The Pittsburgh Steelers defeated the Miami Dolphins 30-12 in the Wild Card round of the AFC Playoffs, winning the season series in the aggregate after suffering a 30-15 road loss to the Dolphins in Week 6. Apparently, things have changed a bit since then.
The success of each team’s respective backfields, for example, was a complete reversal from their first bout. In Week 6, Dolphins RB Jay Ajayi rushed for 204 yards and two touchdowns, while Steelers RB Le’Veon Bell was held to just 53 yards on 10 rushes. On Sunday, Bell rushed for a record 167 yards and two touchdowns. Ajayi, meanwhile, rushed for 33 yards on 16 carries.
The Steelers will now travel to Kansas City for a rematch against the Chiefs, who Pittsburgh defeated 43-14 earlier this season. Here’s how things look heading into that game:
Stock up, the front seven
Well, I messed up. Last week, I wrote an article in which I highlighted the issues caused by Ajayi. I cited Pittsburgh’s recent inability to stop the run (they allowed more than 350 yards to the Ravens and Browns in Weeks 16 and 17 combined), as well as Ajayi’s sustained production throughout the season. Despite many people pointing out that half of Ajayi’s yards came in three games, he still averaged over 4.0 yards-per-carry in all but two of Miami’s final 12 games.
Not only did Pittsburgh hold Ajayi to a season-low 2.1 yards per carry, but they also generated five sacks, including two lost fumbles by Matt Moore. Ryan Shazier looks like a legitimate franchise player, while Bud Dupree could be among the best pass rushers in the NFL next season (or, ideally, for the remainder of this postseason). The lack of depth along the defensive line didn’t show, either.
Stock up, offensive line
This kind of goes without saying, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t call attention to this unit specifically. Ben Roethlisberger took just a single sack and Bell averaged 5.8 yards-per-carry, which is a strong testament to the line’s success. Alejandro Villanueva is earning himself more money with each passing week and David DeCastro frequently manhandled Ndamukong Suh.
Stock up, Jesse James
Roethlisberger completed his first 11 passes of the game, thanks entirely to Jesse James. On Roethlisberger’s 11th attempt, he tossed a duckish pass in James’ direction, apparently neglecting to see a defender hiding in the tackle box. Fortunately, James snagged the deflected pass before another Dolphin could secure the interception maintaining possession despite Kiko Alonso literally punching the ball. The six-yard catch was James’ only one of the game.
Aside from that catch, James threw key blocks on a screen pass that turned into a 50-yard Antonio Brown touchdown and on an eight-yard Bell touchdown run. Interestingly, James’ blocking ability was viewed as one of his biggest weaknesses heading into the 2015 NFL Draft. But with the exception of Raiders TE Clive Walford, James might be the best tight end to come from that draft.
Stock up, the secondary
Overall, the secondary did an awesome job. But I write these columns to nitpick, so yeah, here we go. Moore completed 80 percent of his passes and threw for 289 yards. Of his seven total incompletions, three were outright dropped by his receivers. To make it to the Super Bowl, the Steelers are going to have to defeat Alex Smith and (probably) Tom Brady, each of whom are clearly more talented than Moore.
But Pittsburgh’s defensive game plan was clearly designed to stop Ajayi and defend against deep passes, which explains why they gave up so many short and intermediate completions. Because they successfully accomplished that goal, it’s pretty hard to complain about the results.
Some other things worth mentioning:
- The significance of James Harrison’s strip-sack of Moore at the end of the first half cannot be overstated. As Pittsburgh demonstrated several weeks ago against Cincinnati, no halftime lead is safe, especially when a team goes two-for-one on scoring drives to bookend the first and second half.
- Several hours before kickoff, Las Vegas Westgate pushed Pittsburgh from -10 to -12.5 favorites over Miami. I don’t care if the 1985 Chicago Bears are playing the varsity team from my old high school, taking -12.5 odds in the postseason, to me, is risky. I’m willing to bet that Lawrence Timmons’ back-to-back sacks on Miami’s final drive cost a lot of people a lot of money.
- The Pittsburgh Steelers are a good team with Bell, Brown and Roethlisberger in the lineup at the same time.
- Mike Tomlin is an awesome football coach, but leaving any of the aforementioned trio on the field in the fourth quarter of a blowout isn’t a good look. Tomlin will earn criticism for this decision, especially since Roethlisberger seems to have tweaked his ankle.
Stock up, everything else
Roethlisberger completed 18 passes for 197 yards and two interceptions, and Pittsburgh still won handily. Bell was fantastic per usual and Pittsburgh’s defense has really transformed itself into a formidable unit during the course of the season. You have to like Pittsburgh’s chances against any team, even Kansas City and New England, the two most complete teams in the NFL.