The Dallas Cowboys’ defense had season-highs for points and yards allowed, didn’t have a takeaway and allowed their first 100-yard receiver.
Heck, they even fell for a fake spike when Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger found his inner Dan Marino for what appeared to be the game-deciding touchdown.
In the end, none of that made for a disappointing Sunday afternoon at Heinz Field. Instead, the defense was roundly praised throughout the locker room for containing a high-powered Steelers offense in what became a wild 35-30 victory for the Cowboys.
Defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence finally had a breakout game with a sack and another tackle for loss, safety Byron Jones flashed with several pivotal plays on the day, and linebacker Sean Lee shined in his hometown return with two tackles for loss.
“I thought our guys did a good job of hanging in there,” coach Jason Garrett said. “I thought we battled. We competed. It wasn’t perfect by any means in any phase, but the spirit of the team was right. It’s a real tribute to our guys.”
It certainly wasn’t perfect. The Steelers had 448 total yards and Antonio Brown finished with 154 receiving yards. But the Cowboys made the plays when they needed to and it began with Lawrence making a much-needed impact.
Lawrence got into the backfield quickly on the opening play of the second quarter, blowing up a run play for Le’Veon Bell and forcing a fumble. Jones had the ball bounce to him for what could have been a scoop-and-score, but it slipped through his hands and went out of bounds.
“Man, extremely frustrating because there was nobody around me,” Jones said. “I felt if I scooped the ball, I would have scored, and it would have been big for the entire team. Just let that one get through my fingers.”
But Lawrence wasn’t done, and Jones more than made up for the gaffe.
Lawrence, who had a team-high eight sacks a season ago, registered his first of this season late in the third quarter. He got to Roethlisberger in a hurry for an 8-yard loss, which forced the Steelers to punt. The Cowboys capitalized by scoring a touchdown on the ensuing drive.
That was the only time the pass rush sacked Roethlisberger, but Lawrence feels the sacks will start coming in bunches for him now.
“I believe so. Just have to keep getting off the ball, working on my pass rushing,” Lawrence said. “I feel like they’re going to come.”
Lawrence missed the first four games for violating the league’s substance-abuse policy, and has been working his way through back and shoulder issues.
As Lee said, it takes time to return to peak playing form, and owner Jerry Jones echoed those thoughts.
“You combine his setbacks, if you will, that he’s had since the spring and see him keep his nose to the task and really perform the way he did out there tonight is rewarding,” Jones said.
Jones should have liked his namesake in safety Byron Jones’ play, too.
Byron Jones broke up a pass when the Steelers went for a 2-point conversion on their first score. He also led the team with 12 tackles and forced Antonio Brown out of bounds on the final play of the game.
That ended a wild final two minutes that saw three touchdowns scored between the teams.
Roethlisberger faked a spike and hit Brown for a 15-yard TD that put Pittsburgh 30-29 with 42 seconds left.
“I ain’t going to lie. He got us,” Lawrence said. “He got us good, but I mean it was part of our win.”
Yes, the Cowboys rallied for an improbable victory in the final seconds, which probably pleased Lee more than anyone.
Lee grew up about 20 minutes from the stadium, and had plenty of family and friends in attendance. He continued to be around the ball as he’s been all season, and tackled Bell for a loss in the second quarter that halted a Steelers drive and forced them to settle for a field goal.
“This whole thing was a dream come true for me,” said Lee, who had nine tackles. “I grew up a Steelers fan, and you know anytime you’re blessed to be in a Steelers-Cowboys game, which is a big rivalry and has been for years, it’s a lot of fun.”