The regular season is over, and the Pittsburgh Steelers are still playing games, so something must be going right. Today, they play host to the Miami Dolphins, to whom they lost down in Florida earlier this season. Ben Roethlisberger was injured in the second quarter of that game, which they lost 30-15.
The headline of that previous meeting was obviously the breakout rushing performance of Dolphins running back Jay Ajayi, who rushed for over 200 yards against a Steelers front that was just beginning to come to grips with how to play without Cameron Heyward, and that was before he was actually out for the season.
Needless to say, all eyes are going to be drawn to the battle between the Dolphins’ running game and the Steelers’ run defense this time around, and it is likely to be a featured matchup, considering that Miami is working with backup quarterback Matt Moore in the starting lineup.
Another backup put into a starting position is Kraig Urbik, a former Steelers draft pick who I wrote about yesterday. He is starting in place of Mike Pouncey at center, who, like Heyward, is on injured reserve. Unlike Heyward, however, he was a big part of his team’s success in the last meeting.
The run defense has been much better since then, with the major caveat being, of course, the regular season finale against the Browns, an outlier that came in a meaningless game for the Steelers, having already wrapped up their best possible seed for the playoffs.
The return of Stephon Tuitt, who has missed the past two games with a knee injury, will be a very important development as this defense looks to get firing on all cylinders for the start of the playoffs. Pairing with Javon Hargrave and L.T. Walton, they should form a more formidable challenge this time around.
Perhaps the biggest issue that the Steelers had against the run last time around was a lack of discipline along the perimeter, as a good deal of Ajayi’s damage came around either end, which is something that we have taken a look at multiple times, both after that game and recently.
Artie Burns was not yet even in the starting lineup at the time, and has made great strides since then, but he was accountable for several negative plays against the run for the defense. He still has some slips in trying to keep contain on the perimeter, but he has been much better in the past half of the season. Ross Cockrell also has to do better.
The edge defenders will look much different in this game, as James Harrison and Bud Dupree are now playing virtually every snap. In the last meeting, Dupree was still on injured reserve, and Harrison was a rotational player.
Harrison is one of the great run defenders at his position in the past generation, as far as I’m concerned, and still plays the run at a high level. Dupree’s talent level is simply night and day in comparison to those who are behind him, including his makeup speed. On paper, the defense should be well-prepared to prevent a repeat performance.