Pittsburgh Steelers Vs. Miami Dolphins: Preview, Keys, Injury Reports, And Bold Predictions
The Pittsburgh Steelers host the Miami Dolphins at Heinz Field on Sunday. Kickoff is set for 1:05 ET, with CBS televising the contest.
Pittsburgh (11-5) is playing its best football of the season, reeling off seven straight wins. The Steelers have scored at least 24 points in each game during the streak, outscoring their opponents 26.4-17.2 even though they rested several regulars in the 27-24 victory over the Cleveland Browns last weekend.
Miami (10-6) has been inconsistent down the stretch. The Dolphins are just 3-2 in their last five games and have been handily beaten in their two setbacks — a 35-14 loss to New England on January 1 and a 38-3 drubbing at the hands of the Baltimore Ravens on December 4. The Phins have been outscored 140-114 during that span.
This will be the second meeting of the year between the clubs, with the Dolphins claiming the Week 6 meeting 30-15 as running back Jay Ajayi rambled for 204 yards and two touchdowns. With that victory, Miami tied the all-time series at 13-13-0. Miami has won two of the three previous playoff meetings; the last time they met in the postseason was in 1985.
Steelers on offense
Pittsburgh ranks as the 11th highest scoring team in the league, averaging 24.8 points a game, and is seventh in total yards with 372.6. The Steelers have the fifth best passing attack and 10th best rushing attack.
Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has had an uneven season this year as he was fabulous in October and November while being ordinary in the first and last months of the season. He completed 63.2 percent of his passes for 268.5 yards along with six touchdowns and six interceptions in December. For the season, Roethlisberger completes 64.4 percent of his passes for 267.2 yards along with 29 touchdowns and 13 picks.
Running back Le’Veon Bell has been the catalyst of the offense during the win streak. Bell has rushed for at least 93 yards in the last six games, producing at least 125 yards in total offense in those contests. He has six 100-yard rushing games in 12 contests overall, averaging 105.7 yards a game on the ground. The 24-year-old has 75 receptions for an addition of 616 yards.
Bell is not the only weapon that Roethlisberger has at his disposal. Wide receiver Antonio Brown is one of the best receivers in the game, totaling 106 catches for 1,284 yards and 12 touchdowns along with 22 plays of 20 or more yards. He has four-100-yard games though his 10 receptions for 96 yards and one touchdown performance against the Baltimore Ravens was his best game during the winning streak.
Second-year receiver Eli Rogers has come on strong in the recent weeks, hauling in 15 of 48 receptions. Rogers has 594 total receiving yards with 11 plays of 20 or more yards.
Pittsburgh has one of the best offensive lines in football. The Steelers are ranked second in run blocking and fourth in pass blocking, according to Football Outsiders’ rankings. They have given up 34 negative plays, 21 sacks, and 56 quarterback hits. Five-time Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey anchors the line that also features two-time Pro Bowl guard David DeCastro.
Dolphins on offense
Miami is 17th in the league, averaging 17.8 points a game and 24th in total offense (332.8). They rank 28th in passing and ninth in rushing.
CBS Sports reports that veteran backup Matt Moore will start at quarterback for the Dolphins as starter Ryan Tannehill has been ruled out for the game. Moore replaced starter Ryan Tannehill during the team’s win over the Arizona Cardinals on December 11. Moore is 2-1 as a starter this year, completing 63.2 percent (55-of-87) of his passes for 721 yards and eight touchdowns along with three interceptions in four games overall.
Ajayi has made a huge difference in the offense. Since giving Ajayi the bulk of the workload in Week 6, the Dolphins have gone 9-2 and have scored 30 or more points in seven of those games. The 23-year-old power back has three 200-yard rushing games and averages 84.6 yards a game.
While the Phins may not be as potent on offense as the Steelers, they do have three quality wide receivers in Jarvis Landry, DeVante Parker, and Kenny Stills. Landry led the club with 94 receptions for 1,136 yards and 16 plays of 20 or more yards. Parker (56 catches) and Stills (42 catches) are capable of big plays as well.
Miami’s o-line is a weakness as it ranks 22nd in run blocking and 22nd is pass blocking. The Dolphins have given up 30 sacks, 93 quarterback hits, and a total of 63 negative plays. Rookie guard Laremy Tunsil has been good, however.
Steelers on defense
The Steelers weren’t very good on the defensive side of the ball against the Browns, permitting 437 yards of offense and allowing 24 points. However, they did force four turnovers and also allowed just three touchdowns in six red zone opportunities. The Steelers also registered four sacks.
Pittsburgh is allowing the 10th fewest points in the league with 20.4 points a game. The Steelers rank 21st in total defense, permitting 342.2 yards a game. They rank 16th in the league against the pass and 13th against the run. Additionally, they are ninth in sacks with 38 sacks.
Linebacker Lawrence Timmons leads the team with 114 tackles to go along with two interceptions and 2.5 sacks. However, linebacker Ryan Shazier and safety Mike Mitchell have been the glue to the defense.
Dolphins on defense
Miami has given up more than 20 points in 12 of the 16 games this season. The Dolphins rank 18th in scoring defense, permitting 23.8 points a game, and 29th in total defense (382.6). The Phins are 30th against the run and 15th versus the pass. Additionally, they are tied for 19th with 33 sacks.
Linebacker Kiko Alonzo leads the team with 115 tackles to go along with two interceptions. However, it is their defensive line that is very dangerous — featuring Cameron Wake, Ndamukong Suh, and Andre Branch. Cornerback Tony Lippett has four of the Phins’ 16 interceptions.
Pittsburgh are about as healthy as they can be with several players dealing with injuries returning to practice: tight ends Ladarius Green (concussion) and Xavier Grimble (ribs), wide receiver Sammie Coates (hamstring), defensive end Stephon Tuitt (knee), and defensive back Justin Gilbert (shoulder).
Green and Coates could contribute in the passing game. Grimble is more of a blocking tight end. Tuitt is an important piece of the Steelers front four, starting 14 games and recording 37 tackles along with four sacks.
Tannehill is out because his left knee is still weak due to ACL and MCL ligament sprains. Head coach Adam Gase told the media that safety Bacarri Rambo (chest) is doing everything he can to play on Sunday. Cornerback Byron Maxwell, who has not played since December 17, is also questionable with and ankle injury.
— James Walker (@JamesWalkerNFL) January 5, 2017
Keys to game
Establish the run. Steelers are one of the best running teams in the league, and it’s not just because of Bell. Backup DeAngelo Williams is also a capable runner, compiling 343 yards and four touchdowns on 98 carries. They are 8-1 when topping the 100-yard mark on the ground. The Steelers totaled 128 yards on the ground in the team’s first meeting.
Meanwhile, Miami is one of the worst teams stopping the run. The Dolphins have given up over 100 yards on the ground in each of their last seven games.
Stop Jay Ajayi. Miami is 4-0 when Ajayi has topped the 100-yard mark. The Steelers permitted 231 yards on the ground against the Browns, with Isaiah Crowell gaining 152 yards on 19 carries, including a long run of 67.
Ryan Shazier. Shazier didn’t play against the Dolphins in Week 6, and the Steelers didn’t record a sack or force a turnover. Shazier’s presence could change things as he is a capable playmaker who has elite speed. The 24-year-old inside backer has 87 tackles, three interceptions, three forced fumbles, one fumble recovery along with 3.5 sacks.
Since the winning streak started the Steelers have feasted on quarterbacks, recording 25 quarterback sacks. They also have forced 15 turnovers.
Chris Boswell: The second-year kicker hasn’t had a ton of opportunities though he has made the most of them. Boswell is nine-of-nine in field goal attempts, which includes making six against the Cincinnati Bengals (three weeks ago) with five being 40 yards or longer, and 10-of-10 on extra point attempts in the last four games. He is 21-of-25 for the year on field goal attempts and has made all 36 of his extra point attempts on the season. Boswell is 8-of-11 on field goals at Heinz Field with all three of his misses coming from beyond 40 yards, including two being greater than 50 yards.
More importantly will be Boswell’s kickoffs. Boswell has produced touchbacks on 60 percent of his kickoffs though it has gone done to 47.37 percent in the last three games. The reason that this is important is because the Dolphins have a dangerous return game that features rookie Kenyan Drake. The Steelers are giving up an average 24.2 yards per kick return on 29 attempts.
The Dolphins average 25.1 yards per return that includes one touchdown. Drake has returned 13 kicks for an average of 30.5 yards a return that includes a 95-yard return against the New York Jets. Jakeem Grant has returned 19 kicks for an average of 23.1 yards per return.
Keep feeding JayAjayi. The Phins are 9-1 when Ajai carries the ball at least 16 times. He averages 4.9 yards per carry and a league-high 2.5 yards following first contact.
Limit turnovers. The Dolphins have committed the 15th most turnovers in the league with 23, 15 picks and eight fumbles. The Phins have turned the ball over 10 times in their six losses and are a minus-eight in turnover differential in those games. Miami has thrown an interception on 3.1 percent of their passes but that has increased to 3.4 percent with Moore under center.
Limit penalties. The Dolphins are the fourth most penalized team accumulating 125 penalties for 1,142 yards, which is the third most in the league. The Phins have been flagged 49 times on offense, a league-high 58 times and 18 times on special times.
Protect Matt Moore. Moore has been sacked just once in 87 drop backs.
Ben Roethlisberger passes for 275 yards and 3 touchdowns
Roethlisberger has been terrific at Heinz Field in his last 16 games, passing for 5,458 yards and 50 touchdowns.
Le’Veon Bell totals 125 yards of total offense and a score
Bell was named AFC Offensive Player of the Month for December as he rushed for 569 yards (5.17 yards per carry) and four touchdowns. He also had 18 receptions for 179 yards and one touchdown during the month.
Ajayi will be held to 65 or fewer yards but he will score at least once
Pittsburgh is geared to stop Ajayi, and while he is a handful to bring down, he may not get a ton of carries if the Dolphins fall behind early. Ajayi has been held to less than 65 yards in nine games this season, including five of the last six contests.
Both teams will turn the ball over
It will be cold and possibly blustery in Pittsburgh. Roethlisberger has thrown 31 interceptions in his last 32 starts, with 14 coming in his last 16 games at Heinz Field. The Steelers gave the ball away twice in Week 6. Miami committed two turnovers against New England and fumbled a total of three times.
Cameron Wake will record at least a half-sack
Wake is one of the preeminent pass rushers in the game today. He has been on a tear, racking up 10.5 sacks in the last 11 games. Wake, who had a-half sack in the last meeting, ranks sixth in the NFL with 11.5 sacks for the year and finished with a total of 24 quarterback hits.
Miami sacked Roethlisberger twice and hit him six times in their Week 6 win.
Andrew Franks misses an extra point or field goal attempt
This is Franks’ first playoff appearance. The second-year kicker has made 41 of 42 extra points this year, and 16-of-21 field goal attempts. He has only made two field goals in five kicks of 40 yards or longer this season. Franks is five of nine from 40 yards or longer and two of five from 50 yards.
Franks may get lots of chances to kick field goals as he was three of five in the Week 6 game, having a 24-yard attempt blocked and then missing a 50-yarder. The Steelers have been stout in the red zone over the past few seasons, allowing an NFL-low 3.74 points per red zone trip since the start of the 2015 season.
Game prediction: Steelers 27, Dolphins16
The Steelers are favored by 10 points.
Pittsburgh is making its third straight playoff appearance and 30th overall. The Steelers are 5-5 in wild card games. They are one of three teams entering this postseason on a winning streak of six or more. In the last 10 seasons, only seven teams on such a streak won a postseason game with just three teams reaching the Super Bowl and none winning per ESPN Stats.
The Dolphins are in the playoffs for the first time in eight years and 23rd time overall. The Phins haven’t won a playoff game since 2000 and are 6-5 in wild card games.
Overall, Pittsburgh has lost the last two meetings. The Steelers are 7-4-0 at home all-time versus the Dolphins.
What do you think is going to happen in the game? Don’t forget to vote in both polls.
[Featured Image by Gene Puskar/AP Images]