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How three straight possessions changed the Steelers’ postseason plans

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Pittsburgh’s defense forced turnovers on three consecutive Miami drives to squelch any thoughts of a Dolphins’ comeback

NFL: AFC Wild Card-Miami Dolphins at Pittsburgh Steelers Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

No, I don’t mean three plays and punt. What I’m referring to is that when the Steelers offense misfired, when the momentum began shifting in favor of the Dolphins, when the outcome of the game still hung in the balance; the Steelers defense took the ball away from the Dolphins on three straight possessions.

Sure, the Steelers were dominating the Dolphins in the first half. They scored TDs on each of their first three offensive possessions, vaulting to a 20-3 lead. A second Miami FG, however, brought the score to 20-6, as the Dolphins slowly began to show the ability to move the ball against the Steelers defense. A Ben Roethlisberger interception on the fourth Steelers drive gave the ball back to Miami with 56 seconds left in the half. In 4 plays, the Dolphins moved from their 27 yard line to a 1st-and-goal at the Steelers 8 yard line with 27 seconds remaining in the first half.

I was nervous. A TD by the Dolphins would bring them within one score of the Steelers. To top it off, Miami would receive the second half kickoff, essentially giving them back-to-back possessions. Visions of a 20-20 tie danced around in my troubled Steelers fan mind.

Not to worry, though. While the offense had exploded early to give them the lead, the Steelers defense would take their turn in determining the outcome of the game. This fast-rising unit needed to step up, and they did. Starting with a play by the man affectionately known as Deebo:

What you don’t see is that Harrison had widened out, pre-snap, to a position that appeared to have him in coverage on the play. It’s obvious that Dolphins left tackle Branden Albert thought so. He focuses on DE L.T. Walton and, by the time Albert recognizes that Harrison is coming around the corner, it’s beyond too late. Moore sees Harrison, and makes a move to escape. My guess is that Moore underestimated Harrison’s speed. Deebo not only closed on Moore like a lion on a wildebeest, he showed his veteran savvy, swiping at the football to knock it loose.

One interesting aspect of this play comes to mind: Was this the call by Butler, or was it Harrison seeing something from the offense, and widening out on his own? If it was, I can’t help but be reminded of Harrison’s “improvisation” in Super Bowl 43. For those who might not be aware, Harrison was supposed to blitz on the play, but instead dropped into coverage, resulting in the greatest defensive play in Super Bowl history.

Either way, the success of this play was based as much on deception/confusion, as it was on execution. This was a common theme on all three of these key defensive plays. Let’s get to the second one.

The Dolphins took the second-half kickoff and, in six plays, had advanced to a 1st-and- 10 at the Steelers’ 37-yard line. Miami had converted two third downs on the drive, frustrating me as I watched and, once again, spurring the nervousness in me. Yet again, my fears were put to rest:

The Dolphins were trying to take a deep shot here. They only sent two receivers on the pattern, with eight in to block. Both TEs to the left were confused on this blitz. Neither one picked up Harrison, leaving Ajayi to block the LB. The Dolphins end up with 3 guys blocking 1 (and not well, I might add), with no one to block Mike Mitchell. The safety not only picked up his first sack as a Steeler, he was credited with the forced fumble.

L.T. Walton recovered the loose ball, putting the Steelers offense in a position to take command of the game. Again, this play was more about deception than anything else. The Dolphins had eight guys to block five, yet the Steelers defense still came away with a splash play.

The offense responded with a FG, bringing the score to 23-6. This time, when the Dolphins got the ball back, the Steelers defense didn’t wait. They struck on the Dolphins very next offensive play:

What stands out most on this play is Ryan Shazier’s athletic ability. He either fakes a blitz or acts as though he’s picking up Ajayi. Matt Moore didn’t see Shazier drop back into coverage, nor was there any way he could’ve thought it possible for Shazier or anyone to get to that spot. The action by Shazier may be even more impressive when viewed from the end zone view.

But the reason I chose the All-22 view was to show the coverage scheme as a whole. It looks like a simple Cover 2 for the most part. The safeties each take a deep half, Timmons carries the seam, Bud drops into a hook zone, and Cockrell “cushions” with the receiver to his side, as no one is threating his flat area.

At first, this led me to believe that Shazier just improvised; faked the blitz and used his athletic ability to get back to his hook area. But when I saw Artie Burns come up so quickly to pick up Ajayi, I changed my mind. If this was truly a Cover 2, Artie would have “cushioned,” just as Cockrell had, until he saw his flat responsibility threatened. He didn’t though. Artie immediately broke toward Ajayi, ignoring the WR to his side. This leads me to believe it was a planned call, not an improvisation by Shazier. With Artie picking up Ajayi, Moore would naturally look downfield, to the “apparently open” receiver Landry on the crosser.

Only the players or the coaches could confirm my guess. Either way, deception combined with brilliant execution, once again, proved to be the major component in a splash play by the defense.

The Steelers TD following this interception brought the score to 30-6, with a bit more than two minutes remaining in the third quarter, For all intents and purposes, the ball game was over.

The Steelers’ offense started this game firing on all cylinders. But when they started to cool off, the defense showed they could contribute equally to the Steelers win. They did so by taking the ball away from the Dolphins. One, two, three strikes and you’re out!