The Pittsburgh Steelers host the Miami Dolphins this Sunday at Heinz Field. Ordinarily, I’d begin this preview by trying to come up with some compelling reasons to get fired up for the game. In this case, hype really isn’t necessary. For the Steelers’ razor thin playoff hopes to live another week, they quite simply must win on Sunday.
Miami is currently one of the two remaining 6-6 teams in the AFC. I know I’ve been saying all along that the AFC’s second Wild Card might be 8-8 and I still believe that. With four games remaining, can anybody confidently predict ANY of the AFC teams in the hunt will run the table? Regardless whether that second Wild Card is 8-8 or 9-7, the last playoff spot is almost certainly going to come down to tiebreakers. Which is why the Steelers must beat the Dolphins – if they lose they can possibly make up the game in the standings but they will never be able to make up the tiebreaker.
STEELERS DEFENSE vs DOLPHINS OFFENSE
Under ordinary circumstances, the big angle for this game will be the return of Mike Wallace. The former Steeler speedster signed a ridiculous $60 million contract with Miami over the off-season and has repaid them by being the team’s SECOND leading receiver behind Brian Hartline (and a mere three catches ahead of lumbering TE Charles Clay). Wallace is on pace to basically duplicate what he did his final season here in Pittsburgh, albeit with far fewer touchdowns (he has 3 this season, 8 last year) and fewer big plays (a 57 yard reception is his season high as opposed to TD catches of 82 and 95 yards his final two years here).
Unfortunately for Dolphins fans, they’re just know discovering Wallace’s lone skill – run real fast straight down the field – basically makes him a $60 million decoy.
Miami’s offense currently ranks in the bottom quarter of the league in points (24th), total yards (26th), and rushing (25th). Wallace has successfully drawn enough attention that they’ve managed a respectable passing attack (17th) under the direction of second year quarterback Ryan Tannehill. Tannehill has improved upon a rookie season which saw him start every game although he’s still battling the inconsistency that plagues young quarterbacks. While he’ll easily exceed his first year totals in yardage and TDs, he’s also already thrown the same number of INTs (13) as he did all of last year.
The Steelers defense has mostly played well the past few weeks although against Baltimore they had a terrible time getting off the field on third down. LaMarr Woodley has been full go in practice so his lumbering fat ass will likely return on Sunday. No word where he’ll play but if the Steelers don’t put him in place of rookie Jarvis Jones and leave Jason Worilds in Woodley’s former spot, they’re insane.
STEELERS OFFENSE vs DOLPHINS DEFENSE
With all the hubbub over the Tomlin Two Step, I neglected to mention a pretty big shake up along the Steelers offensive line. After not allowing a single sack in two consecutive games for the first time in forever, the Football Gods simply couldn’t allow this good fortune to continue so they struck down center Fernando Velasco with great vengeance and furious anger. Velasco, who has played nearly as well as alleged All Pro Maurkice Pouncey, is out for the season with a torn ACL. Journeyman Cody Wallace will make his first career start.
If that wasn’t enough, the left tackle situation is also a bit of a mess. You may recall the left tackles falling like Red Shirts in a Star Trek episode on that final drive in Baltimore. Kelvin Beachum, who has steadily grown into a capable blind side protector, hasn’t practiced all week. Mike Adams, who was a horror show as the starting LT at the beginning of the year, has hobbled back on to the field and is likely going to start. If he should go down, the Steelers will probably be stuck with asking Guy Whimper to try and keep Ben Roethlisberger from getting killed.
As if the timing could be any worse, the Steelers happen to be facing a Dolphins team very good at pressuring the quarterback. Their 37 team sacks tie them with a handful of teams for 5th in the league. Miami boasts one of the best young defensive lines in football, led by Pro Bowler Cameron Wake (6.5 sacks) who is bookended by rising star Olivier Vernon (10.5). The Dolphin D is currently 9th in points, surrendering just under 21 points per game, and an impressive 9th against the pass, owing to that pass rush and a ball hawking secondary that has 16 picks this year.
One positive bit of injury news for the Steelers is the status of running back Le’Veon Bell. Despite getting nearly decapitated diving for the end zone, he passed all his concussion tests – supposedly, this is the Steelers we’re talking about – and participated normally at practice. If he can start, it’ll be something of a minor miracle. It’ll also be a big help because while Miami is tough against the pass, they struggle with the run, surrendering a whopping 121 yards per game. I don’t know what kind of holes there’ll be for Bell or whoever totes the rock behind this patchwork line, though.
It would definitely be nice if Wallace’s return fired up his former Young Money brothers to put on a show of their own. Then again, Antonio Brown has already proven beyond doubt the Steelers picked the right guy to keep. Emmanuel Sanders, however, continues to be an underachieving ass-clown who’ll most likely be playing elsewhere next season. If he does manage to get open on Sunday, let’s hope he manages to catch the ball.
In fact, let’s hope everybody wearing Black and Gold play their absolute best. The margin for error is officially zero. Any more end zone drops or bonehead field goal attempts and it’s not just a game that will be lost. It’ll be the entire season.