This coming Sunday the Pittsburgh Steelers will host the Miami Dolphins in an AFC Wild Card game at Heinz Field and while the visiting team drubbed the black and gold back in Week 6 of the regular season, a lot has changed since that contest took place in early October in the state of Florida.
For starters, while Dolphins running back Jay Ajayi blistered the Steelers defense for 204 yards on the ground in that earlier season meeting between the two teams, it’s important to remember that that was the first game Pittsburgh played without defensive end Cameron Heyward. Additionally, inside linebacker Ryan Shazier also missed that game with a knee injury and rookie Sean Davis failed to play a single defensive snap as his transition from slot cornerback to safety was not yet complete. Oh, and outside linebacker Bud Dupree was still on the Steelers Reserve/Injured list at the time.
When it comes to the Steelers defensive players who did play in that first meeting against the Dolphins, the starters at outside linebacker were none other than Jarvis Jones and Anthony Chickillo. While veteran outside linebacker James Harrison did rotate with Jones during that game and wound up playing the most snaps of the two, he was still only on the field for 39 of a possible 70 plays.
With Shazier sidelined in Week 6, Vince Williams was forced into the starting lineup at inside linebacker but he gave way to rookie Tyler Matakevich in the fourth quarter due to cramps. If that’s not enough, linebacker L.J. Fort (1), safety Jordan Dangerfield (8) and cornerback Justin Gilbert (3) all played snaps on defense during that game.
It’s also worth pointing out that veteran cornerback William Gay started opposite Ross Cockrell in the Steelers first meeting against the Dolphins and while rookie cornerback Artie Burns also played, he was only on the field for 49 total defensive snaps.
When the Steelers host the Dolphins on Sunday, they’ll do so with a much different defensive unit than they had back in Week 6. For starters, Harrison and Dupree are both now every-down players at outside linebacker while rookies Burns and Davis are also now on the field all of the time. Shazier is also healthy and rookie defensive tackle Javon Hargrave is much more experienced. In short, it will be very surprising if Ajayi has the same kind of success on Sunday that he did the last time he played the Steelers in Week 6.
While the Steelers defense will have a different look about them this coming Sunday at Heinz Field than they did back in Week 6 against the Dolphins, the same goes for the teams’ offense. The last time the two teams faced each other, tackle Marcus Gilbert was forced to sit out with an ankle injury and that meant Chris Hubbard had to start in his place.
If that weren’t enough, fullback Roosevelt Nix was still attempting to get his legs underneath him as he only logged 4 offensive snaps in that Week 6 game. Additionally, while young wide receiver Eli Rogers did see action against the Dolphins, it was his first game back after overcoming a toe injury. Rogers recorded four receptions in that game with three of them coming with less than four minutes remaining in the fourth quarter and the Steelers trailing the Dolphins 23-8.
Let’s also not forget that Week 6 was the first game that wide receiver Sammie Coates played in with the two broken fingers that he had suffered the previous week and while he did play 17 offensive snaps in that contest, he was a huge non-factor as he failed to catch any of the four passes thrown to him by quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who by the way, suffered a knee injury late in the first half that would ultimately force him to miss the Steelers next game against the New England Patriots.
Lest we forget that Steelers tight end Ladarius Green was still on the team’s Reserve/PUP list at the time and that resulted in the team primarily using Jesse James and Xavier Grimble on offense and the two combined to catch 3 passes for 24 yards.
In Sunday’s rematch between the Steelers and the Dolphins, Gilbert will be back at right tackle and Nix will see increased playing time. Additionally, Green is expected to start against the Dolphins assuming he’s able to overcome a concussion that has kept him out of action the last two games. As for Rogers, he’s producing now on a weekly basis and so is rookie wide receiver Demarcus Ayers following his promotion from the team’s practice squad a few weeks ago.
Did I mention fellow wide receiver Cobi Hamilton? The Week 6 game against the Dolphins was his first with the Steelers and he only played 12 offensive snaps.
While the Steelers will certainly have a different look about them than they did back in Week 6, so too will the Dolphins, only not in a positive way.
For starters, quarterback Ryan Tannehill is expected to miss the Wild Card game with a knee injury so veteran backup Matt Moore will likely get the start. His center will be none other than Kraig Urbik, a former Steelers draft pick, as Mike Pouncey is now on Reserve/Injured. Pouncey, by the way, played every snap against the Steelers in that Week 6 game and if memory serves me, played quite well. Urbik has started four games for the Dolphins this season and Sunday will mark his third one at center.
The Dolphins also look a lot different on defense since they last played the Steelers as both of their Week 6 starting safeties, Isa Abdul-Quddus and Reshad Jones, now reside on the team’s Reserve/Injured list. By the way, both players intercepted Roethlisberger back in Week 6. Safeties Bacarri Rambo and Michael Thomas are slated to start against the Steelers on Sunday but it’s worth noting that former failed to practice on Wednesday because of a chest injury.
This rematch between the Steelers and Dolphins will also take place in a different venue and in much colder weather. While it’s hard to measure what kind of advantage those two things will give the Steelers, it has to count for something.
In closing, it probably shouldn’t be a big surprise that the Steelers are currently double-digit favorites to beat the Dolphins on Sunday at Heinz Field because of all of the reasons I outlined above. This rematch should and will have a different outcome.