It’s appropriate that the popular television show “The Walking Dead” returns this month as it could also accurately describe the current Pittsburgh Steelers roster.
The Steelers head into this game against the Miami Dolphins down four starters in linebacker Ryan Shazier, defensive end Cameron Heyward, offensive tackle Marcus Gilbert and receiver Markus Wheaton. Heyward, mind you, has never missed a football game. That’s right — before this game against the Dolphins, Heyward had never missed a game dating back to his days in high school.
Somehow, in spite of all of this, the Steelers have powered their way to a 4-1 record, with all four of their victories coming against either playoff teams or teams with winning records the previous season. This, however, is what makes this game against the Dolphins as unsettling as it is.
Historically, and not just under Mike Tomlin’s tutelage, the Steelers have played down to their opponents. Wins that should have been carved in granite prior to the season often end with either nail biting finishes or costly losses. This game against the Dolphins has all of the markings of a “trap game”, so to speak. The Steelers walk into Miami against a struggling Dolphins team that simply cannot get settled on either side of the ball, despite the inflated contracts on the defensive line.
Matchup to Watch for Offensively
Wide receiver Antonio Brown vs. cornerback Byron Maxwell
Antonio Brown has had a quiet 2016 to this point. Quiet may be the wrong term for Brown, as he is still currently on pace for over 1400 yards receiving and 16 touchdowns for the season, but he has yet to be the dominant force that we had all become so accustomed to after the 2015 season. Brown has been far from ineffective, but may need to quickly return to form with the injuries currently plaguing the Steelers’ offense.
Wide receiver Sammie Coates reportedly broke his finger against the New York Jets last week and is currently listed as questionable to play against the Dolphins. This comes at the same time with Wheaton being listed as out, and slot receiver Eli Rogers just coming off of his own series of injuries. This has also led to the activation of practice squad receiver Cobi Hamilton to be activated and practice with the first team offense.
Times have been better for the Steelers’ offense.
The good news is, Brown is more than capable of single-handedly taking over a game. We’ve been spoiled with his ability to destroy one-on-one coverage and open up the underneath game for receivers like Rogers and Darrius Heyward-Bey, who was playing adequately early in the season.
Let’s also not forget that the offense reloaded with the return of running back Le’Veon Bell, an incredible receiver in his own right.
This game may indeed hinge on Brown’s ability to return to his once-dominant form. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has been good, not great, thus far this season and is once again tasked with winning on the road, something he has not been good at recently.
Matchup to Watch for Defensively
Defensive end Stephon Tuitt vs. offensive guard Jermon Bushrod
The Dolphins’ offensive line this season has not been good. It hasn’t really even been adequate, nor average. Bad is the first word that comes to mind when looking at this line. After releasing two offensive linemen earlier in the week, the Dolphins have yet to have the starting five linemen on the field at the same time. This could change this week, but it ultimately may not matter. The Dolphins have allowed quarterback Ryan Tannehill to be pressured a league-high 43.3% of his dropbacks, according to ProFootballFocus.com. This has also allowed Tannehill to get sacked 17 times through the first five games of the season.
That said, the Steelers’ ability to generate pressure consistently this season has also been incredibly frustrating to watch thus far. As unpopular as the opinion was in the offseason, I had mentioned numerous times that the biggest flaw on this team was not, in fact, in the secondary but at outside linebacker. After Bud Dupree’s injury, I don’t know if the Steelers currently have a starting-caliber NFL outside linebacker on the roster.
This is what makes the match up this week so important.
Tannehill has not been great this season by any stretch of the imagination, but we have all seen mediocre quarterbacks carve up this defense due to a consistent clean pocket to work out of. With Heyward out on Sunday, the pressure is now on third-year defensive end Stephon Tuitt to make his presence felt in the backfield.
Tuitt has played incredibly well this season but if one were to look strictly at statistics, it may not be apparent. Tuitt and Heyward are the only two members of the defense that have been able to apply pressure consistently in the backfield with the incredible lack of talent on the edges this team currently boasts. Tuitt is going to have to make an impact early and often against an underwhelming offensive line, specifically guard Jermon Bushrod, to force Tannehill into making hurried throws and poor decisions.
Linebacker Anthony Chickillo has been steadily progressing, notching his first NFL sack against the Jets, but more is needed from the edges to alleviate some of the pressure off of Tuitt. It simply cannot be a one-man show against the Dolphins up front.
Score Prediction, Parting Shots
This is one of the most unsettling games on the schedule this season. Defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh is still a disruptive force in the middle, though he appears to be having another down year. Defensive end Mario Williams has yet to wake up from his hibernation this season, but remains one the leagues premier pass rushers if he does rise from his slumber.
I think the Steelers win this game, but it’s going to be closer than we’d all like it to be. Until the Steelers are able to generate an edge rush with any kind of consistency the secondary is going to continue to get torn up against less than stellar competition.
Steelers 34 – Dolphins 24