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Pittsburgh Steelers versus Miami Dolphins: A complete history of the rivalry

In the NFL’s 100th season, a look at the Steelers and Dolphins, now and through history.

NFL: JAN 08 AFC Wild Card - Dolphins at Steelers Photo by Shelley Lipton/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

With all the NFL 100th season lists, I’ve been thinking about the histories of various Pittsburgh Steelers rivalries. So every week for the rest of the year, I’ll post a retrospective preview, considering the two teams and setting up for the upcoming game.

This week: The Miami Dolphins

2019 Comparison

Current Records:
Steelers - 2-4 (2nd AFC North)
Dolphins - 0-6 (4th AFC East)

2019 Off/Def Matchup:

Length of Career for Starting QBs:
Steelers (Mason Rudolph) 3rd start
Dolphins (Ryan Fitzpatrick) 129th start

Head Coaches’ Career Records:
Steelers (Mike Tomlin) 134 - 77 - 1 (.635) – including 8 - 7 in postseason
Dolphins (Brian Flores) 0 - 6 - 0 (.000)

Player in Common (current):
Minkah Fitzpatrick (Miami 2018-19, 1st Rd, 10 overall / traded to Pittsburgh in week 2, 2019, for 2020 1st round draft pick)

Note: The Steelers’ Defense has improved dramatically since Fitzpatrick was brought on board, as BTSC contributor DaveinNE illustrated: the first two weeks, quarterbacks performed considerably better against the Steelers than they have against everyone else; whereas the last four opposing QBs have performed considerably worse against the Steelers than others. Still, Fitzpatrick is controversial because of his price tag: a future 1st round pick.

Player in Common (past):
Mike Wallace (Pittsburgh 2009-12, 3rd Rd / signed as free agent with Miami 2013)

After averaging 17.2 yards per catch over four years in Pittsburgh and starting a Pro Bowl, Wallace was convinced he deserved “Larry Fitzgerald money.” When he spurned a more reasonable offer from the Steelers, Miami opened their (deep) pockets and Wallace walked. In his first Dolphins training camp, he famously declared (with a straight face) that Ryan Tannehill had a better deep ball than Ben Roethlisberger. Despite this, somehow, Wallace never averaged more than 12.9 yards per catch in Miami. He played for three other teams and is currently unemployed.

(Epilogue: in 2013, after Wallace left, the Steelers made a long term commitment to one Antonio Brown, who was quite happy to make “Mike Wallace money” (at least back then). Brown went on to have the best six year receiving stretch in NFL history, before losing his mind this offseason. He is now also unemployed.)


Miami Dolphins v Pittsburgh Steelers Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images

All-Time Records:
Steelers : 664-583-22 (.532)
Dolphins : 468-370- 4 (.557)

Steelers have the 4th most wins in NFL history; 11th best all time winning percentage.
Dolphins have the 19th most wins, but are 5th in winning percentage.

Since Merger:
Steelers : 502-315-3 (.614)
Dolphins : 456-342-2 (.571)

These are the two winningest teams in the NFL since the 1970 AFL/NFL merger.

This Century:
Steelers : 212-115-2 (.648)
Dolphins : 145-164-0 (.469)

The Steelers are the #2 team in the NFL this millennium, behind the New England Patriots. Miami sits at #19.

Most Iconic Coach:
Steelers : Chuck Noll, the only coach to go 4-0 in Super Bowls
Dolphins : Don Shula, the NFL’s all-time winningest coach

Note: Noll was Shula’s defensive coordinator with the Baltimore Colts, where the two coaching giants engineered the 1968 NFL Championship over the Cleveland Browns 34-0, then suffered the much more famous Super Bowl III loss to Joe Namath’s New York Jets.

Most Iconic Player:
Steelers : Joe Greene, DT (1968-81), perhaps he best interior defensive lineman in NFL History.
Dolphins : Dan Marino, QB (1983-98), perhaps the best pure passer in NFL history.

Best Season/Team:

Pittsburgh: 1978
The team finished 17-2 and won its record breaking third Super Bowl, defeating the defending champion Dallas Cowboys in SB XIII. (This was possibly the best collection of talent ever assembled on a single, non-all-star football field, with a whopping 20 Hall of Famers on the field, the sidelines, and the owners boxes, collectively).

Miami: 1972
The team finished 17-0 and became the only team in the modern era to complete a perfect season, beating Washington in SB VII.


Wild Card Round - Miami Dolphins v Pittsburgh Steelers Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

All-Time Series:
Pittsburgh: 14 – 13

Playoff Series:
Tie: 2 – 2

Current Streak:
Pittsburgh: 1 win (2016 playoffs)

Current Regular Season Streak:
Miami: 2 wins (2013-16)

Longest Streak:
Pittsburgh – 5 games (2004-10)
Miami – 5 games (1981-87) *counting 1984 playoffs

First game:

November 14, 1971
Pittsburgh – 21
Miami – 24

The Dolphins came into this game at 6-1-1. In Don Shula’s second year coaching there, Miami was entering a heyday in 1971, and would appear in their first of three straight Super Bowls that season (Super Bowl VI, which they would lose to the Dallas Cowboys 24-3). The Steelers were still finding their footing, having improved from 1-13 in 1969 to 5-9 in 1970. They entered this game 4-4 and would finish 6-8, before turning the corner the following season (after drafting Franco Harris). In this contest, Pittsburgh went up 21-3 in the first half on three Terry Bradshaw touchdown passes, then watched as the Dolphins chipped away with three Paul Warfield touchdown catches (the latter two going for 86 and 60 yards). This game is largely unremarkable historically, but I suspect anyone watching could tell that the Dolphins were turning into a powerhouse team, and that the Steelers (still missing many important cogs) were nonetheless on the cusp of something very interesting too.

Most Recent game:

January 8, 2017 (AFC Wildcard Playoff)
Pittsburgh – 30
Miami – 12

Avenging a regular season upset from mid-October, in which Dolphins tailback Jay Ajayi rushed for 204 yards, the Steelers blast the Miami with two first-quarter track-meet touchdown passes from Ben Roethlisberger to Antonio Brown. James Harrison and Bud Dupree terrorize Miami QB Matt Moore, Le’Veon Bell rushes for a team postseason record 167 yards, and the defense holds Ajayi to 33 on the day, as the Steelers advance to the Divisional Playoffs. This game might also be remembered as the first of only two playoff games in which all three Killer Bs were healthy (the other being the following week against Kansas City. The three started the AFC Title game that year, in Foxboro, but Bell was injured in the first quarter).

Biggest Game in the Series:

December 31, 1972 (AFC Championship Game)
Pittsburgh – 17
Miami – 21

Only the second game all time between the two, this contest is overshadowed by the immortal moments that occurred just before and just after. The previous week’s Divisional Playoffs saw the Steelers defeat the Oakland Raiders on the Immaculate Reception; the following game would be Super Bowl VII, in which the 17-0 Dolphins met their NFL destiny. Both teams were iconic and much mythologized, and while this game is rarely discussed, it was hugely consequential for NFL history (imagine if it had gone the other way). Steelers tackle Gerry Mullins recovered a Terry Bradshaw fumble for the game’s first touchdown, then Dolphins punter Larry Seiple ran a fake punt 37 yards to set up Miami’s first score. At halftime, tied 7-7, Don Shula replaced Earl Morrall (history’s greatest backup quarterback, who’d gone 11-0 in relief) with former starter Bob Griese. Despite Griese only throwing five passes in the whole second half(!), this seems to have made the difference, and the Dolphins pulled away for the win.

I hate to call a loss the “biggest game in the series” but this probably was.

Other Memorable Games:

January 6, 1985 (AFC Championship Game)
Pittsburgh - 28
Miami - 45

Most people probably remember this as the day the Steelers had to eat crow for not drafting local legend, Dan Marino, who shredded them for 421 yards and four touchdowns on the way to his only Super Bowl appearance. There’s some truth to that, but I think there’s another angle: the 9-7 Steelers were classic overachievers, who seemingly had no business playing in this game (as well as no answer for Marino’s record-breaking 14-2 Dolphins). Marino’s aerial show went flat in Super Bowl XIX, as they lost 38-16 to the burgeoning San Francisco 49ers dynasty. That Niners team won a record 18 games that year, finishing the regular season as the first ever 15-1 team. Their one loss? To the Pittsburgh Steelers. In week 7, Mark Malone had led a fourth quarter comeback with a late touchdown pass to John Stallworth, and the defense intercepted Joe Montana on his would-be game winning drive, setting up Gary Anderson for the upset.

Could the Steelers have done it twice? Why not? You might say there’s no way Bill Walsh would let his team lose twice to the ragtag Steelers, but if ever a coach knew how to prepare a team to win a Super Bowl, it has to be Chuck Noll. When we think of NFL David/Goliath stories, we’re usually thinking of Namath’s Jets or the 2007 Giants, but this could have been one for the ages too. One of the great What-Ifs, thwarted in Miami one game too soon.

September 26, 2004
Pittsburgh – 13
Miami – 3

This was not an exciting or meaningful game in any respect, except that it was the first NFL start for a 21 year old rookie named Ben Roethlisberger. It was a tight, defensive match in heavy Miami rain. The score was 6-3 in the fourth quarter, when Big Ben drove the Steelers down the field, throwing a pylon-fade that led Hines Ward into the end zone’s lower right corner for the insurmountable 10-point advantage. I remember Roethlisberger’s teammates glowing a little afterward. I think that drive/throw made some skeptics (ahem, Alan Faneca) start to believe. It was the first of his record-breaking 13 straight victories, and told a story of late-game heroics that we’ve come to expect.

November 26, 2007
Pittsburgh – 3
Miami – 0

Not all games are memorable for heroics. This was the week where heavy rains and overuse turned Heinz Field into soup. Jeff Reed knocked home a last second field goal for the game’s only points, but the enduring memory has to be the third quarter Dolphins punt that landed on the sludge and didn’t even bounce.

October 24, 2010
Pittsburgh – 23
Miami – 22

On the march to a second AFC Title in three years, the Steelers escaped from this one with a controversial finish. Late in the fourth quarter, Ben Roethlisberger fumbled on the goal line, but replay was unable to determine who had recovered in the scrum. Possession was awarded back to the offense (a kind of “do-over” is seems), and Jeff Reed kicked an 18 yard field goal for the go-ahead points with 2:26 to play. Badly needing a win, the Dolphins faithful understandably hit the roof. But it didn’t matter: possession truly couldn’t be determined, the Steelers took home a one-point victory, then ultimately secured the AFC’s second seed and returned to the Super Bowl.

December 8, 2013
Pittsburgh – 28
Miami – 34

Another insane finish. The Steelers had begun the year 0-4, and clawed their way back to 5-7 and the edge of contention. Trailing 34-28 with no timeouts in the final seconds, Pittsburgh had a 4th and 4 at their own 26. So they dialed up a Stanford Band-style hook-and-ladder. Ben hit Emmanuel Sanders up the right sideline, who pitched to Le’Veon Bell, who pitched to Jerricho Cotchery, who pitched to Marcus Gilbert(!), who pitched back to Roethlisberger, who pitched to Antonio Brown up the left sideline. Brown, miraculously, found the corner, and outran the Dolphin defense for a 74 yard touchdown, with the game-winning extra point to come. Then, agonizingly (soul-crushingly) replays showed that Brown had stepped on the white paint of the sideline at the 12 yard line—untouched even. He was called out of bounds, the Dolphins took the victory, and the Steelers fell to 6-8. They’d close with two more wins and suffer playoff elimination in the final seconds of the season’s final game.

If Brown had stayed in bounds, this miracle comeback would have been one of the most improbable in team history—propelling the Steelers to the playoffs on a 7-1 run, with the confidence to play with anybody. Another great What If thwarted by the Dolphins…