ARLINGTON, Texas – Ben Roethlisberger limped around the backfield directing his receivers this way and that, occasionally reaching for a left knee injured during the second-quarter drive while completing every pass and leading the Steelers to their first points.
The limp was gone as the 38-year-old engineered a fourth-quarter comeback that kept Pittsburgh as the NFL's only unbeaten team.
Roethlisberger threw all three of his touchdown passes after shrugging off the injury, and the Steelers improved to 8-0 for the first time in the storied franchise's history, avoiding what might have been the biggest upset of this NFL season in a 24-19 victory over the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday.
“We’re humbled and honored to be in that group,” coach Mike Tomlin said. “It’s not without its trials today obviously. Some of it was created by us. We can’t keep having these conversations every week because one of these weeks we’ll be doing it with an ‘L’ if we’re not careful.”
Garrett Gilbert was the fourth different starting quarterback in five games for the Cowboys (2-7), who were the biggest underdogs they've been at home in at least 31 years.
While throwing a touchdown in his first career start six years after he was drafted and bringing some life to an offense that hadn't reached the end zone in two games, Gilbert couldn't stop a losing streak now at four games. Those are the four games Dallas has been without star Dak Prescott, out for the season with a broken ankle.
“I don’t know what I expected going into the first one,” said Gilbert, a former Texas quarterback who finished his college career at nearby SMU. “It was exciting to get out there and play and get to lead those guys.”
The Steelers erased a 10-point deficit in the fourth quarter with three scoring drives, the last two aided by Dallas penalties that kept drives alive. The go-ahead score with 2:14 remaining was an 8-yarder TD toss to Eric Ebron, who hurdled Saivion Smith at the goal line.
The drive to the decisive score appeared to have stalled before it started when Roethlisberger threw incomplete on third down. But linebacker Jaylon Smith was called for hitting Roethlisberger's facemask after the throw, and the 17-year veteran signaled as much to referee Tony Corrente.
“I just don’t want to let my guys down,” Roethlisberger said. “I think that so many times, the line and guys are looking at me on the sideline, ‘Ben, we believe in you.’ So I want to give everything I have.”
Gilbert had a last chance in the final minute after Tomlin tried to convert a fourth-and-1 instead of kicking a short field goal for an eight-point lead. But on the final play from the Pittsburgh 23, a pass to the goal line was knocked away by Minkah Fitzpatrick.
Roethlisberger's first touchdown came after he injured his left knee after a throw on a hit from defensive tackle Neville Gallimore. Limping and grabbing at the left knee between plays, Roethlisberger still completed four straight passes, capped by a 17-yarder to James Washington for Pittsburgh's first points late in the first half.
Roethlisberger went to the locker room after the TD, and Mason Rudolph had to replace him when rookie Dallas receiver CeeDee fumbled after a catch. The Steelers settled for Chris Boswell's franchise-record 59-yard field goal for a 13-9 halftime deficit.
Roethlisberger returned in the second half and finished 29 of 42 for 306 yards as the Steelers overcame a season-low 46 yards rushing.
“Someone hit me right on the side of the knee, kind of bent my knee a little bit,” Roethlisberger said. “Just had some discomfort.”
Gilbert's first touchdown pass was a 20-yarder to Lamb for a 10-0 lead in the second quarter. He was the second straight Dallas quarterback to make his first career start after rookie Ben DiNucci last week and finished 21 of 38 for 243 yards.
The Cowboys led 19-15 and were driving early in the fourth quarter when Gilbert was hit as he threw by Cam Heyward, and Fitzpatrick intercepted the fluttering pass in the end zone.
Starting at the 1 and getting help from an illegal contact penalty that erased a potential turnover on a fumble by Roethlisberger, the Steelers drove and Boswell hit a 43-yard field goal to get within a point.
RECORD START TO CAREER
The victory means Tomlin will tie Marty Schottenheimer’s NFL record of 14 straight seasons (1984-97) with at least a .500 record to start a coaching career.
Boswell's 59-yarder was his career long, but he missed two PATs that could have been a factor late. One was wide, the other blocked by Tyrone Crawford.
Cowboys: Joe Looney replaced Tyler Biadasz at center after the rookie injured his hamstring during warmups. Looney was the starter before a knee injury sidelined him for three games, opening the door for Biadasz.
Steelers: Cincinnati at home next Sunday.
Cowboys: Open week, followed by visit to Minnesota on Nov. 22.