ll top 55 sacks this year and break last year’s tie. While they shifted their famous Base 3-4 defense into one that rolled out over 75% of plays in subpackages in 2018 (nickel, dime or dollar defenses), Pittsburgh still had a dominant pass rush.

Pittsburgh received over five sacks from five different players, and that group of five players averaged only 26 years of age. TJ Watt was much improved in 2018 for 13 sacks, and his opposite outside linebacker Bud Dupree seems destined for more than 5.5 sacks in his ‘prove it’ year, where the Steelers remain confident despite noise about replacement from the draft.

Dallas on the other hand, finished 16th in the league with sacks, and 12th in forced fumbles. The sure bet for Rod Marinelli’s group is another strong year for Demarcus Lawrence, who earned his first Pro Bowl visit on the back of 10.5 sacks and 23 QB Hits.

The question marks on the Cowboys’ D-line are Randy Gregory and Tyrone Crawford, who combined for a solid 11.5 sacks last year. Both pass rushers are facing discipline from off-the-field incidents, Gregory in the form of an indefinite suspension for substance abuse that may not end in reinstatement . Defensive Captain Tyrone Crawford nearly joined Gregory on the suspended list following a misdemeanor for a bar incident in March , but no formal discipline has been handed down from the league office. Assuming one or both of these Cowboys are suspended early in the 2019 season, the team hopes to make up ground with inconsistent Robert Quinn and Taco Charlton, who is more likely to make the All-Name than All-Pro Team.

Accounting for both depth and continuity, the edge goes to the Steelers on the defensive rush.

Locker Room: “Zeke Who?”

The Steelers first ran into issues in July 2018 when the Le’Veon Bell refused to sign the franchise tag he had received in the hopes of gaining leverage towards a new contract. This first in a string of events, which concluded with Bell failing to sign his franchise tender in November and missing the entire season. For Antonio Brown, an early October Gatorade cooler flip was the first notable incident in a tense relationship that resulted in AB’s eventual Week 17 absence during a crucial game. Reports on the Antonio Brown drama focused on his devolving relationship with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, and ego threats coming from younger star JuJu Smith-Schuster.

By releasing Le’Veon Bell and trading Antonio Brown to the Raiders in March, the Steelers’ management made a strong commitment to a different story in 2019.

Down in Dallas, their own running back holdout took center stage after Jerry Jones’ offhand comment on August 18th. While Jerry may feel that he has “earned the right to joke” after sticking with Zeke through his domestic violence suspension, and is rumored to have offered his star running back Gurley-level money, uncertainty remains in the Cowboys camp. While a resolution does appear possible before Week 1, the holdout is a significant disruption right now.

In addition, always-high expectations will continue to percolate through the Cowboys’ locker room in Jason Garrett’s tenth season with the organization. Garrett’s tenure has left the trophy cabinet empty. Only three playoff appearances and zero wins has left his status in flux for many years. With its coach perennially sitting in the hot seat, a slow start against weak opponents could erode team chemistry in Dallas.

Only time will tell , but by pressing the reset button, refusing to cave to their offensive superstars’ demands, and maintaining leadership in Roethlisberger and Tomlin, the Steelers are set up for strong chemistry this year. We’ll give them the optimistic nod in the locker room.

Conclusion

Steelers take the 4-2 advantage here, on the back of their strong rookie class, top-ranking pass rush, and improved locker room environment with departures of Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown. While the Cowboys boast more talent at skill positions, and an easier divisional lineup, the Steelers own an easier out of division schedule and hope to have locked up a Wild Card spot, at minimum, entering their Week 17 matchup with Lamar Jackson and the Ravens.

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