Miami Dolphins (10-6) @ Pittsburgh Steelers (11-5)
Sunday January 8, 1:00 EST – Heinz Field, Pittsburgh, PA
Betting Line: Steelers -10
Typically, the Dolphins are discussing the anticipation of change on Black Monday. Although no coaches were fired the day after the regular season finale, six were dismissed (or resigned in Gary Kubiak’s case.)
Rather than being included in this equation again, the Dolphins are preparing for a playoff game for the first time since January 2009. The Dolphins broke a seven year drought back in 2008 and lost by 11 to a team that beat them handedly (Baltimore) twice that season.
The new drought was at eight and the game is a rematch with another AFC North club. When the Dolphins and Steelers met in October, Miami was 1-4 and conjuring up thoughts of a top five draft pick. Jay Ajayi and the running game gashed the Steelers defense to the run to the tune of 222 yards.
The Steelers surrendered exactly 1,600 rushing yards this season at a 4.3 yards per rush clip – both right in the middle of the NFL pack.
With Ryan Tannehill officially ruled out, the Dolphins will need to bring the same game plan and execution to Sunday’s rematch to expose the Steelers vulnerabilities. The first game was the birth of the extra tight ends in heavy packages and shifting to a run-focused offense.
The Steelers ranked right in the middle in passing defense as well so there are opportunities against their secondary. That being said, improvements have been made since Pittsburgh shook up its lineup giving more playing time to rookie safety Sean Davis and his impact has been significant.
Much is being made about the Steelers resting players in week 17 while the Dolphins played 100% effort in attempt to take down the Patriots. Contrary to that belief, the Steelers only rested Ben Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell, Antonio Brown and James Harrison.
Key players like Lawrence Timmons, Ryan Shazier and Bud Dupree played all 78 reps in the season finale. Nose tackle, Javon Hargrave, played 46 snaps before suffering a concussion and his status for Sunday remains unknown.
Pittsburgh played five full quarters in this game and figures to have the more tired legs of the two as the Dolphins used a rotation based defense. Cameron Wake played only 33 snaps giving way to Terrance Fede who registered 35.
So in terms of preparation and managing rest, these teams are really on pretty equal footing. A rested Le’Veon Bell benefits the Steelers, but Jay Ajayi had his lowest snap count since the fifth game of the season so expect both backs rearing to get 25 plus carries in this game.
The coaching match-up in this game benefits the Dolphins. Terry Bradshaw may have overstepped a boundary when he bad mouthed Mike Tomlin for essentially being hired as a glorified cheerleader, but he wasn’t that far off.
The Steelers staff has shown little ability to make in game adjustments and mostly relies on the talent to out-execute the opposing team. The offense has not been willing to adjust a failing game plan while the defense operates the same concepts without much rhyme or reason.
Essentially, the Steelers like to creep an extra defender into the box, they play their gap assignments up front and expect the linebackers to fill the remaining gaps. They use a lot of man coverage with a single safety over the top with some variations of cover two mixed in.
Adam Gase and his staff, however, specializes at taking information to the locker room and dominating the second half of games. He is privy to running repeat plays if they work, but his diligence between drives exploits things the defense has shown previously in the game.
If Miami can get out to a fast start, they can really salt the Steelers away with the running game and superior in game adjustments. If not, it could be a long day.
On paper, the Steelers have the Dolphins crushed. Let’s get into those match-ups:
Dolphins Offense vs. Steelers Defense
We saw Matt Moore’s passes flutter several times in Jersey and Buffalo – hell, they were wobbly in Miami too. The temperature is going to be even more of an issue in Pittsburgh. Hovering around single digits, the footballs will be hard and exposed hands will have an even more difficult time gripping the frozen pigskin.
The Steelers know Miami has to get Jay Ajayi going and they’re going to key on him. Of course they are salty about allowing him to eclipse 200 yards earlier in the season and should sell out to take him out of the game early.
Javon Hargrove’s availability looms large as he is capable of taking on blockers and clogging up those interior lanes. He will be an issue for Kraig Urbik and, if he can’t go, Leterrius Walton and Daniel McCullers figure more heavily into the rotation. These are simply bodies that eat space and offer nothing as interior pass rush.
Lawrence Timmons was vomiting in the end-zone after allowing an Ajayi touchdown run in the last meeting and Ryan Shazier missed the game. Shazier’s presence gives the Steelers more athleticism both in the run game and in coverage.
These are the guys the Dolphins need to key. If Ajayi can do what he does best and make guys miss, they can keep this game close.
Sean Davis has had a sensational rookie season and has prevented big plays in the passing game since he was inserted into the lineup. He plays the deep center field while Michael Mitchell is the Swiss army knife of the secondary playing the slot, in the box and in cover two looks.
Miami has been a big play offense and can test rookie corner Artie Burns and incumbent, Ross Cockrell. Slot corner, William Gay, doesn’t have the best hips for an interior guy and Jarvis Landry could find some work underneath.
The Dolphins need to be flawless in terms of penalties, assignments and getting the running game going. If they do these things and include Landry in the short passing game, things can open up down the field.
I don’t think points will be extremely difficult to come by for the Miami offense, it just depends what kind of game the Dolphins defense allows them to play.
Dolphins Defense vs Steelers Offense:
Frankly, this side of the ball has me terrified. The last time these teams met, the ferocious Dolphins pass rush banged up Ben Roethlisberger, shut down Antonio Brown and at least limited Le’Veon Bell (who really became a non-factor because of the scoreboard late in the game.)
All of these things will be different. The best safety in football was available for the Dolphins in this contest as Reshad Jones now watches from the sideline.
Cam Wake was fresh and starting his first game. Byron Maxwell, Isa Abdul-Quddus and Jelani Jenkins were healthy.
This is going to be a struggle. The Steelers use the middle of the field in the screen game, the tight ends, and lull defenses to sleep before the big strike. Miami has been deftly afraid of the deep ball this year allowing things underneath and tightening in the red zone.
It isn’t a horrible plan, especially considering the personnel available after all the injuries the defense has endured. But if this team can’t stop the run, that league leading third down defense will be in short yardage situations and will certainly be gashed much like the Baltimore and New England games.
Cameron Wake and Andre Branch need to dominate. There’s no way around that. Ndamukong Suh and Jordan Phillips can give Maurkice Pouncey some problems with bull rushing in the interior, but the Steelers guard play has been exceptional. These two figure to get a lot of double teams while Wake gets chipped by the backs and tight ends.
This is why Andre Branch is the pivotal player in this game. Alejandro Villanueva is a massive left tackle with long arms that latch on and don’t let go. He will have to get creative with his pass rush arsenal or else Miami will have to send blitzers that have been highly ineffective all year.
If Sammy Watkins on a bum foot can dominate deep against Michael Thomas and Xavien Howard, there’s no reason Antonio Brown cannot.
Byron Maxwell needs to be healthy and needs to be his physical self on the perimeter. Five yard holding penalties aren’t the end of the world but 40 yard pass completions are.
I think this match-up is a nightmare. I think the Steelers are going to come into this game with the offense well-rested and really challenge a thin Miami defense.
It’s absolutely imperative that Miami gets some early stops and keeps the offensive playbook open.
There is certainly a possibility that the Steelers overlook Miami. Despite the fact that only five teams had better records than Miami heading into the final week of the season, the Dolphins have been given a 1% chance to advance to the Super Bowl by some website I don’t care to look up.
I’m realistic, I realize they aren’t going to win in Pittsburgh, Foxboro and Kansas City with a backup quarterback, an all-pro safety out, ailing linebackers, an injured all-pro center and many more injuries.
But this team has fought through adversity all year. It’s a testament to the coaching staff and the difference Adam Gase has made on this organization.
The Dolphins probably aren’t going to break the 16 year drought without a playoff win. But, if they do, it’ll be on the legs of Jay Ajayi and because Gase took Mike Tomlin to school getting his team ready to play.