The 4-1 Pittsburgh Steelers rolled into Miami Gardens, Florida to face the 1-4 Miami Dolphins. The following is my reaction to the game after watching the game live Sunday and then re-watching the game in its entirety Monday morning. Follow @TomLikeFootball on Twitter.
The narrative throughout the week
The Dolphins were coming off an incredibly embarrassing 30-17 loss to the Tennessee Titans, which I wrote about. Head Coach Adam Gase continued his tough approach as he cut Offensive Linemen Billy Turner, Dallas Thomas and Jamil Douglas. All three were reasonably high draft picks by previous regimes. If you read my piece last week you will understand why Coach Gase cut Turner and Thomas. Side-note: running back Isaiah Pead was also cut this week.
Some other headlines heading into week 6 were the injuries to RB Arian Foster and SS Reshad Jones; both were game-time decisions. The Miami Dolphins filled plenty of press columns this week as many within the media debated whether Miami was the worst or at a minimum, a bottom three team in the NFL. Many also questioned the play of Ryan Tannehill, however, Head Coach Adam Gase said it was impossible to evaluate Tannehill until the Dolphins did a better job in pass protection. One final side note was that Defensive Co-Ordinator Vance Joseph came out questioning Mario Williams and his effort level through the first five weeks. Déjà vu from his time in Buffalo last season?
On the Pittsburgh side, the Steelers looked set to lose a few key starters to injury. The Steelers would be without DE, Cameron Heyward; LB, Ryan Shazier as well as starting RT Marcus Gilbert and WR Markus Wheaton. Yet, most of the talk was concerning Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and his impressive play through weeks 4 and 5.
Stats heading into the game
Entering the game, Roethlisberger had 680 yards, 9 TDs, 0 INTs in his last two appearances as he looked to square off against a Miami Dolphins Defense that has struggled massively through the first five weeks. Roethlisberger had 15 passing touchdowns after five weeks, a franchise record to start the season. The Miami Dolphins were 31st in the NFL averaging only 72.4 rushing yards per game. Alongside this the Dolphins had given up a league high 150.8 rushing yards a game after five weeks. Le’Veon Bell for the Steelers averaged 105.0 yards over his first two weeks returning from suspension. The Miami Dolphins were also ranked tied-30th in sacks allowed and 30th in Quarterback hits surrendered. The Stats overwhelmingly favoured Pittsburgh and with the Dolphins Defense fielding the most snaps and minutes of any Defense around the League; it is clear that for the Dolphins to stand any chance they needed to get off the field on Defense and sustain drives on Offense.
Pittsburgh Steelers @ Miami Dolphins, Week 6
For Miami the goals were simple heading into Week 6. To stand any chance of beating the Pittsburgh Steelers they needed to:
- Protect the franchise – Keep Ryan Tannehill clean
- Establish the run game
- Get the Defense off the field
- Keep it third and manageable
- Dominate the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball
I always believe that the very first play of the game (on Offense or Defense) is indicative of what is to follow. The Steelers first play was a 4 yard run and afterwards we saw Miami Safety Reshad Jones clashing with Steelers WR Cobi Hamilton. The Dolphins were fired up for this game and after the cuts/ purges Gase made this week, players knew they were playing for not only their starting positions, but their jobs (a few we can make an exception for and yes Jones is one of them). But the point still stands. Miami was physical and looked to dominate the line of scrimmage defensively as the Dolphins had two run stuffs for less than two yards before a 3rd & 6 where Cam Wake (who started at DE and needs to start the remainder of the season) and Ndamukong Suh showcased their incredible first steps and penetration as they caused terror in the backfield and caused Big Ben to spike the ball.
Jay Ajayi motioned out of the backfield on the first offensive play as the Dolphins went with an empty back set (like they did two weeks earlier against Cincinnati), however, the play ended with a penalty against RT Ja’Wuan James as he moved an opponent off the pile and drew a flag. Landry picked up a first down on 2nd & 20 by turning a 5 yard reception into a 20 yard gain before extra-curricula’s occurred along the Dolphins side-line resulting in Pittsburgh drawing a flag. Steelers Safety Mike Mitchell was in trouble all game as he got into it with Jarvis Landry, Kenny Stills and Kenyan Drake. The Dolphins played with energy and were physical during the opening possession; something Coach Gase had been preaching all week.
(Steve Mitchell/ USA TODAY Sports)
Jay Ajayi rattled off a nice 12-yard pick up as he stiff-armed a Pittsburgh defender to move the chains. The very next play should have been a touchdown, however, DeVante Parker was unable to pull in the football as Tannehill took a shot down field after great pass protection following play action. The next play was a great precursor of what was to come in this game as Jay Ajayi picked up 11 yards off a perfectly executed run play.
Miami is in a simple single-set back formation, however, the key to this play is LT Branden Albert and TE Dion Sims (The two yellow arrows below the long red line) sealing the edge. If they manage to seal the edge then the double block by Center Mike Pouncey and LG Laremy Tunsil should create a running lane (red box) for Jay Ajayi to exploit resulting in positive yardage.
For this play to be extremely successful the Dolphins need to seal the edge, double block to create the hole and then LG Laremy Tunsil needs to kick out and block the Steelers lone Linebacker in the second level. As you can see below the Dolphins seal the edge, Tunsil kicks out and manages to let Ajayi get into the second level untouched before WR Kenny Stills does a great job blocking down field to allow Ajayi to pick up the first down.
The Dolphins eventually kick a Field Goal on their first offensive possession, and do a nice job of establishing the run. The Dolphins then make the bold decision to kick an onside kick, which is recovered by Pittsburgh, yet Miami gets to retake kick off as the officials were not in place prior to the kick.
The Dolphins first sack of the day is waved off due to 2 flags on the Defense (one on CB Bryon Maxwell and the other on Defensive Linemen Jason Jones). However, this play was a huge positive for Miami in terms of their pass rush managing to get home. DEs Cam Wake and Andrew Branch went to work on the outside while DT Ndamukong Suh collapsed the pocket in the middle. It is 3rd & 10, an obvious passing down, Miami is in 2 man, however, they have two linebackers lined up either side of the Center showing a double A gap blitz (The Vikings run this a lot). This causes confusion, as Pittsburgh is required to adjust and assign blockers in case Miami does indeed bring 6 blitzers. The Dolphins are, however, in 2 Man and the LBs lined up either side of the Center are in man coverage. The confusion this causes is further exacerbated as Jason Jones rushes inside, while Suh initiates contact and then stunts to the outside (as demonstrated by the yellow arrows).
The Dolphins are in press coverage on the outside and are also in the nickel (McCain is playing in the slot) which should allow Miami more time to get home as it takes longer for Steelers receivers to gain separation. The yellow line clearly illustrates Suh’s stunt while we can see that Wake is having success at the bottom of the screen as he has already rounded the Steelers Tight End who is left in the backfield to chip block him.
Below Suh is highlighted as he has managed to peel off the Guards block, while the pocket is collapsing around Roethlisberger as he desperately tries to find a receiver down field. The fact that the ball was snapped as the clock was winding down allowed the Dolphins D-Line to get off at the next sound and therefore get a quick first step on the Steelers O-Line.
The next play was a 60 yard end around which resulted in a Pittsburgh Touchdown as Miami missed tackles and Steelers Darrius Heyward-Bey was simply too physical. The Steelers capped this off with a successful two point conversion. The Dolphins trailed 8-3 and could have got off the field if not for a costly penalty.
The Dolphins went three and out the following possession before again having a huge sack on 3rd & 10. Miami are again in 2 Man with press coverage, yet this time End Andre Branch is standing up rather than in his normal stance. It is an obviously passing down with the clock winding down allowing Miami’s D-Line to pin back it’s ears and tear up field on the next snap.
As the play develops it becomes apparent that LB Kiko Alonso who is playing man coverage on the RB is being picked up by the Steelers LT as they believe he is blitzing, while they have left a TE to lone block Cameron Wake. A very big mistake.
Wake managed to gain leverage and veer the Steelers TE as he cannons towards Big Ben, before meeting fellow DE Andrew Branch at the Quarterback.
A quick look at Cameron’s Wake ability to convert speed to power and his use of handwork demonstrates why he is such a force in this league. Wake gets out of his sprinter stance early and uses his long arms to get underneath Pittsburgh’s assigned blocker. Look at how Wake manages to get his right arm underneath Jesse James’ armpit allowing him to pull James away from him while he then swipes the right arm underneath before using left to again pull James away from the spot Wake is looking to occupy as he looks to accelerate around the corner.
In the picture below you can see Wake now has his left arm on James. His lower body control is phenomenal as he continually drives his feet round the corner as he uses his hands to rip away the blocker while driving round the corner and towards the Quarterback.
Cameron Wake may be 34 years old, but he has been doing this at a high level for a long time.
The next offensive possession sees Tannehill deal a 53-yard strike downfield to TE MarQueis Gray. Tannehill is hit on the play, however, manages to roll out left and keep his eyes down field before connecting with his TE on the deep ball. The next play Miami scores a Touchdown, however, this is chalked off following a silly penalty as two Dolphins TEs fail to cover James at RT resulting in an illegal formation penalty. Miami has to settle for a FG.
The very next play was a huge turning point in the game as not only does Reshad Jones make a ridiculous interception catch to set up Miami on Pittsburgh’s 13; but Ben Roethlisberger is also injured on the play. Miami again settles for a Field Goal on this possession as they take the lead in the turnover battle and the game. 9-8 Miami.
The Dolphins are able to stop a Landry Jones led Pittsburgh and managed to score a touchdown as a 38-yard hook up with Jarvis Landry moves Miami close to Pittsburgh’s End Zone. Damien Williams lined up at FB and managed to run the ball in before LB Lawrence Timmons brought up his lunch in the End Zone. I’m sure you have all seen the vine.
16-8 Miami at the Half.
The Miami Dolphins were impressive out of the half as Ajayi again rattled off a big run following Sims and Stills setting the edge with RG Jermon Bushrod coming round as lead blocker (This will be last film study of this article). The Dolphins are in a man block run where TE Sims and WR Stills will set the edge, before RG Bushrod will kick out left and run behind the line of scrimmage before acting as a lead blocker down field.
As you can see from the image below, Stills and Sims set the edge while Bushrod makes his way round the line of scrimmage to act as lead blocker.
The Dolphins hold their blocks and Ajayi is down the outside untouched as he looks to rattle off another big run.
The Dolphins ended this drive with a blocked Field Goal; yet, Miami quickly got the ball back as Isa Abdul-Quddus picked of Roethlisberger for his second interception of the afternoon. This next drive Ajayi again has a nice 32 yard pick up on an Outside Zone run. The Dolphins got to Pittsburgh’s 1-yard line before Tannehill audibled and changed the play at the line of scrimmage, resulting in a 1 yard Jay Ajayi touchdown run. At the end of the Third Quarter, Miami led 23-8 and had 221 passing yards to Pittsburgh’s 53. The Dolphins then missed a 50-yard Field Goal wide left, before Byron Maxwell broke up 2nd and 3rd down pass attempts aimed towards Antonio Brown.
The Dolphins Offense was impressive in the fourth quarter and one play I particularly liked came on 3rd & 1. Tannehill was rolling out on a reverse bootleg and clearly had the yard with his legs, yet kept his eyes down field and showed great patience and timing as he connected with his TE on a 19 yard pick up. Coach Gase displayed good situational and intelligent coaching as he elected to punt on Pittsburgh’s 36 yard-line on a 4th & 8 rather than try a 54-yard Field Goal. This pinned the Steelers on their own 3-yard line with only 4:20 left in the game. The Steelers scored a TD on this drive, however, it massively burned the clock down before Jarvis Landry recovered the onside kick. 1st & 10 on Miami’s 38, they need just one first down the seal the game. The Dolphins managed to set the edge and with a great kick out block, Jay Ajayi goes 62 yards for the knock out punch touchdown as Miami upsets the massively favoured Pittsburgh Steelers.
Jay Ajayi has a historic day as he has the 3rd highest single game rushing total in franchise history (204 yards; behind Ricky Williams’ 216 and 228). The Dolphins were physical, aggressive, angry and played tough football which saw them dominate both lines of scrimmage. The Dolphins managed to generate a decent pass rush with just their four defensive linemen and I believe Andre Branch and Cam Wake should be starting ahead of Mario Williams. Byron Maxwell had his best game as a Dolphins as he surrendered only four catches for 29 yards the eight times he was targeted. Jay Ajayi was a bell cow in the backfield which opened up lanes in the passing game for Ryan Tannehill to exploit. Head Coach Adam Gase and his coaching staff did a good job game planning as Tannehill was kept clean while Ajayi’s touches allowed him to get into a rhythm offensively. A great and much needed win for Miami as they are now 2-4 on the season and look ahead to a week 7 division game at home against the red hot Buffalo Bills.
(Matt Freed/ Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)
Game-Ball on Offense: Jay Ajayi, RB
Game-Ball on Defense: Byron Maxwell, CB