Sunday at Heinz Field we’ll see a rematch of the Week 6 game between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Miami Dolphins as the two teams will face-off in an AFC Wild Card game. The Dolphins beat the Steelers 30-15 in that early October game that featured Miami running back Jay Ajayi rushing for 204 yards and two touchdowns on 25 carries. On Tuesday, Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin previewed the upcoming playoff game against the Dolphins during his weekly press conference and made sure to highlight how the Miami running game contributed heavily in their win over Pittsburgh earlier in the season.
“What’s on video is the last time we saw these guys, they flat out got after us,” Tomlin said. “Their run game was significant in terms of how the game unfolded. We weren’t able to tackle their runner. Their offensive line won the line of scrimmage and won it consistently, whether it was an interior run or a perimeter run. We are not going to pretend like the 200-yard day was a lightning strike. No, it was very real. I don’t think it’s appropriate to take that approach.
“He [Ajayi] ran for 200 yards twice against the Buffalo Bills this year, so there’s tangible evidence that we need to respect this preparation process. We need to have an understanding that what occurred the last time we played these guys was by no means a lightning strike. We’ve got a big-time work week in front of us in terms of minimizing the impact of their quality run game and their featured runner.”
As Tomlin mentioned, Ajayi, who entered that Week 6 game against the Steelers with just 117 rushing yards and two touchdowns on 31 carries, has since proven that his performance against Pittsburgh wasn’t a fluke. The Boise State product went on to finish the 2016 regular season with 1,272 yards rushing and 8 touchdowns in addition to catching 27 passes for another 151 yards.
“He’s got a sturdy body,” Tomlin said Tuesday when asked what it is that allows Ajayi to break so many tackles. “He’s got a great pad level; his shoulders are almost always rolled forward. He plays with a good, natural base, which allows him to have great contact balance and bounce off of would-be tacklers. He utilizes his off hand very well, whether it’s stiff-arms or warding off tacklers. He’s just a very, very solid back in that way. A guy that’s built for combat.”
Ajayi certainly made a lot of Steelers defensive players miss tackles in that Week 6 meeting and especially their cornerbacks. On Tuesday, Tomlin was asked what the Steelers cornerbacks need to do this time around to ensure that doesn’t happen again on Sunday at Heinz Field. Tomlin had the perfect response.
“Boy, if you’re talking about corners as your first line of defense in terms of stopping the run, that’s a bad discussion,” Tomlin said. “There are some bigger people more suited for that action that play in front of them that better have a lot to say about it as well. But when given an opportunity, we expect these guys to be professional and do what we expect them to do, which is be functional, solid tacklers. In a lot of ways, some of those things have been addressed just by improving over the course of the journey. I’ve got to acknowledge that a guy like Artie Burns is a much better fundamental tackler now than he was when we played those guys, but I’m not going to seek comfort in that.”
One thing that Tomlin should seek comfort in is the fact that safety Sean Davis and linebacker Ryan Shazier both failed to play any defensive snaps in that Week 6 loss to the Dolphins. Davis was active for that game but only played on special teams while Shazier was inactive due to a knee injury. Additionally, outside linebacker Bud Dupree was still on the team’s Reserve/Injured list at that time and fellow outside linebacker James Harrison still wasn’t the full-time starter on the right side as he was splitting playing time with outside linebacker Jarvis Jones.
The Dolphins will likely lean on Ajayi once again in their rematch against the Steelers but it’s worth noting that they’ll be without their starting center Mike Pouncey as he’s out for the season due to a hip injury. Starting now in his place is Kraig Urbik, who was originally drafted by the Steelers several years ago.
Should Ajayi ultimately have the same level of success on Sunday against the Steelers as he did back in Week 6, it will more than likely result in Pittsburgh being eliminated from the playoffs. Lightning strike or not, the Steelers defense must limit Ajayi’s rushing yards on Sunday.