Dolphins vs. Steelers: Breaking Down Pittsburgh's Game Plan

Curt Popejoy@@nfldraftboardContributor IDecember 5, 2013

The Pittsburgh Steelers return home after a two-game road trip with a 5-7 record and playoff hopes that are hanging by a thread. They also get to come home to more injuries and a controversy with their head coach.

Just a typical week in the NFL, right?

After last week's heart-breaking loss to the Baltimore Ravens, the Steelers need to pull themselves together; and whether it's with duct tape or staples, hold it all in place long enough to take on a Miami Dolphins team still fighting for a playoff spot as well.

Miami is a team in turmoil as well and doing their level best to stay focused on the game, putting aside any other issues. This game could end up being a wonderful distraction for both teams as they can turn their attention to each other.


By the Numbers

Tale of the Tape
Passing Yards8th17th
Rushing Yards31st25th
Passing Yards Allowed11th9th
Rushing Yards Allowed18th25th
Turnover Ratio-4+2
Sacks Allowed3745

On paper, the matchups tend to favor the Dolphins. The Steelers have leaned heavily on the pass, while defending the pass has been a strength of the Dolphins defense. Along those lines, the Dolphins struggle to stop the run, however the Steelers are statistically one of the worst rushing teams in the league.

Of course, games aren't played on paper; and when they tee it up on Sunday, anything can happen.

Let's take a look at what the Steelers need to do in order to win.


When the Steelers are on Offense

Once again, the Steelers are going to have to try to move the football with an offensive line that resembles the Spartan army at the end of the Movie 300.

In Gerry Dulac's piece in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, head coach Mike Tomlin faced a grim picture of what the line might look like.

Center Fernando Velasco is done for the year. This means center Cody Wallace will get the start. This alone is cause for concern with the strength of the Dolphins defense being their defensive line.

Things get even more complicated, as per the Dulac article, offensive tackle Kelvin Beachum and guard David DeCastro are both questionable for Sunday's game.

Should Beachum and DeCastro both miss Sunday's game, it would likely mean reserve tackle Mike Adams would get the nod at tackle, and Guy Whimper would start at guard. This means the starting offensive line would look something like this.

Left Tackle-Mike Adams
Left Guard-Ramon Foster
Center-Cody Wallace
Right Guard-Guy Whimper
Right Tackle-Marcus Gilbert

…not exactly a terrifying group.

The Dolphins have to be looking at this unit and thinking they can exploit them in multiple ways. The Steelers must find a way to counter this through formations and schemes.

And the best way to account for it is with spacing. The Steelers have to get wide and stay wide. With four viable receiving targets, there is no reason to see any jumbo packages outside of some situational football.

In particular, the bunch formation on one side, and wide receiver Antonio Brown by himself on the other, could be particularly effective.

Sets like this offer the Steelers freedom. They can run to the strong side where they have additional blockers or run to the weak side if the defense has vacated to defend the pass. The options to use the bunch set to confuse the defense, or exploit a one-one-one matchup on the outside are also always options.

The success or failure of the run game on Sunday could depend on the status of running back Le'Veon Bell. As mentioned in the Dulac article, Bell's status after suffering a concussion is still unclear. NFL concussion protocol is strict, so if he doesn't pass, the Dolphins should expect to see a two-headed monster of running backs Jonathan Dwyer and Felix Jones.

Neither Jones or Dwyer are bad backs and, so against what has been a porous run defense, could find success. The key will be up front.

Even with their struggles, the Dolphins defensive front is very talented. It will be best to use the pass to set up the run and not the other way around.

When the Steelers are on Defense

Over the course of the past four games, the trend for the Dolphins appears to be to lean much more heavily on the pass than the run.

Quarterback Ryan Tannehill has averaged 40.5-pass attempts per game during this stretch, while the primary running back in those games has averaged only 12.25 carries per game.

Against the Steelers, I have to believe that the Dolphins are going to try to establish the run with running back Lamar Miller. Even with the problems they have had moving the ball on the ground, Miller is very talented, and the Steelers run defense has gotten into the Christmas spirit early this year.

What the Steelers have to do is trust in their defensive front to stuff the run, let their linebackers roam, and the secondary has to do a better job of play recognition. The Steelers have gotten torched in recent weeks on the deep pass, so corrections have to be made. 

Those should come in the form of more two-deep safety looks, likely one less linebacker for more snaps and possibly more man coverage underneath with safety help deep to alleviate some of the mental errors in assignment football.

Pass rush is another area of interest. Linebacker Jason Worilds has really stepped his game up, due in part to being moved to the left side of the defense. This means rookie linebacker Jarvis Jones is seeing the opposition's best tackle every game.

This could be the week that Jones finally breaks out. Jones should be able to turn the corner on Dolphins offensive tackle Bryant McKinnie and get after Tannehill.

One thing that also plays into the Steelers favor is that Tannehill has a tendency to hold the football a little long, which should give the Steelers an opportunity to pursue, which could lead to sacks and turnovers.

Quick Hits

  • Current Dolphin and former Steelers wide receiver returns to Pittsburgh after the franchise let him leave via free agency. The only Wallace any Steelers should be concerned with is named Cody.
  • Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown currently has 85 catches, putting him fifth in terms of a single season receiving. The career record is 112 catches by Hines Ward in 2002.
  • Even at 5-7, the Steelers are not out of the playoff picture. A win over the 6-6 Dolphins paired with a loss by the Baltimore Ravens to the Minnesota Vikings would put them right back in the mix.



There is so much riding on this game. For the Steelers a loss would mean no shot at a winning record, and realistically no shot at the playoffs. Understanding this, the Steelers will step up and win this one at home.

In the end, there will be too much offense from the Steelers for the Dolphins to keep up. The Steelers have shown that in a pinch they can really sling it down the field. This game could end up in a shootout if one defense doesn't step up but, in the end, the Steelers will keep the dream alive for one more week.

Should the Steelers slip up at home on Sunday, the season is over. They will be too far behind to catch up, and the attention should turn toward the 2014 season in hopes there won't be a repeat of this season anytime soon. 

Unless otherwise specified, all stats provided by


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