The Pittsburgh Steelers and Miami Dolphins face up on a wildcard game. This is a preview of how that game might go.
Before the 2016-2017 regular season began, the Pittsburgh Steelers were one of the trendier picks to represent the AFC in Super Bowl 51. With an offense featuring three players among the best at their position, in quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, running back Le’Veon Bell, and wide receiver Antonio Brown, many people felt that in spite of their youth, they had enough firepower to beat any team in the conference.
Over the second half of the season, the Steelers appeared to prove many of those prognosticators correct. After a tough loss to the Dallas Cowboys in mid-November, Pittsburgh won their last seven games of the regular season, en route to an 11-5 record and the AFC North division title.
As the postseason begins, the Steelers appear to have a favorable match-up in the first round, taking on the upstart but injury-ravaged Miami Dolphins team. While the Dolphins also had a strong finish of the regular season, going 9-2 over their last 11 games (after starting the season with a 1-4 record), they managed to do so with some of their most important players ailing on the sideline.
For starters, quarterback Ryan Tannehill missed the last three regular season games after injuring his knee in Miami’s Week 14 win against Arizona. While there was some thought around Tannehill potentially being back in time to start in the playoffs, he hasn’t taken any meaningful repetitions under center since the injury. There’s little chance the Dolphins would start him this week without him having practice for so long, meaning backup quarterback Matt Moore will likely be Miami’s starter this weekend.
Moore will likely be asked to simply manage the offense, and rely on the bevy of young and talented skill position players that the Dolphins have quietly assembled. Running back Jay Ajayi ran for over 200 yards the last time the Dolphins played the Steelers (Week 6 of the 2016 season). Wide receiver Jarvis Landry is one of the most productive pass catchers in the league, having recorded his second straight year 90+ receptions and more than 1100+ yards receiving; as a slot option, he is incredibly difficult to defend.
Over the last six weeks of the regular season, second year receiver DeVante Parker tallied 445 yards receiving and three touchdowns. The former first-round pick presents a size (6’3 and 212lbs) and speed element that’s very difficult to defend. Fellow wide receiver Kenny Stills leads all Dolphins receivers with nine touchdown passes, and could be the beneficiary of a few deep shots from Moore (who does throw a nice deep ball).
The Steelers defense allowed opposing running backs to run for 15 touchdowns and 4.3 yards per game, both of which were in the bottom half of the league this season. So, if they devote much of its game plan towards ensuring Ajayi doesn’t have another monster day, that will likely open up opportunities downfield for Moore and those receivers.
Miami’s 29th-ranked defense will also be facing a bit of a “pick your poison” scenario. The Dolphins could similarly devise a scheme to stop Bell, who was one of the most productive running backs in the NFL this year. Even after missing the first four games of this season, Bell finished fifth in the NFL with 1,268 rushing yards this year, accumulating 100+ rushing yards in five of the Steelers last six games. But if Miami’s defense sells out to stop the run pulling out every wrinkle they can to help shore up their 30th-ranked rushing defense to stop Bell, that could be at the sacrifice of Roethlisberger putting up an air show. Byron Maxwell, Miami’s top cornerback, hasn’t played since injuring his ankle on December 17th, and asking rookie cornerbacks Xavien Howard and Tony Lippett to stop Antonio Brown doesn’t sound like an optimal game plan.
The Dolphins could potentially make this game interesting, but it’s very hard to see them having the ability to stop the Steelers offense, and put up more points on their own. Those tasks are even more difficult, given the fact that this game will be played in Pittsburgh. The Steelers lost only two games at home this year, and those were to perhaps the two best teams in the NFL (New England and Dallas). They haven’t lost at home game since before Thanksgiving. They score more than 28 points per game at home, and outscore their opponents by 10 points per game in home match-ups.
Preview for Sunday’s game: Look for the Steelers to pick up the win, and advance to Kansas City.