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Breaking down how the Dolphins ran on the Steelers defense, and why it won’t happen again in the AFC Wild Card game

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The Steelers’ regular-season game against the Dolphins wasn’t pretty from any perspective, but it was especially bad in the run game. However, those issues aren’t just fixable, they’ve already been resolved.

NFL: OCT 16 Steelers at Dolphins Photo by JCS/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

They say familiarity breeds contempt. In the case of the Steelers hosting the Dolphins in the NFL wildcard playoffs, I’ll settle for familiarity breeding game film, thanks to the two teams having already met during the regular season.

And, as I’m fond of saying, the film doesn’t lie. After taking the opportunity to review the Week-6 film from the teams’ first meeting, I have to say that the film absolutely doesn’t lie, but it tells a story that just isn’t true anymore. And that’s a very good thing.

Few would review film of that contest and say the Steelers came out looking anything like a playoff contender. Not a single unit of the team played well for the entire game, and that translated to a 1-4 team beating up on a 4-1 team. It happens.

And the game film is pretty clear on how it happened:

1st Quarter, 11:26 Remaining, 1st & 10

There are two problems on this play — one minor and one major.

The first issue is safety Robert Golden’s apparent lack of awareness of the wide receiver on the offensive left, who effectively seals Golden out of the play before Golden has moved more than three yards. But that’s ultimately a result of the fullback coming through the line off of the left tackle’s outside shoulder. Golden can be forgiven in this case.

But we can’t give Artie Burns a similar pass on the play. Rookie mistake or not, he’s the reason this play is as effective as it is. The problem starts and ends with Burns pursuing the run inside. This tendency wasn’t uncommon early in the season with Burns. Actually, it wasn’t an uncommon issue with most of the team because there were some trust issues early on, likely due to the number of rookies seeing significant playing time. It wasn’t until James Harrison called the entire defense out several weeks later that the problem was revealed and fixed: do your job and trust your teammates to do theirs, and the plays will work. In this case, either Burns didn’t trust his teammates, or he gave them a good reason to continue not trusting him. Had he simply stayed outside and let the play unfold, he would have been in position to force one of three outcomes: he tackles running back Jay Ajayi, he forces Ajayi toward the sidelines for a minimal gain, or he redirects Ajayi back inside.

As I said before, no unit was immune and we can see this in the next play:

2nd Quarter, 2:47 Remaining, 1st & 10

This time, the fault lies with both the linebackers and the defensive line, with a bit of Mike Mitchell sprinkled in.

At the line of scrimmage, defensive end Ricardo Mathews misses a tackle that could have ended the play before it ever got started. He failed to stop No. 23 because he was being rag-dolled by the left tackle.

Behind him, Vince Williams inexplicably runs himself completely out of an opportunity to make the tackle, or at least slow Ajayi down. Instead of mirroring Ajayi, he sprints completely past the hole, past the pulling guard, and is stuck watching as Ajayi runs through a hole big enough for a Nissan Sentra to drive through.

Finally, behind that, Mitchell makes a move similar to that of Williams. He’s able to get a hand on Ajayi but, unfortunately, it isn’t enough and ends up being another missed tackle.

There were times, though, when it all came together. And the difference was the pre-snap alignment of a single player:

3rd Quarter, 15:00 Remaining, 1st & 10

Based on the alignment of everyone on this play, and the fact this it’s an outside zone run, the tight end would be tasked with blocking Jarvis Jones, the left guard would have Javon Hargrave and the right tackle would be on Stephon Tuitt. The left tackle, center and right guard all would either help to fully engage one of the defensive linemen, or would chip one of them before moving to take on someone at the second level of the defense. The goal is for the offensive lineman to get his body between the defender and the sideline to create a seam. That’s exactly where this play breaks down.

Golden’s presence, just off the right-hand side of the video screen, throws a wrench into those plans. There’s no receiver lined up on that side, which leaves Golden completely uncovered, right where the run is supposed to go. The tight end has no choice but to get outside and block him, which leaves the left tackle in a poor position to block Jones one-on-one for this type of run. That forces the left guard, who would normally have blocked Hargrave, as the only one who can get a hat on Williams, which keeps rippling down the line. Hargrave gets penetration, forcing the run back inside, where Tuitt has prime position and hasn’t allowed the blocker to get him locked up. Tuitt has his leading arm free, and he’s able to wrap up Ajayi.

Golden’s presence forced a last-minute blocking adjustment which was far from optimal for this defensive alignment, and the Steelers got a rare win that day in the running game.

The good news is that Burns’ technique has improved considerably, and the entire defense has refocused itself, so that each player simply does his job. That’s why this was the number two defense in the league for the first five games of their current, seven-game winning streak. Tackling has improved and let’s not downplay the fact that this was the team’s first game without Cam Heyward. They were still figuring out how to move forward.

The good news is, they did.

Good news for the Steelers, at least.