(This is long and filled with quotes from my recap of the week six meeting between these two teams, which the Dolphins won 30-15, as points of reference to analyze what changed in this matchup. You’ve been forewarned)
The Pittsburgh Steelers opened their playoff run Sunday with a 30-12 win over the Miami Dolphins at a Heinz Field, the largest margin of victory in the playoff history of Heinz. (I storified my thoughts on how things might go just before gametime.) Right from the coin flip things went the Steelers way. Mike Tomlin didn’t have to live in his fears because Adam Gase got that opportunity first. The Dolphins won the toss and deferred. (Tomlin has been following a similar strategy most of this season.) That felt like a bad choice at the time and 18 minutes later the game was essentially over. The Steelers went on touchdown drives of 85, 90 and 83 yards. Ben went 8-8 for 162 yards and two touchdowns. Antonio Brown caught three passes, two of 50+ for scores and Le’Veon Bell sliced through the Fins for a tidy 99 yards and a TD. The Steelers were up 20-3. Welcome to the three Bs playing their first playoff game together. The offense didn’t do much the rest of the way, but they didn’t have to because the defense was solid throughout.
It was the James Harrison and Bud Dupree show on the other side of the ball. After the initial matchup in week six I called the Steelers OLBs one of the worst position groups in the NFL. I don’t think I was off-base. What a change. Harrison and Dupree were sensational Sunday. What Harrison is doing at age 38 really is remarkable. The Dolphins ran Jay Ajayi his direction on their first three running plays—no gain, loss of three, no gain. Time to reassess. On Miami’s first third down Dupree almost knocked Matt Moore into next week. And that was only his second biggest hit of the day on the Miami QB. Hold the opposition to 12 points at home, you’re going to win every time.
The coach staff should also take a bow. The gameplans were fantastic and the team was well-prepared. But that still doesn’t absolve Mike Tomlin of blame for the potentially disastrous mistake he continues to make by leaving key players in late in games where the outcome is no longer in doubt. I have railed on this topic here and in the Tuesday press conferences since the week three loss to Philadelphia. After week six against these same Dolphins I wrote this:
Leaving [an injured] Ben in the game with 50 seconds left, down 30-15 is indefensible. He had one banged up knee and the Dolphins rusher were running over the Steelers Oline. Ben banged up his other knee in this last series of plays.
It is just plain dumb to have Roethlisberger start a drive up 30-12 with less than six minutes left in the game. The fact that dings to his shoulder and ankle appear minimal after he was sacked on a third down interception are a result only of good fortune, not good thinking. After suggesting to everyone that he “got it” by resting his stars for the Cleveland game, Tomlin reverted to previous practice. It was, as I’ve said so many times before, a very poor, no-upside decision. It appears disaster was narrowly averted. Throw in linebacker coach Joey Porter’s Sunday evening arrest on the South Side and the story has moved off of what was a very solid Steelers victory to these two issues. (Porter was placed on leave by the team Monday afternoon. I would not expect him to be back with the team this season. We’ll see about the future.)
*Ben got hurt last time these two teams met and ended up missing the Patriots game. It may have cost the Steelers a bye and home field vs. KC. That injury occurred late in the first half. Injuries happen, though again Tomlin unnecessarily put him at risk of further injury at the end. This week it appeared, at the final whistle, that Ben had gotten by generally unscathed after he jogged off the field.
Apparently not. Much to my surprise, while doing the postgame show, Twitter exploded with tweets about Ben leaving the locker room in a walking boot. Mike hadn’t mentioned it in his postgame presser. I’m not even sure he knew. Ben’s reputation as a bit of a drama queen, only added to the story. I don’t think Ben’s injury is serious and the boot is more precautionary than anything, but it certainly got everyone’s attention. We’ll learn more on Tuesday. (According to reports Monday afternoon, Ben is out of the boot, the injury not serious.)
Otherwise it appears the Steelers came out of the game relatively healthy. Sean Davis dinged his shoulder late, but did stay in the game. TE Ladarius Green, DL Ricardo Mathews, OLB Anthony Chickillo and S Robert Golden were all out due to injury. QB Zach Mettenberger, OT Brian Mihalik and CB Justin Gilbert were healthy inactives. Green, out due to concussion, was expected to play but had some type of setback Thursday afternoon. Chickillo and Golden were missed on special teams. All could be back this week.
Coming into Sunday the Steelers had played 58 postseason games in their history. The single-game rushing record was 158 yards set by Franco Harris in Super Bowl IX, January 1975. The single-game receiving record was 161 yards set by Lynn Swann in Super Bowl X, January 1976. (Martavis Bryant had 154 vs Denver last year.) In the first half Le’Veon Bell had 99 yards rushing and Antonio Brown had 125 yards receiving. It looked like both records might fall. Turns out Brown would only catch one more ball, actually for a yard loss, and uncharacteristically drop a couple passes the rest of the way. Bell though, now finds his name in the record books. In the first postseason game of his career he finished with 167 yards on 29 carries. No wonder Mike was eager to “take him into the stadium” this week.
Overall, the offense’s early numbers were fantastic, from then on pedestrian. They got a bit sloppy late in the first half and didn’t recover in the second. While there are probably an equal number of good and bad topics below, the good ones won the game early, that’s what matters.
*From week six:
Le’Veon Bell was good when he touched the football, but he didn’t get it enough. He finished with 10 carries for 53 yards and 6 receptions in 7 targets for another 55. I expected Bell to touch the ball 25-30 times. The fact that he didn’t was a big contributing factor in the loss.
Todd Haley made sure Lev got his touches this time. 31 in total. On the Steelers third touchdown drive it was all Bell. He carried all 10 plays for 78 yards and the score. That drive was in the middle of a sequence where the Steelers got the ball to Bell or Brown on 16 consecutive plays. Not a bad strategy. Bell ended the day with five carries of more than 10 yards, two of which went for 25 and 26. Surprisingly he also had four carries for no-gain and was tackled for a loss twice, but his vision, patience and burst were all on full display. He was excellent. (If you want some amusement go read the Twitter feed of Dolphins beat writer @OmarKelly from last week. He was dissing Bell and trolling Steelers fans. He didn’t have much to say yesterday.)
*Antonio Brown got the Steelers off to the perfect start. On the second play of the game he caught a first down pass for seven yards. Two plays later he took a WR screen from Ben. He had Cobi Hamilton inside him blocking one Dolphin. He could have taken off down the sideline and gotten at least 5 yards before being pushed out of bounds. Instead he waited for TE Jesse James to get outside and block the edge. Huge props to AB for his patience and recognizing the situation and to James for actually blocking two Dolphins defenders and springing AB for a 50-yard sprint down the sideline. It was AB’s first-ever playoff TD. He wouldn’t have to wait long for his second.
On the next drive the Steelers faced a 2nd-and-7 from their own 38. The Dolphins were in man coverage. (Ben and the Steelers kill man coverage. KC plays a lot of man coverage.) AB ran a slant from the left side. He beat the corner, Tony Lippett, inside, took a perfect pass from Ben and it was done. Safety Bacarri Rambo had no chance. AB caught the ball at the Steelers 48, basically in full stride. Rambo breaks down and is flat-footed at the Dolphins 46. One step after the catch everyone in the stadium knew it was a score. Two TDs in eight minutes. Business was Boomin’. It also was one of AB’s best blocking games of his career.
*On the Steelers opening drive they faced a 3rd-and-5 from their own 31. They ran a beautifully designed screen play to Eli Rogers for 19. Maurkice Pouncey was out front and made the key block. Great call, great design. Next play 50-yard TD. It was Rogers only target on the day, but it was a big one.
*The offensive line was outstanding. I wrote this after the first matchup:
As was the case in Philly, the Steelers offensive line got dominated by the opposing front four. They again had trouble with the wide-9 setup as Cameron Wake and Andre Branch combined for 2 sacks and 4 QB hits. The OLine was again flagged for numerous holding and false start penalties. The inconsistency of this unit has really hurt the offense.
They got manhandled the first time around. Payback’s a bitch. They dominated in both the run game, Chris Hubbard, Roosevelt Nix and David Johnson were a big part of that, and in pass protection. The line has been great during the win-streak.
*Ben was very good when he needed to be in the early going. He rarely threw the ball down the field and when he did, he didn’t get the results he was looking for, but he was on-target early. His second TD was a perfect throw, hitting AB in-stride.
*The two interceptions were bad. The Steelers could have put the Dolphins away with a score at the end of the first half up 20-6. But on 2nd-and-14 from the Miami 34, scrambling, Ben threw high to AB. It was still a ball you expect AB to catch, but it was poorly thrown by Ben. After starting 11-11 for 188, Roethlisberger was 2-7 for 9 yards the rest of the game. In fact the Steelers didn’t have a positive pass play the entire second half. One of Ben’s completions was to AB for a one-yard loss. The other was for a 10-yard gain to Demarcus Ayers, but Eli Rogers incurred a 15-yd penalty so the Steelers actually lost five yards. Not good.
*While I hold Mike Tomlin 90% responsible for the poor decision to keep Roethlisberger in the game late, Ben should know to just get rid of the ball and not put himself at risk in that situation. It’s his 13th season. There is an expectation that comes with that. Yes, we can debate the play-call as well.
*But most importantly:
No lie, I forgot to put chapstick on during the game and my f'n lip busted because of the cold
— 5⃣Roosevelt nix (@Dat_Dude_Nix) January 9, 2017
In the first matchup the Steelers defense registered 0 turnovers, 0 sacks and gave up 6 explosive plays. This time around they forced 3 turnovers, got 5 sacks, tying the franchise postseason record and only gave up 3 explosive plays.
*The defense’s primary task was to shutdown Jay Ajayi and the Dolphins run game. Ajayi ran for 204 yards on 25 carries in October, this time he finished with 16 carries for 33 yards with a long of 8 before leaving near the end with an injury. Miami finished with 52 rushing yards on 21 carries. Mission accomplished.
*This is what I wrote about the Steelers OLBs after the loss to Miami:
The Steelers outside linebackers might be the worst position group in football. There are getting nothing from Jones, Harrison, Moats or Chickillo. Usually solid against the run, they weren’t even that on Sunday.
Now read about Harrison and Dupree after Sunday’s win:
*I don’t know where Sunday ranks on James Harrison’s all-time career games, but it has to be around the top 10. He’s 38 and I’m not grading on an age curve. He finished with 10 tackles, 3 tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks, 2 QB hits and a forced fumble. He set the tone early stuffing Jay Ajayi on the first play from scrimmage. He played 61 out of 65 defensive snaps. He was the best player on the field when Miami had the ball.
*After the game I came home and watched the CBS replay. Bud Dupree came free on the first Miami third down and drilled Matt Moore. On the broadcast Jim Nantz said, “Boy, that was some hit on the quarterback.” He didn’t know this was coming later. I wouldn’t include that link if Moore didn’t come back in the game one play later and appear fine the rest of the way. That hit is the definition of violence. In fact if somebody had removed me from the stadium immediately following that hit and I knew nothing else about what happened after, and 24 hours later they told me Matt Moore was still in the hospital and still hadn’t regained consciousness, I would have believed them. Seriously. It was that viscous.
Dupree’s hit wasn’t dirty, but yes, I thought it was a legit penalty call because he got part of the helmet. I’ve always been a Matt Moore fan and I’ve got even more respect for him after seeing his comments after the game:
I just got smoked. I needed a second. That’s really it. It was really more my jaw than anything else. I checked to see if I had all my teeth, really. That process (concussion protocol) can take a little while. I was, ‘All right, let’s get it done.’
I know the tests weren’t going to be an issue, and I figured I’d go back in as soon as that was done. I’ve been hit pretty good a couple times (in my career). That was a good one. Part of the game. I got hit in the head. I don’t know if it was clean or not. I was more focused on Jarvis (Landry, the intended receiver). If he got flagged, I guess it wasn’t (clean). I don’t have bad feelings toward him. Sometimes stuff like that happens.
(The league has announced they are investigating whether the proper concussion protocol procedures were followed with Matt Moore. Because he returned so quickly, after just one play, I’m going to guess they weren’t. The procedure typically takes 8-12 minutes. Moore was checked on the bench for, at most, two minutes. More on that topic another time.)
*Ryan Shazier and Lawrence Timmons are quite the intercepting tandem. Shazier got another one this week, the third week in a row with a pick. In fact after going 15 weeks without getting more than two turnovers in a game, the defense has now forced three each of the past two weeks.
*Stephon Tuitt is a monster. Not to get ahead of myself, but this defense has a chance to be great in the next couple years. Yes, finding a dominant edge rusher is almost as hard a finding a big-time QB, but this D has so many good young players. Tuitt may end up being as good as any of them, he has a non-stop motor that was on full display Sunday.
*If you had cash on the Steelers -12 or so you can thank Lawrence Timmons. Law Dog registered back-to-back sacks in the last two minutes with Miami on the Steelers 27. Ka-Ching Dog. And another excellent performance overall.
*An inconsistent performance by Ross Cockrell. He got beat deep a couple times and took a huge friendly-fire hit from Mike Mitchell. On the flip side, he tackled well and make a good play to force the receiver out-of-bounds on the two-point conversion. Obviously I don’t have a ton of bad things to say about the defense.
The Steelers specialists, Chris Boswell and Jordan Berry are excellent, but the rest of the special teams are a disaster at the moment.
*It wasn’t the best of days.
*I’m tired of ripping the team’s kick return unit, but it’s terrible. A few weeks ago Mike Tomlin told me, when Fitzgerald Toussaint had returned more kicks than the rest of the team combined, that he was the “off-return” man. I got a chuckle when Fitz got stuffed at the 15 on the opening kickoff and somebody tweeted to me, “Somebody needs to tell the opposing kickers that Fitz is the “off-return” man so that they stop kicking to him.” That’s what it’s come to. Jokes about the return team. If they aren’t going to dress Gilbert and they aren’t going to try Ayers I guess it’s Sammie Coates and hope for the best. But, damn, at least just line him up in the middle of the field and let him go catch the ball. No. More. Fitz.
*I have no idea why they ever squib kick the ball because the return always seems to end up at least at the 35. Might want to re-think that strategy.
*Boswell missed his first extra point of the season and his first-ever postseason kick when he bounced his kick off the right upright.
*How about DHB losing his mind after the Dolphins converting the fake punt on 4th-and-1? Looked like he really wanted a piece of Damien Williams. Good thing teammates were there to restrain him. A bit out of character for sure.
The kickoff temperature of 17 degrees was the sixth coldest in Steelers history. Kudos to the coaching staff for making sure that was something the Steelers embraced. I don’t think it was a factor either way, but the Steelers were well-prepared.
*Last time around, I wrote this:
This was a miserable performance and responsibility starts at the top. The Steelers are 5-11 in their last 16 road games against opponents below .500. This isn’t a narrative and it starts with the head coach, his staff and the quarterback. The Dolphins left 14 points on the table with two TDs they should have scored and two missed FGs. The game wasn’t as close as 30-15 suggests.
This time it was an A+ performance by the staff across the board, aside from leaving Ben and AB in at the end of the game. They leaned on the stars early and they delivered. The coaching staff has done a very good job the past eight weeks and deserve a ton of credit.
*Yea, you know.
*Adam Gase and the Dolphins won the toss. Even without the benefit of hindsight I thought it was a really bad decision to defer.
Big Officiating Calls:
*I thought the officials were as good as we’ve come to expect in this one.
Up Next: The Steelers will take on the Kansas City Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium. Kickoff at is scheduled for 1:05 pm EST. This will be a different Chiefs team than the one the Steelers blew out in week 4. Justin Houston is back from injury and rookies Chris Jones, Terrance Smith and Tyreke Hill have become big contributors. The Steelers are obviously a very different team as well. The line currently favors KC by 2.5. I’m guessing it’s closer to pick at game time. Be ready for a full week of discussion about Ben’s home/road splits. I’ve been talking about it all year. Now you are going to get it on blast.
Reminder: You can hear me on the postgame show with Charlie Batch across the Steelers Football Network (WDVE, ESPN, steelers.com or the Steelers Gameday app) after every Steelers game and on weekdays on ESPN Pittsburgh 970 and 106.3 FM from 4-7 pm. You can follow me on twitter @DavidMTodd.