A couple of weeks ago, we needed to talk some Dolphin fans off the ledge. After back-to-back division losses at home, morale among fans was low. Luckily the players didn't have the same mindset - bouncing back off the bye week to knock off the Packers at Lambeau Field.
Now the Dolphins have a chance to make a big statement on Sunday. Following up a win up in Green Bay with a win over the Steelers would be as impressive a two game streak as we've seen this team pull off in recent memory.
It'll be no easy feat, of course. The Steelers are as tough and as talented as any team in the league. With that said, let's discuss three of the most important matchups of the game.
Jake Long vs James Harrison
Some people didn't like the fact that I called Harrison an idiot on Twitter yesterday after reports surfaced that he was contemplating retirement due to the NFL's new strict enforcement of "helmet to helmet" hits. But let's be honest for a minute - if he even remotely thought about retiring over this, leaving millions of dollars on the table, he needs to have his own head examined.
Regardless, Harrison is one of the NFL's most physical (and quite frankly one of the "dirtiest") players in the league. He openly announced that he "tries to hurt people." And on Sunday, it's going to be Jake Long's job to make sure Chad Henne is not one of the players Harrison has an opportunity to hurt.
As ridiculously dumb as Harrison's comments are, he's still one of the most talented defensive players in the league. The 2008 Defensive Player of the Year is having another good season, tied for ninth in the league with five sacks this season. He's more than just a pass-rusher, too. He can set the edge as well as any outside linebacker in the league and will even drop into coverage at times.
Long, meanwhile, will face his most challenging test yet. He did an outstanding job against Vikings pass rusher Jared Allen. Now the tackle that is rated number one in the league according to ProFootballFocus will have to again prove he is indeed the best offensive lineman in the NFL. Otherwise it could be a long day for Henne and this Dolphins offense.
Chad Henne vs Troy Polamalu
In my very unprofessional opinion, Henne has shown very good progress this season. But if there's one thing that we can all agree has been an issue at times, it's that Henne has a tendency to lock onto his receiver before making his throw.
We've seen that mistake from Henne come back to bite him in the butt a couple of times this year. On Sunday, Henne needs to be very careful. You don't face a safety like Troy Polamalu very often. He's as talented as they come and can make it a long afternoon for young quarterbacks. Troy already has two interceptions this year in just five games and is known as one of the best ballhawks in the league. If Henne locks onto a receiver and is late getting the ball out, Polamalu is going to have a chance to make a play.
Here's an interesting and probably meaningless stat. On passes that travel between 11 and 20 yards through the air, Henne is completing over 64% of his attempts and is yet to get intercepted. That's also the area of the field that Polamalu patrols. Something will have to give this weekend. Can Henne do a better job of looking off defenders? Or will Polamalu haunt Chad?
Brandon Marshall vs Ike Taylor
With Pittsburgh having the most dominant defense against the run in the NFL this year (allowing only 63 yards per game and 2.7 yards per carry), the Dolphins are going to have to move the football through the air to score points. The Steelers are only ranked 24th in the league against the pass.
Needless to say, that means we should expect a game where Brandon Marshall is targeted 10+ times on Sunday. He's the "alpha receiver" and he'll likely be the focal point of this Miami passing attack - as he should be. Ike Taylor, though, is a very talented corner and has the size (6'2) to go up and battle Marshall for the football. I'd imagine the Steelers will double-team Brandon on obvious passing downs. But I also think we might see a fair amount of single coverage on early downs - particularly if the Dolphins come out and make a strong attempt at running the football. Most teams still look to take the running game away from Miami, preferring instead to force Chad Henne to beat them through the air.
I expect the same thing out of this Pittsburgh defense this weekend. And if Taylor is able to limit Marshall's impact on the game without an extra defender, Miami's offense is going to struggle. They have got to get Brandon involved early and often - much like they did a week ago against Green Bay.