ILBs Larry Foote and Lawrence Timmons vs. TE Jason Witten
Timmons and Foote have shared coverage responsibilities of tight ends and running backs depending on the defensive alignment from game to game. Both have done a decent job in zone, and will likely be asked to work to prevent the league’s top-receiving tight end from doing too much damage in the middle part of the field.
It won’t be an easy task. Witten set a franchise record with 18 receptions in the Cowboys’ win over the Giants in Week 8. That came on 22 targets, showing Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo’s desire to get him the ball. He can make catches long, but his strength in running after the catch will be a primary concern for the Steelers defense.
Steelers CBs vs. WRs Dez Bryant and Miles Austin
Rounding out the Cowboys’ high-powered passing offense, Bryant is turning into a strong all-around receiver. He broke his left index finger in the Cowboys’ win over Cincinnati in Week 14, and he will need surgery to fix it for the long-term, but he says he’ll play in Week 15.
Bryant doesn’t have quite the same size as Malcolm Floyd and Danario Alexander, but he’s faster and more explosive. Given the injury situation the Steelers are facing at cornerback (Ike Taylor is out and Cortez Allen is doubtful), Lewis will likely shadow Bryant. Curtis Brown struggled in the Steelers’ loss to the Chargers and he may have lost his job – in spite of Allen’s injury – to rookie Josh Victorian and DeMarcus Van Dyke. Either way, look for the Cowboys to try to take advantage.
RT Kelvin Beachum vs. LOLB Anthony Spencer
Beachum has been a contributor over the last two and a half games, filling in for injured Mike Adams. While he’s been beaten around the edge often enough, he’s looked stronger with each start. The main issue is he’ll be facing arguably his toughest opponent yet.
Spencer has 5½ sacks in his last five games, including 2 sacks and 11 tackles against the Bengals last week. Teams wanting to avoid ROLB DeMarcus Ware are having a difficult time finding any more success against Spencer, achieving a level of edge defense once held by Pittsburgh’s James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley.
LOLB LaMarr Woodley vs. RT Doug Free
It could be the right game for Woodley to return healthy – something he’s been only about 50 percent of the Steelers’ last 30 games. When healthy, he’s among the strongest outside linebackers in football and has the ability to wear down his opposition throughout the game. He’s at his best late in the game, and in what could be a tight contest his disruption could lead to the vital sack or forced fumble the defense will need to win this game.
Free hasn’t been the kind of producer for whom the Cowboys had hoped when they signed him to a large extension before the 2011 season. He played left tackle in 2011, and has not adjusted well to the right side. Woodley will test his base strength, as Free can tend to come up a bit high when faced with a bull-rush, meaning Woodley can get him off balance and overpower him on his way to the quarterback.