Sunday’s game between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Miami Dolphins will not be a family affair like their last meeting during Week 6 in Miami. Center Maurkice Pouncey will play in his first playoff game in two seasons, but unlike their trip to South Florida in October, his twin brother and Dolphins starting center, Mike, will not be in uniform; he is on the injured reserve list with a hip injury. The visiting team missing their Pouncey brother in the middle could hinder running back Jay Ajayi’s ability to duplicate his 25-carry, 204-yard rushing performance three months prior.
In the five games Ajayi started with Pouncey, he rushed for 650 yards on 110 carries for 650 yards (5.91 yards per carry) with five touchdowns. In three of those games, Ajayi surpassed 100 yards, and 200 yards twice. But since Pouncey’s last game in Week 10, Ajayi’s performance has not been as solid – his yards per carry average has dropped from nearly six yards per carry to 4.11, and if his 206-yard game against the Buffalo Bills (the league’s fourth-worst run defense) in Week 16 is taken away, he has averaged only 3.37 yards per rush in six games.
If one wanted to understand Pouncey’s impact on the running game, the regular season meeting between the Steelers and Dolphins is a good example of where to begin, and it started from Miami’s first drive of the game.
The Dolphins run a counter play out of the shotgun, where Pouncey blocks down on Stephon Tuitt, allowing Jermon Bushrod to pull to the left side and stands up Vince Williams, which should have allowed Ajayi some space inside the left tackle. Instead, Jarvis Jones crashes too far inside and loses contain against the tight end, Dion Sims, and Ajayi picks up 12 yards and a first down. Ajayi ran for 29 yards on only three carries during that first drive, and ran better as the game went on.
Late in the third quarter, the Dolphins run a “zone split” to the right side, where Pouncey and former Steeler Kraig Urbik double-team Tuitt to create a hole for Ajayi. Wide receiver DeVante Parker seals off safety Robert Golden, and Ajayi breaks free for a 33-yard gain.
Things eventually fell apart for the Steelers defense in the fourth quarter, and Ajayi provided the coup de grace: the Dolphins run an outside zone to the right, and Pouncey gets to the second level to block rookie inside linebacker Tyler Matakevich. Pouncey gets both hands on Matakevich, but also gets a tug on his jersey for what should’ve been a holding penalty, preventing Matakevich from getting to Ajayi. Instead, Ajayi slips away from a diving tackle attempt by Golden and gallops 62 yards for the touchdown that put the game out of reach.
Losing the linchpin of their offensive line should make the Dolphins’ efforts to run the ball and control the clock much more difficult, as evidenced by six games with 100 or fewer yards rushing in their final seven without Pouncey. The Steelers should also have added help in the run game with a healthy Ryan Shazier, as opposed to relying on Williams and Matakevich to make plays.
If they can limit Miami’s running attack, it will create a much harder scenario for backup quarterback Matt Moore to carry the offense through the passing game and strengthen the Steelers’ chances to move on to the Divisional Playoff round.