No Longer a Scenario: Dolphins @ Steelers

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Matt Freed, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

I began the opponent preview last week, when I was pretty sure the Dolphins were going to be visiting the Steelers. You can read Part 1 here. It deals primarily with the Dolphins’ offense vs. the Steelers defense. Today I will cover the Miami defense.

Back in Week 6 the Dolphins kept what should have been at least a good offensive showing from the Steelers in check. The Steelers’ D may have given up 30 points, and obviously this is not optimal, but the stated goal of the Steelers’ offense before the season began was 30 points per game, and had they managed that (something they did regrettably infrequently all season) they would have at least forced overtime.

Here are the stats for the Steelers offense that week:

  • Ben Roethlisberger: 189 yards, 1 TD, 2 INT
  • Le’Veon Bell: 10 carries, 53 yards, and 6 receptions for 55 yards
  • DeAngelo Williams: 3 carries, 10 yards (the longest run that day was a 60-yard end-around by Darrius Heyward-Bey for a TD)
  • Antonio Brown: 4 receptions, 39 yards

Suffice it to say that the stars were dimmed that day. Part of that could have been the scheme, of course. As Ivan Cole wrote after the game:

It’s Le’Veon stupid! People who know me will hear an ongoing joke concerning the egos of offensive coordinators. Remember two Super Bowls ago when the geniuses that run the Seattle Seahawk offense had the ball inside New England’s two-yard line and an unstoppable force in Marshawn Lynch. But, of course, giving the ball to Lynch is what they would be expecting us to do, so let’s trick ‘em!

I talk often with Jimmie Jones, a defensive end who played for Washington under George Allen. As former defensive linemen (he at a much higher level) we agree on one thing. The most devastating, demoralizing thing you can do to a defense is not the quick strike bombs or reverses, as spectacular as they can be. It’s those simple things that you may know are coming but you simply cannot stop.

Vince Lombardi’s Packers didn’t trick anyone. They ran one play that no one could stop. And it broke opponents backs psychologically. Just review, if you can, their championship matchups against the Dallas Cowboys, a team that was all about being clever, and see what happened.

The Dolphins’ defense hasn’t been winning any awards this season. But it wasn’t because there aren’t some very good players in it. And they played like it that day. They sacked Roethlisberger twice, well over the weekly average for the 2016 Steelers offensive line. While Bell ran for 5.3 yards per carry, for whatever reason the Steelers stopped running, leading to Ivan’s quoted diatribe.

In the above-linked article dealing with the Dophins’ offense I was able to find Pro Football Focus’ ranking of all 32 offensive lines after Week 5. The next week they tackled (excuse the pun) the defensive lines. Unfortunately they only ranked their top 10 defensive lines, and it will surprise no one to hear that neither the Steelers nor the Dolphins were in their top ten. So unfortunately we can’t really look at where the Fins were ranking then, but naturally we can look at how they are viewed now.

Football Outsiders now has them at Nos. 14 (for the Steelers) and 18 (for the Dolphins) in run blocking. The news isn’t so good for either team in pass protection—the Steelers are No. 19, the Dolphins No. 31. The overall defensive numbers (that they call Team Defense) are somewhat better for the Steelers—No. 11—and somewhat worse for the Dolphins—No. 19 for the Fins.

What was so troubling about the Week 6 game was not so much that the Steelers were not great on defense—nobody expected a tremendous game out of the still-gelling defense—but how poorly the offense performed against a hitherto unthreatening defense. It’s funny in retrospect to think how that game appeared to be the fulcrum where the two teams traded places. The 4-1 Steelers would go on to lose their next four games. The 1-4 Dolphins would go on to win eight of their remaining 10 games. As we know, the Steelers lost the next three, leaving many (a great many, actually) to write them off altogether.

The thing was, though, the Dolphins’ schedule ultimately turned out to be rather easier than it perhaps looked at the beginning of the season. They beat the Bills (twice) and the Cardinals by three, the Jets and the Rams by four, the Chargers and 49ers by a touchdown, and their only “blowout” win other than the PIT game was a Week 15 drubbing of the Jets (34-13.) Conversely, they lost big to the Patriots and the Ravens.

Once Miami started winning, they allowed no more than 25 points in a game until quite near the end of the season. However, they were awfully close to it much of the time. In fact, their only wins after playing the Steelers in which the opponent did not score at least 23 points were the Rams and the Jets. And in their losses they gave up 38 to the Ravens and 35 to the Patriots.

Once the Steelers started winning, they gave up an average of just over 17 points per game. The most points they gave up to any team was 27, to the Ravens on Christmas Day.

So let’s take a quick look at the best of the Miami defenders, according to The Palm Beach Post. In a November 29 article Ryan DiPintema ranked all of the Dolphins’ defensive players. Here’s what he came up with for his top ten, and how Pro Football Focus view them.

No. 1 is Ndamukung Suh. He also has the reputation as the dirtiest player in the league. This would be the same league that contains Vontaze Burfict, so that is saying something. As far as Pro Football Focus is concerned, he is the No. 3 interior defender in the league. However, Kiki Alonso, DiPintema’s No. 2 choice, is only the 50th-ranked LB according to PFF. DB Reshad Jones (ironically, a cousin to Adam “Pacman” Jones) was DiPintema’s choice for No. 3, despite being on IR since Week 6. DB Isa Abdul-Quddus is his No. 4, taking over for Jones. He hasn’t really filled the shoes according to PFF, as Jones was their No. 6 and Abdul-Quddus is No. 34. And now he is on IR as well.

Cameron Wake and Byron Maxwell are DiPintema’s Nos. 5 and 6. Maxwell is PFF’s No. 11 CB, but he hasn’t practiced as of Thursday, so he might not play. Cameron Wake has ended up as PFF’s No. 7 among Exterior Defenders. But DiPintema’s No. 7, DE Andre Branch, is No. 65, and his No. 8, CB Tony Lippert, is PFF’s No. 55.

Nos. 9 and 10 are CB Xavien Howard and DE Jason Jones. PFF ranks Howard at No. 104 and Jones at 101.

As we all know, none of this is predictive. As so many others have stated in one way or another, Sunday’s game will likely come down to whether the Steelers’ stars play like stars, and whether their depth players continue to step up when their number is called.

It always makes me nervous when the Steelers are favored by a lot, as they are on Sunday. Somehow it seems like something always goes wrong in those games. Fortunately, Football Baby has picked the Steelers, so I feel a bit more comfortable…

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