The Miami Dolphins will kickoff their first postseason game since 2008 later today when they start their game against the Pittsburgh Steelers. The two teams met in Week 6 of the regular season, with Miami coming away with a 30-15 home win. Now, 12-weeks later, the two teams will again meet, this time with a chance to move to the Divisional round of the NFL Playoffs on the line.
To get to know the Steelers and how they have evolved over the course of the season, I spoke with Jeff Hartman from Behind the Steel Curtain. A big than you to him for taking the time to help us out with this preview of the game.
Kevin Nogle (KN): Le'Veon Bell was suspended for the first three games of the 2016 season, then, after an explosive debut in Week 4, he seemed to struggle for several weeks. From Weeks 5 through 10, his highest rushing total was 81 yards,and his highest yards per carry was 5.3 yards against the Dolphins, but he only picked up 53 total yards in that game. Otherwise, he was around 3 yards per carry during that span. What changed starting in Week 11 at the Cleveland Browns, where Bell suddenly jumped to 139 yards per game and was never below 4 yards per carry?
Jeff Hartman (JH): The answer is simple. The Steelers became committed to running the football. No longer were there cute plays and an over reliance on the passing game, they were simply playing smashmouth football. The offensive line started teeing off on opponents, and it paid off in a big way. The Steelers realized they might just be a running team after all.
KN: The Dolphins injured Ben Roethlisberger during their Week 6 meeting, but Big Ben is among the regular starting quarterbacks to have been sacked the fewest times this year, in part due to Roethlisberger's size and in part because the offensive line has done a good job in protecting him. Is there a weakness on the line Miami can exploit during this game?
JH: When it comes to pass protection, the Steelers are solid. There is a reason Roethlisberger was the second lowest sacked QB in the lead, and a lot of it has to do with the hogs up front. However, if there was going to be a weakness, it would be the team's left tackle Alejandro Villanueva. Villanueva has had his issues with speed rushers in the past, but the past month he hasn't been talked about, and that is a good thing when your starting left tackle isn't even being talked about.
KN: The Pittsburgh defense is a little confusing this year. There are some games where they seem to come together and barely allow an opponent to reach 200 yards of total offense, then there are games where teams are close to 450 yards against them, plus the Dolphins' 474 yard day. There have been games where teams cannot reach 50 yards rushing, and there were two games with the opponents rushing for over 200 yards, and four more over 120 yards. They are 12th overall in defense this season, but they are 16th against the pass and 13th against the run, and 10th in points allowed. Can you break down what has worked for the Steelers and what has worked for their opponents?
JH: This Steelers defense truly is a bend, but don't break, unit. They are going to give up drives, yards and sometimes time of possession, but the defense stiffens when it matters most. They are tremendous at holding opponents to field goals, and relying on the Steelers offense to give them a lead to work with. The issues with the Steelers defense have been when the team doesn't have a lead, and they struggle tackling. Pittsburgh's tackling has been suspect the entire season, and when they tackle well they are dominant. When they struggle to tackle the ball carrier, teams usually run all over them (see Jay Ajayi in Week 6).
KN: It took to question four to get to Antonio Brown, which is ridiculous, but it kind of feels like that is part of the Steelers' blueprint, where coaches want you to focus on Bell and Roethlisberger, then they kill you with Brown. Miami actually had success against Brown in Week 6 - again, part of that could be Roethlisberger's injury - holding him to just four receptions for 39 yards. Last year, with Miami defensive coordinator Vance Joseph working as the Cincinnati Bengals' defensive backs coach, Brown had seven receptions for 87 yards in December and six receptions for 47 yards and a touchdown in November. It does seem like something Joseph does manages to at least limit Brown to some degree. What have you seen that works against Brown - if anything?
JH: The Ravens, along with the Bengals, are great at minimizing Brown's impact on the game, but the Christmas Day game against the Ravens is a perfect illustration of Brown's struggles, and successes. With everyone healthy, that is key in this equation, Brown can be slowed down with double coverage schemes. Bracket a safety on his side, protect the underneath and force a very small window for Roethlisberger to hit Brown. Look, you are never going to completely shut down Brown, but you hope to minimize the damage. It was in the second half though, where the Steelers started to find success running the football. This didn't allow them to send an extra defender to Brown's side on every play, and boy did he make them pay. The second half was where you saw Brown and Bell dominate the game. All of these parts work together in stopping Brown, but it starts with keeping Bell in check. This allows a defense to play more conservative, and throw two, sometimes three, defenders to Brown's side.
KN: Nationally, there is not a lot of respect for the Dolphins in the Playoffs this year, with ESPN and FS1 both having released playoff graphics this week with the Dolphins either an afterthought thrown onto the image or completely left off of it altogether. That said, this is not likely an easy game for Miami and I do not think Dolphins fans are confident they are going to be able to pull off a win over the Steelers for a second time this year. What are Steelers' fans view of this game? Is this seen as a bye week, easy game as the national media seems to view it, or is there concern Miami can actually pull off the biggest upset of the weekend (according to Las Vegas odds)?
JH: To be honest, most fans like the Steelers' chances, but Pittsburgh has struggled against teams viewed as "sub par" at times. I like to call it a guarded confidence. One of the biggest factors in this game is the venue. No, not Heinz Field itself, but playing in Pittsburgh. I don't buy into the weather being a factor theory, but the Steelers are markedly better at home, than on the road. I won't discredit the Dolphins, but if the Steelers can stop the run (not an easy task), I like their chances to advance to the Divisional round of the AFC Playoffs.