From the notebook of a reporter who left Heinz Field last night wondering what these Steelers mean when they say they need more accountability:
* That was one of the key phrases of the night in the locker room. Ben Roethlisberger said it three times, that the Steelers were "undisciplined and not accountable." I get the undisciplined part. Like not filling the proper gap on run defense or having two wide receivers in the exact spot of the end zone underneath a bomb.
* But I was having a hard time understanding the fact they're not accountable, until it was explained this way by another reporter:
* "It's about the a-counting on the scoreboard. Your a-counting has to be higher than the other team's a-counting."
* Seriously, though, I'm sure it has something to do with players taking responsibility for their mistakes, the way Sean Davis did after grabbing Jason Witten's facemask.
* Davis was in pain in the locker room. A reporter approached for comment and Will Gay hollered, "Two-eight, go take a shower."
* From the shower a few moments later came a cry of agony. We can only assume it came from Davis, who had otherwise played a solid game as the rookie half of a rotation at strong safety.
* Davis walked from the shower and dressed slowly as reporters gave him his space and time. Ross Cockrell, meanwhile, answered questions about how he had been standing Witten up as the clock ticked down. The Cowboys would've had to use their final timeout with, say, 13 seconds left after Cockrell finally wrestled Witten to the ground. The Cowboys would've then needed to complete a pass for another 14 yards and spike the ball to set Dan Bailey up for a 50-yarder. Davis, though, needlessly grabbed Witten's mask and set Bailey up with the timeout still in hand.
* Davis eventually dressed and faced the wall of reporters without tears and said the loss was his fault. He took accountability. Does that matter?
* Lawrence Timmons took accountability, too, for the next play, a 32-yard run through Dallas' left guard and left tackle. The Steelers were in their new 4-3 look with five linebackers. Timmons was the middle backer between Anthony Chickillo on the left and Ryan Shazier on the right. Timmons blitzed and Shazier attacked the center and ended up on the ground. Jarvis Jones got blocked and Ezekiel Elliott hit the hole, and if he wasn't at full speed then, he was very soon. Elliott scored the game-winning touchdown and Timmons took accountability, even if it was Shazier's or Jones' fault.
* If asked, either one of them would've no doubt taken accountability, so I'm just not sure that accountability matters.
* But even then, "Is it the players?" as Roethlisberger asked, and without a pause asked, "Is it the coaches?"
* Is it the coaches?
* Funny that Roethlisberger threw that in there. It came a week after Le'Veon Bell said, "I think we have to practice better. Even at practice we make mistakes like that."
* And on game day, a reporter from NFL Network tweeted that Roethlisberger met with Mike Tomlin and "wants greater seriousness of purpose from younger Steelers."
* That's where the other half of the "undisciplined and not accountable" equation comes into play. These Steelers aren't making plays, but are missing more of them, and are therefore undisciplined. It comes with the territory that is losing, and it's building into a cacophony of "Fire the coach!" like it's something out of a Donald Trump rally. And the perception eventually becomes the reality, as it was and as it will be.
* So, is Tomlin to blame?
* At this point, all I can say is "Scoreboard." They are 4-5. Those numbers are his.
* Would I like to see more accountability from the coaches? I don't know. Again, does it matter? But I would liked to have seen James Harrison on the field for the final series instead of Jones. Harrison's a better pass-rusher and I doubt he would've allowed that hole to open for Elliott the way it did.
* Speaking of the pass rush, Shazier was half a step away from Dak Prescott on that fateful 5-yard pass to Witten which turned into a 20-yard gain. If Shazier smacks the rookie's arm there, game over.
* If Witten catches the first pass of that drive, for no gain in the middle of the field, game over.
* But Witten is -- as Heath Miller had been for so long in this town -- too wily. They call Witten "Old Faithful" over in the Cowboys locker room, and it's plays like NOT catching a pass that would've cost his team the game that make him so valuable.
* Would Jesse James have intentionally let that ball land at his feet? Probably not.
* So it begs the question of whether the Steelers are drafting quality players and signing quality free agents. Should the GM be held accountable for this?
* Well, Kevin Colbert would be the first to say, with a 4-5 record, that he's been part of the problem. Of course he would say that. He has class. So being accountable means little. Besides, calling him out is my job. Firing him is not.
* Should I call the Colbert/Tomlin draft team out for not drafting tight end Tyler Eifert instead of Jones back in 2013? Sure, I can. But then I'm not holding myself accountable, because I wanted them to draft safety Eric Reid.
* I don't even know if Reid's still in the league, that's how little I've paid attention to the guy who was selected one pick after Jones. So, I can't truly criticize the pick, since I wouldn't have taken Eifert myself. I can merely point out a mistake in hindsight, and anyone can do that.
* Yes, there have been coaching mistakes. Yes, there have been personnel mistakes. Ladarius Green finally hit the field and he doesn't look anything like the seam-stretcher he was made out to be. He looks slow, and that is no doubt due to an ankle injury that wasn't properly investigated by the personnel team.
* I asked Roethlisberger if the seemingly weekly change of his Nos. 2 and 3 receivers had anything to do with A.) the offensive struggles against a patchwork Dallas secondary, and B.) the red-zone issue that came to the fore in light of the 0-for-4 performance on 2-point plays Sunday.
* Said Roethlisberger: "I thought those guys played great. I thought Eli Rogers played great and I thought Cobi [Hamilton] made some plays for us. They were not the issue today. I thought they played well."
* Rogers, the first-year slot receiver coming off a 103-yard second half the previous week, caught four passes for 42 yards and made a great touchdown catch Sunday. Hamilton caught one pass for 39 yards. Sure, those are, well, OK numbers, but what has happened to the receiving corps to cause two undrafted players to suddenly be thrust into a lineup that should be filled instead with at least one of the three third-round picks and a fourth-round pick from the last four drafts?
* There's an excuse for each of those picks, no doubt, but the point is that both Hamilton and Rogers were found on the scrap heap this year and last year, respectively.
* Sammie Coates? I have no idea. But on one of his few snaps yesterday he was in the exact vicinity as Rogers on a deep Roethlisberger pass that fell incomplete among a large group of players. Does Coates even know what he's doing? Is he part of Roethlisberger's problem with "younger players"? That remains to be seen, but Coates isn't impressing me with his intelligence or lack thereof at the moment. And of course neither is Martavis Bryant.
* We realize that all of this would be a different tune had a rookie not gotten his fingers in a facemask.
* At least for now, anyway, because one win -- even over a team that's now 8-1 -- can't hide some of these issues very long.
* Should we excuse a narrow loss to a very good team? Absolutely not, because this was that emotional flat spot for the Cowboys for which I've been excusing the Steelers this season. This was a game in which the Steelers were surprisingly, but justifiably, favored to win, but I'm not going to give them that excuse this time.
* One reporter -- (not the one who taught me about a-counting) -- was trying to get Roethlisberger back in a feel-good mood for whatever piece (of nonsense) he was working on, and so he said to Ben rather cheerily, "On the bright side you have Cleveland coming up!" Roethlisberger looked at him without losing his glum expression and said, "Not necessarily. We've got a big week. Another AFC North game, so that's big for us."
* Roethlisberger knows that's another potential disaster waiting to happen.
* Of course, there's still time to turn this thing around. The current leader of the AFC North has gotten past its four-game losing streak, so clearly the Steelers still can.
* These major decisions and debates touched on here can be studied further if they can't.