Dez Bryant has been the talk of the Dallas Cowboys v. Pittsburgh Steelers buildup this week as he deals with a serious injury to his finger. Because it is his finger, rather than a knee, Bryant is set to play this Sunday but must endure pain and risks permanent damage to the finger. Nonetheless, it seems almost certain that the 24-year-old wide receiver will not only play, but start this weekend in what is a crucial game for both sides.
For many reasons Bryant will be determined to be on the field, but not all of them are Cowboys or even Bryant related. Two weeks ago the Steelers’ lost starting cornerback Ike Taylor, the team’s best coverage defender who was having an all-pro caliber season. Taylor is the only true veteran of the Steelers’ group of cornerbacks and more importantly he was often used to trail the opposition’s best receiver, which in this case would be Bryant. Depending on how Steelers’ coordinator Dick LeBeau decides to approach the game, Bryant will either be assigned with the task of beating Keenan Lewis on every snap or maybe fourth string cornerback Curtis Brown.
Lewis is an outstanding football player, in the mold of Taylor, but he has much less experience as a starter and has never been used to trail the opposition’s number one receiver. Bryant would need to work to beat Lewis, who the Steelers will happily put in man coverage against him, but from a sheer talent perspective Bryant will have an edge. The young receiver has been on a tear in recent weeks, so much so that he is clearly the Cowboys’ best player. That is a far cry from his earlier season struggles off the field which resulted in him having his own curfew. Since Week 10, Bryant has accounted for 525 receiving yards and seven touchdowns on 33 receptions.
Bryant is in good enough form to be productive against Lewis, but if he is fortunate enough to not have LeBeau trail him with his best receiver all day then his potential to take over this game explodes. Taylor’s replacement, Cortez Allen, is doubtful to play in the game. Allen is a very talented cornerback, but also very raw. Physically he is similar to Taylor and Lewis in that he is rangy but also very agile and strong. Allen can be exposed mostly because of his lack of experience, but his sheer physical talents allow him to compete at the worst. Should he not play however, Bryant will get some time to play against a glorified special teams player in Brown.
Brown is a 24-year-old former third-round pick out of Texas. Should he start this game it will be his first career start, despite being an ever-present on special teams during his first two seasons. Without Taylor last week, he filled in for Allen as the team’s nickel back. The results were disastrous as he was repeatedly beaten on third downs. Brown might fare better on the outside, because he played outside in college and his biggest weakness appears to be his lack of lateral quickness. Against Bryant however, you have to be very agile to stick with him in space, Bryant can beat you with his quickness or with decisive moves when he has the ball in his hands. Brown is an assured tackler, but he doesn’t have the same physical talents as Allen, Lewis or Taylor. That would likely expose him to big plays on a consistent basis without plenty of help.
Regardless of where Brown lines up on the field, the Steelers will want to give him help. Even that will be difficult however. The loss of Taylor and Allen severely hurts the Steelers’ depth at cornerback. Former Oakland Raiders defender DeMarcus Van Dyke has shown talent on the outside in the past, but he is very raw still and doesn’t match up well to the bulk of the Cowboys’ receiving options. The Steelers will likely use a third safety in their nickel packages opposed to bringing in Van Dyke and moving Brown back inside. Josh Victorian is another option, but he is very inexperienced and was unimpressive in limited time against the Chargers. The Steelers face a difficult puzzle of Cowboys’ receivers that needs to be solved without all the necessary pieces.
Dez Bryant may be dealing with a sore finger, but come Sunday evening, he will likely be the one handing out pain to the Steelers’ defensive backs.