Saturday, December 7, 2013

Four Point Stance: Dolphins at Steelers


With just a quarter of the regular season left to go, the maddeningly-inconsistent Miami Dolphins (6-6) have four games to decide if they're a playoff team or if they'll be on the outside looking in, a state of mediocrity that the franchise has been mired in for the past four seasons.

With very little margin for error, their Week 14 matchup with the Pittsburgh Steelers (5-7) has major implications. A win, something the franchise hasn't gotten in Pittsburgh since 1990, keeps the Dolphins on pace in the Wild Card hunt, while a loss makes a postseason berth highly improbable. Miami is coming off its most complete win of the season, a 23-3 drubbing of the rival New York Jets.

Technically a fringe playoff contender themselves, the Steelers have won three of their last four games and have come on strong since starting the season 0-4. They'll be well rested, with Sunday marking ten days since their last game, a narrow 22-20 loss to the Baltimore Ravens on Thanksgiving night.

When the Dolphins have the ball
Once a mainstay among the league's top-five defense, the Steelers' defensive unit has been weakened considerably by injures and the aging of key pieces. In particular, a once-elite secondary led by safety Troy Polamalu is now giving up big plays with regularity. Polamalu's improvisational exploits have turned him into the star he is, but they've become a detriment to the defense as the 32-year old safety declines physically. Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill will have plenty of matchup advantages with receivers Brian Hartline and former Steeler Mike Wallace on the outside and tight end Charles Clay in the middle. Critical will be Tannehill's recognition both pre-snap and post-snap, preventing the veteran defensive backs and the creative defensive scheme from inducing mistakes, and also the offensive line's ability to provide enough time for routes to develop. Miami will also need to continue its dedication to the run despite numerous injuries in the backfield, with the cold conditions putting offensive balance at a premium.

When the Steelers have the ball:
Pittsburgh ranks dead last in rushing yards and 30th in the league in yards per attempt. Leading rusher Le'Veon Bell, who suffered a concussion last week, is averaging just 3.3 yards per rush. The Steelers' offense is buoyed by quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and the passing game, which features prolific targets such as NFL receptions leader Antonio Brown, Emmanuel Sanders and tight end Heath Miller. Notorious for being able to extend plays, defending Roethlisberger must include creative, aggressive pressure packages and discipline in the back end of the defense. A broken play often results in a big gain for the Steelers, so preventing them by getting multiple players to the quarterback and sticking with the coverage is of utmost importance. Fortunately the Dolphins have a deep stable of fast, athletic defensive ends to pursue Roethlisberger, and behind them is a secondary that is playing at a high level and developing consistency. Look for the Steelers to use the various screen plays in their arsenal to try to take advantage of Miami's aggressiveness and defensive scheme.

The Dolphins' offensive line. With Hartline and Wallace having a distinct advantage on the outside over the Steelers' secondary, it'll be critical that Tannehill has a clean pocket and enough time for the receivers' routes to develop. The two biggest challenges will be linebacker Lamarr Woodley, who returns from injury, and steadily improving linebacker Jason Worilds. Miami's line, despite being a hodgepodge of journeymen and backups, has not been the liability in recent games that it was early in the season. Another step in the right direction will be vital for the Dolphins offense this week.

Aside from not winning in Pittsburgh since 1990, the Dolphins haven't beaten the Steelers at any location in over 15 years, Miami's longest current drought against another franchise (excluding the expansion Houston Texans). Former Steelers wideout and current Dolphin Mike Wallace caught a touchdown of over 50 yards in both games he played against Miami. The last matchup in the series ended in controversy after officials ruled that Roethlisberger fumbled on the goal line, but it could not determine which team recovered the ball. Pittsburgh retained possession and kicked the go-ahead field goal late in the fourth quarter.

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