Cowboys DE DeMarcus Lawrence after Steelers’ late comeback: ‘Ain’t nobody elite’ in NFL

Jori Epstein
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ARLINGTON, Texas — The Cowboys, running back Ezekiel Elliott wants to be clear, are not hunting moral victories.

“We are still here to win football games,” Elliott said after a 24-19 loss to Pittsburgh. “And we got to figure out ways to win football games.”

But if Elliott is cautious to celebrate any discoveries about what a 5-point loss to the undefeated Steelers says about the Cowboys, allow DeMarcus Lawrence to unpack what the contest said about their competition.

“I don’t feel like nobody in this league is elite,” Lawrence said as the Cowboys fell to 2-7 and the Steelers improved to 8-0. “You look at their schedule or their record, and their record might say different. But clearly, by looking at the game today, ain’t nobody elite.

“Everybody has a chance to win.”

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Dallas Cowboys defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence stands on the field during warmups before an NFL football game against the Pittsburgh Steelers in Arlington, Texas, Sunday, Nov. 8, 2020.

Perhaps that came as a surprise to some after the Cowboys, starting their fourth different quarterback in five weeks, were deemed 14.5-point underdogs at home against Pittsburgh. Add in the league’s worst rushing defense, most turnover-happy offense and a special teams unit that failed even to consistently field 11 players in several games? The Cowboys’ outlook entering the Steelers game was bleak. Their view emerging from the game is slightly brighter.

“This was clearly our best team football that we played this year,” head coach Mike McCarthy said. “That was a hard-fought football game to say the least.”

A Cowboys defense allowing 170.8 rushing yards per game limited Pittsburgh to 46. A Cowboys defense that had ceded third-down conversions on 49.5% of attempts (fourth worst in league) limited Pittsburgh to 38.5%. The Steelers remained scoreless until the last 2 minutes of halftime. Ben Roethlisberger’s 2 passing yards in the first quarter was the worst mark of his career, per ESPN Stats and Info.

“Just being relentless,” linebacker Leighton Vander Esch said of the defense’s goal. “Don’t be putting any of that lazy, ‘not running to the ball’ stuff on film. That’s really what we’ve been focusing on Just having good energy and running to the ball.”

The defense has now strung together two energetic performances. But unlike the 23-9 loss in Philadelphia (only 15 of those points were allowed by defense), the special teams and offense made significant contributions against the Steelers as well. On special teams, a trick-play pass from receiver Cedrick Wilson to defensive back C.J. Goodwin transformed a punt return into a 73-yard gain. Running back Rico Dowdle, who previously had three career carries for 13 yards, juked a kickoff return into 64 yards. Defensive lineman Tyrone Crawford blocked a Pittsburgh extra-point attempt.

An offense that hadn’t scored a touchdown either of the last two games—and three games ago, only in garbage time of the final minutes of a blowout loss to the Cardinals—reached the end zone on a 20-yard pass from quarterback Garrett Gilbert to rookie receiver CeeDee Lamb in the second quarter. In total, Dallas scored on five of its first seven possessions. The offense boasted its most productive performance since losing quarterback Dak Prescott (ankle) in Week 5.

“It’s not easy for anyone on the offense to be going through four quarterbacks in the course of nine games,” said Gilbert, who completed 21 of 38 passes for 243 yards, a touchdown and an interception. “So it’s a real testament to those guys that they just keep their heads down and keep working. I can’t say enough about all the guys in that room.”

But late in the game, the Cowboys’ steady performance unraveled. Gilbert threw his first interception three minutes into the fourth quarter, All-Pro safety Minkah Fitzpatrick nabbing the ball in the middle of the end zone. On the resulting series, linebackers Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch drew penalties on consecutive fourth-quarter plays. What would have been a strip sack of Roethlisberger instead extended Pittsburgh’s drive, which culminated in a field goal.

On the Steelers' next drive after a Cowboys punt, Roethlisberger missed receiver Chase Claypool on third-and-10. Smith, however, was flagged again—this time for a roughing-the-passer penalty. Lawrence was furious.

A strong showing of black-and-gold Terrible Towels waved from around an AT&T Stadium crowd of 31,700 fans.

“The frustrating part is that it wasn't in our control,” Lawrence said when asked about penalties. “I'm not the one to complain but that was total B.S. on that last call. So hopefully the NFL can take that into account and we get better from it.

“That's very unacceptable, especially in a close game like that.”

Roethlisberger found tight end Eric Ebron on a galloping 8-yard touchdown to take the 24-19 lead, and the Cowboys’ next drive ended with a 17-yard sack of Gilbert. Dallas was gifted one more chance with 38 seconds left, but Gilbert missed Lamb “a little too far inside,” the quarterback described it, across the front line of the end zone.

“That’s the type of thing you dream about, and that’s the type of situation you live for as a quarterback,” Gilbert said of the chance to produce a game-winning drive. “I just have to give him a better ball.”

For now, Gilbert gave the Cowboys a better chance to win than rookie Ben DiNucci had one week prior. The Cowboys expect Andy Dalton to return from concussion protocol and the reserve/COVID-19 list after their bye, when Dallas will travel to Minnesota.

McCarthy lauded the team’s "grit and grind" in the postgame locker room, McCarthy said, players buoyed by a caliber of fight they haven’t displayed consistently each week of the season.

“Today is a reflection on what we are capable of doing,” McCarthy said. “We’re definitely taking steps in the right direction the last two weeks as far as the understanding and speed of what we are trying to get done. We have a bye week. We’ll spend time self-scouting it all, both individually for the players and all three phases. We’ll get loaded up because it’s time. We’ve got to get going.

“We need to get going and we need to start stacking wins.”

Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Jori Epstein on Twitter @JoriEpstein

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