It’s officially crunch time. Win or go home. The Steelers host the Miami Dolphins today in the Wild Card Round of the NFL playoffs. These teams met once previously this season and the result wasn’t good for the Black-and-Gold. Let’s take a look at a few scenarios that could change that result this time around, or perhaps lead to the Steelers making an early exit to the post-season.
Why the Steelers will win:
- On offense, the Steelers’ recipe for success centers around the play of the offensive line. First and foremost, they must get the running game going. Le’Veon Bell makes the first post-season appearance of his career. The moment Steelers’ fans have been hoping for is here and we want to see this young man’s abilities showcased on the biggest stage so far in the 2016-2017 season. According to teamrankings.com, the Dolphins are near the bottom of the league in every statistic of run defense. In the Week-6 matchup, though, all units of this Miami team played inspired football. The Steelers got into a hole and abandoned the run early, putting the game on the shoulders of a hobbled Ben Roethlisberger. This time around, playing at home, I expect the Steelers to have their own motivation in not allowing the mistakes of the past to haunt them. Pittsburgh boasts one of the best offensive lines in the NFL and they should be fired up to get the ground game going early. Bell is chomping at the bit to show what he’s capable of in the post-season, and I expect Bell to have a very good game running behind the big men up front.
- The Dolphins’ pass defense ranks near the middle of the pack this season. Ben Roethlisberger, at home, can beat most defenses. If the offensive line can protect Ben from the likes of Cameron Wake and Ndamukong Suh, Ben will find plenty of open receivers against a depleted Miami secondary. Byron Maxwell is officially doubtful, which means there’s a good chance there will be an extra defensive back not named Maxwell trying to contain Antonio Brown. Even with two defenders on him, Brown should find some success, but this also means that Eli Rogers, Jesse James and company should get some open looks from Ben. If they can capitalize, the Steelers should be able to move down the field and put points on board.
- On defense, it’s really simple. As Jeff Hartman pointed out in his article “The 4 Keys to Victory for the Steelers vs. the Dolphins in the AFC Wild Card Round,” the Steelers must take care of business in terms of stopping the Dolphins’ rushing attack. Jay Ajayi is a powerful, downhill runner who made the Steelers’ defense look like a junior varsity squad in the last meeting. This time around, the Pittsburgh defense has learned how to win without their emotional leader and best defensive lineman, Cameron Heyward. Stephon Tuitt makes his return from a knee injury, the rookies are far more confident in their assignments and this defense has a huge chip on their collective shoulders from that first meeting in Miami. If the Steelers stay disciplined and focused in run-defense, the secondary should be able to hang with talented receivers Kenny Stills and Jarvis Landry, and the pass rush should be able to penetrate the Miami pass protection and make life miserable for Matt Moore.
Why the Dolphins will win:
- The Steelers rested the big three on offense last week to keep them fresh for the playoffs. I applaud Coach Tomlin’s decision to do so, but it does give me slight pause. Why? Because I’m concerned that missing a week’s action can cause some problems with the rhythm Ben and his receivers will have this week. If Ben struggles to find that rhythm, there could be a lot of three-and-outs due to poor throws, or timing issues, particularly in the early going. If this is the case, the Steelers could be looking at lots of long fields and perhaps playing from behind again.
- On defense, if the Steelers’ struggles with tackling show up again, Ajayi will have another big game that would set up Matt Moore for some big shots downfield in play-action. The Steelers’ defense must get after Ajayi and wrap him up early or he’ll make them pay all afternoon. The last two games, the defense hasn’t tackled well. If this trend continues, the Dolphins will have a much easier time stealing a win at Heinz Field.
- Special-teams blunders also could show their ugly faces and snatch victory from the Steelers’ collective grasp. Kick and punt-return coverage units have been anything but stellar this season. If they make mistakes and let returners loose, the Steelers may find themselves playing from behind or on the wrong end of the field-position battle.
In conclusion, I believe the Steelers will get this win. The X-factor for Pittsburgh is two-time Super Bowl winning quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. Throughout his career, Ben has been able to put the team on his shoulders and lead them to victory. The stage is set, and it’s not too big for the man fans lovingly refer to as Big Ben. His experience and leadership at this point in his career are paramount to his team. That being said, unless all of the men on the field know their assignments, stay in their lanes and make plays, the Steelers could be watching the remainder of the playoffs instead of winning them. Each game is for all the marbles from here on out. The Steelers certainly are talented enough to take all the marbles. All they need to do is to play smart and play great team football.