Playoff Scenario No. 1: Dolphins @ Steelers

img_0589Since the Steelers have already played most of the teams they could conceivably play in the postseason, I thought it would be interesting to look at the 2016 game against that team and see how the team is doing now. After all, the Steelers aren’t the only team in the league to have improved markedly. 

It seems the most likely opponent, given the current predictions, is the Dolphins. The Steelers lost 15-30 to them earlier in the season, and at the time this was considered a huge embarrassment. But the Dolphins of today are a rather better team than they putatively were at that moment. So let’s revisit that game and see what’s changed.

Back in Week 6 the Dolphins were 1-4. The Steelers were 4-1 and on a roll, supposedly. They were heavily favored. They should have won big, and easily, or so we all thought, as the Fins appeared to be completely dysfunctional. As I wrote in the opponent preview at the time:

…things aren’t going very well for the Dolphins. You know there’s a problem when one of the first news stories t0 catch your eye when you are looking for information on the team is “Adam Gase says he doesn’t want to know how Laremy Tunsil injured himself in the shower.” Adam Gase may not want to know but I’m guessing most of the rest of the world is interested.

But even more interesting, at least to Steeler fans, is the fact that the Dolphins managed six first downs last week. In the entire game. [They were playing the Titans.] The Jets had 16 last Sunday, [against the Steelers] in case you are wondering, although 14 of those came in the first half of the game.

So what’s wrong with the Dolphins? It can’t be a lack of helpful advice, as the team website lists the following “Partners” after their President and numerous Vice Presidents:

Marc Anthony
Fergie
Venus Williams
Serena Williams
Dan Marino is also an “advisor.” It would be interesting to hear what sort of advice he gives.

But despite this plethora of football expertise from which to draw, the Dolphins are currently 1-4, their sole win coming in Week 3 against the Browns. It’s not for a lack of good players.

I went on to mention some of the “good players.” Let’s have a look at some of them and how they have progressed. Today I’m going to focus on the Dolphins’ offense.

Their running backs were Arian Foster and Jay Ajayi, who was their main rusher, with 117 yards—for the season. He almost doubled his five-game output in the game against the Steelers, rushing for over 200 yards and two touchdowns

This didn’t sit well with Steeler Nation, naturally. Or me. As I wrote after the game:

How is it that the team with the 31st-ranked running attack could run practically at will against the Steelers? Did the Steelers’ D just run out of healthy bodies? As far as I could tell, they weren’t any worse off, personnel-wise, than they were the past couple of weeks.

Whatever the case, the “Gumband Defense” which bends but doesn’t break suddenly became the “Gumband that you find in the back of the drawer that’s been there for 20 years and cracks when you pick it up” defense. Like the offense, there were a few good individual plays, but generally speaking the Miami offense was moving down the field way too easily and scoring way too often.

Their team offense ranking according to Football Outsiders was No. 30. As in the only two teams worse than the Dolphins were the Rams and the Texans. Things have changed a good bit for Miami in the meantime (and for the Texans for that matter.) They are now No. 14 in the league.

Jay Ajayi had a couple of good games after the Steelers game but fell off, but he’s back on, and is currently ranked as the 9th best back in the league by Football Outsiders and the No. 2 back by Pro Football Focus, in front of Ezekiel Elliot and just behind Le’Veon Bell. So perhaps the Steelers’ D being reamed out by him wasn’t quite as embarrassing as it seemed at the time. Despite the slow start he now has over 1200 yards, with a 5.0 ypc average.

Ryan Tannehill also started the season rather poorly, throwing more interceptions (7) than touchdowns (6) in the first five games. Since then, if you eliminate the Baltimore game, he has only thrown two more interceptions, to 12 touchdowns. (He did throw three interceptions in their wretched 3-38 loss to the Ravens.)

But Tannehill may or may not be a factor in the rematch. He injured his ACL and MCL in mid-December. He’s out of a cast and the team is now calling his status “day-to-day,” so it’s rather difficult to know whether he is going to play or not. If not it will be his backup, Matt Moore. Looking at Moore’s stats in the past three games it isn’t at all clear Tannehill would be an upgrade. Moore has won all three games, throwing six TDs to 2 interceptions. His average passer rating in those games has been 113.4 and his QBR 83.6, so this isn’t just the team picking up the slack. Personally I would probably rather see a rusty, still gimpy Tannehill.

As for the receivers, here’s what I wrote earlier:

12 different guys have caught passes. By far the leader is Jarvis Landry with just over 400 yards receiving. DaVante Parker and Kenny Stills are also heavily involved in the passing game.

Let’s see how they have done the rest of the season:

Football Outsiders isn’t particularly enamoured with any of the three, but they all seem to be solid. Landry is their No. 32 WR, with Parker and Stills not too far behind. Pro Football Focus likes Landry a good bit more, and has him tied with Jordy Nelson at No. 9 in the league. Parker is No. 21, Stills No. 50. In concrete terms, Landry has just over 1000 receiving yards, with a 12.5 ypc average and 3 touchdowns. Parker has less yards (699) but more TDs (4). Stills has 685 yards and 8 TDs, with an 18.0 ypc average. Not too shabby. Needless to say, this WR corps is helping out their quarterback a good bit more than they were at the beginning of the season.

The Dolphins didn’t really have a particularly threatening tight end when the Steelers played them. Jordan Cameron had suffered a concussion in Week 3 in the Browns game, and it was his fourth in four years. He didn’t play again and was eventually IR’d. Their primary TE this season has been Dion Sims. At the time of the Week 6 game he had less than 100 yards total, with no touchdowns. He now has 256 yards and four touchdowns. So it’s clear their game still doesn’t depend on their TEs.

Back in October, their offensive line was in flux. Here’s what I wrote after the game, back in October:

Although I noted in my second-quarter preview that the Steelers should beat the Dolphins handily, I found myself getting more and more uncomfortable about this prediction as I read a bit more about the team.

First, Adam Gase cut two offensive linemen last week. According to local news reports, the message was received loud and clear by the remaining players. Second, the defensive coordination reportedly reamed out his defense for not performing better. Given the pedigree of the defensive line especially, their poor performance was puzzling.

These two things could have had the effect of creating yet more chaos. But I feared they might in fact prove fruitful, and indeed they did. The Dolphins were playing as if they had something to play for—like their jobs. The Steelers played like guys missing important pieces to their team—which they were.

After cutting the two offensive linemen and the return of Mike Pouncey at center, the Dolphins’ line improved. Pouncey is, however, out again, this time on IR. Football Outsiders now has the Miami line ranked at No. 21 in run blocking and 23 in pass protection. They have given up 30 sacks. (They gave up none to the Steelers in Week 6, alas.)

It isn’t possible to go back and look at where Football Outsiders had them ranked back then, but I did find a rather interesting article from Pro Football Focus, ranking all the offensive lines as of Week 5. The Titans were the No. 1 line. They are still No. 4 in run blocking and 11 in pass protection according to FO. The Steelers’ line was ranked No. 12 (they are FO’s No. 2 line this week), just below the Browns (!) and here’s what the explanation was:

12. Pittsburgh Steelers
Starters: LT Alejandro Villanueva, LG Ramon Foster, C Maurkice Pouncey, RG David DeCastro, RT Marcus Gilbert

Alejandro Villanueva has developed somewhat at LT, but remains a below-average starter at the position and has allowed 18 total pressures this season, fourth-most among OTs. The rest of the line has been solid, if unspectacular. RG David DeCastro has allowed three sacks and 12 total pressures, second-most among guards, but has been able to counter that with some good run blocking. Only Ramon Foster has not given up a sack yet among the Steelers’ starters.

Here’s what they had to say about Miami, who they ranked No. 23:

23. Miami Dolphins
Starters: LT Branden Albert, LG Laremy Tunsil, C Anthony Steen, RG Jermon Bushrod, RT Ja’Wuan James

Only C Anthony Steen has avoided giving up a sack so far among the starting five, and he may soon be sent to the bench with the return of Mike Pouncey. Rookie Laremy Tunsil has been average at best, allowing a sack, three hits, and seven hurries across his 160 pass-blocking snaps. Tunsil got a chance to play a game at left tackle with the injury to Branden Albert, but ironically, that was his worst performance of the season, struggling against the Cincinnati Bengals and giving up four of his 11 total pressures on the year.

Although there is no comparable line rankings later than Week 10 that I could find, I had a look at the players making up both lines. The lowest-ranked player on the Steelers line is still Villanueva, but his grade is over 80 (out of 100), which is remarkable as the grades are averages of their weekly grades and therefore contain his early-season low grades. On the other hand, for Miami only Laremy Tunsil and Ja’Wuan James have a grade over 70, and not much over at that. The center is now our old friend Kraig Urbik, and he is graded just over 50, which is actually better than the LT and RG. So I think it’s fair to say that Jay Ajayi’s running doesn’t owe a huge amount to his line.

To be continued

 

 

 

 

6 comments

  • Ajayi’s season has been bipolar. He had three 200+ games: the one against the Steelers and two of them against the Bills, who were a dumpster fire against the run, as witnessed by Bell’s franchise record 236 against them.

    In only one other game did Ajayi even go over 100, against the Jets. So, the Steelers game is a real outlier. We can’t be too confident after what he did to us last time, but if I had to bet, I would bet we hold him under 100 this time (assuming Tuitt is back.)

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  • And, I just remembered that both Shazier and Heyward were inactive for that game, which makes me more confident going into this one, if Shazier doesn’t get hurt against the Browns.

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  • I don’t see much of a slump for Ajayi when you look deeper at his performances. Undoubtedly, he caught us by surprise in week 6 with our first game without Heyward and a game plan to stop what had been primarily a passing team to that point. The element of surprise probably had something to do with his 300+ yards combined in weeks 7 and 8 as well. But his lower yardage totals in subsequent weeks wasn’t just a result of teams being ready for him or that he has worn down, he’s been facing some of the best run defenses in the league with as many as 3 of his OL injured. Five of the six opponents he faced during his “slump” had top 10 run defenses (2, 4, 5, T7, and T7). Still, he averaged over 4 yards per carry in 3 of those games, and would’ve probably had a big game against Baltimore (41 yards on 6 carries in the first quarter) but the Fins were forced to abandon the run when they fell behind 21-0 early in the 2nd quarter.

    I don’t see Ajayi as inconsistent or flukey at all; he’s the real deal. His down games are easily explained by OL issue against, for the most part, top run defenses. With Tunsil and Albert healthy again, the Steelers will definitely have their work cut out for them slowing him down. Ajayi’s own health may give them some help with that, though, as his shoulder injury isn’t going to get any better this week with a must win game against the Patriots.

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    • Ajayi is the real deal, but if 3 games over 200 and 10 games under 100 isn’t “inconsistent”, then the term doesn’t have much meaning.

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      • It depends on what else is going on, doesn’t it? When you fail to rack up 100 yards only because your team is down 21-0 after 20 minutes and stops handing you the ball it doesn’t mean you’re inconsistent. When you fail to rack up 100 yards while playing against a top 5 run defense with 3/5 of your OL injured that doesn’t mean you’re inconsistent. When you fail to rack up 100 yards because you’re not the starter yet and only have 5 carries, that doesn’t mean you’re inconsistent.

        If you want to call Ajayi’s season bipolar, ok. I’m just saying the reason for that is because the health of the Dolphins OL and the quality of their opponents is bipolar, not that Ajayi himself is inconsistent. It’s not that Ajayi sometimes doesn’t run as hard or you never know which Ajayi will show up. If the OL is healthy and the opponent doesn’t play well, Ajayi will get a lot of yards, probably not 200 but it’s possible. Those yards will be limited, though, by the health of his OL and the quality of his opponent just like every other back. Against the Steelers? I think your assessment is a good one that given the current state of the Dolphins team we have a solid chance of holding him under 100 if Tuitt is healthy.

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