Dolphins vs. Steelers: Complete Wild Card Gameday Preview

Brent Sobleski@@brentsobleskiNFL AnalystJanuary 8, 2017

Dolphins vs. Steelers: Complete Wild Card Gameday Preview

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    The Miami Dolphins and the Pittsburgh Steelers ready themselves for a rematch during the opening weekend of the NFL playoffs. 

    When these two teams previously met in Week 6, the Dolphins captured a 30-15 victory. But that was a long time ago and these two teams are drastically different than the ones that took the field in Miami. 

    The Dolphins won nine of their final 11 regular-season contests after a 1-4 start. The Steelers ended their campaign on a seven-game winning streak. 

    As coaches are fond of saying, "Every day you either get better or you get worse. You never stay the same.

    Their first meeting provided a fulcrum point for both franchises. The Dolphins took off and finally established an identity, Pittsburgh, meanwhile, just started a four-game losing streak before developing a rhythm.

    Thus, a similar outcome shouldn't be expected. The postseason provides a fresh start and completely different circumstances. Both organizations understand this and relish the opportunity for a rematch. 

    "We're a lot different team. They are a different team too," Steelers right tackle Marcus Gilbert said, per ESPN.com's Jeremy Fowler.  "Whenever the smoke clears, it's going to be zero-zero. We're punching a ticket to try to go all the way to the dance."

Game Specifics

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    When: 1 p.m. ET

    Where: Heinz Field

    Network: CBS

    Expected Weather: Sunny, 22 degrees

    Line (via OddsShark): Pittsburgh (-10)

    The biggest difference in this contest compared to the previous meeting between these two teams is the venue. The Pittsburgh Steelers didn't perform well in Miami. However, a cold day in Pittsburgh just screams playoff football. 

    Also, the Steelers hold an enormous advantage in regards to postseason experience. Mike Tomlin's squad made the playoffs each of the previous two seasons whereas the Dolphins earned a berth for the first time since 2008. 

    "If you are not excited to be in the playoffs, something is wrong with you," Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said, per the team's official Twitter account.

    Miami's Adam Gase is a first-year head coach going against the Super Bowl-winning tandem of Tomlin and Roethlisberger. 

    A decided edge points toward Pittsburgh, and it's reflected along the betting line as the biggest among this weekend's four contests.

Injury Report

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    Here are the most significant injuries for Sunday's game. Each of these individuals either didn't participate or were limited in practice during the week, per the teams' official injury reports. 

    Miami Dolphins

    • Quarterback Ryan Tannehill (out)
    • Cornerback Byron Maxwell (doubtful)
    • Linebacker Jelani Jenkins (questionable)
    • Safety Baccari Rambo (questionable)
    • Cornerback Tony Lippett (questionable)

    Earlier discussions regarding how the Dolphins will be much different in this meeting start at the quarterback position. The organization ruled Ryan Tannehill out for the game as he continues to recover from sprained ACL and MCL ligaments, per the Associated Press (h/t 7 News Miami). As such, veteran Matt Moore will start his fourth-straight contest. 

    Pittsburgh Steelers

    • Outside linebacker Anthony Chickillo (out)
    • Defensive end Ricardo Mathews (out)
    • Inside linebacker Vince Williams (questionable)
    • Safety Robert Golden (questionable)
    • Tight end Ladarius Green (questionable)

    The Steelers are fortunate, because they're getting healthy at the right time. Defensive end Stephon Tuitt is the most important name not to appear alongside those who missed practice this week. Even if tight end Ladarius Green isn't cleared to play due to a concussion, Pittsburgh enters the postseason with the majority of its starters ready to play. 

Dolphins Offense vs. Steelers Defense

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    The Pittsburgh Steelers are sitting on the tracks, and the J-Train is coming. 

    Miami Dolphins running back Jay Ajayi sets the tone for Adam Gase's offense. Since his 204-yard effort in Week 6 against the Steelers, he accumulated a total of 1,155 rushing yards. He has three 200-yard rushing games, but he's also been held under 60 yards four times after taking over as the lead back. 

    If the Dolphins establish their ground game, it'll open up the rest of the offense for veteran Matt Moore, who will start in Ryan Tannehill's stead. Moore is an aggressive passer and pushes the ball downfield more often than Tannehill.

    On the other side, Pittsburgh's defensive front needs to establish itself. Defensive end Stephon Tuitt returns after a two-week absence, and his presence is vital to the unit's success. In Week 17 against the Cleveland Browns, the majority of the Steelers' starting defense was in place, yet the group surrendered 231 rushing yards. 

    However, a once-stagnant pass-rush blossomed during the second half of the regular season. Since Week 10, the Steelers amassed 25 sacks. Moore has only been sacked once during the last three games. Defensive coordinator Keith Butler will surely have a few pressure packages up his sleeve to make Moore's life uncomfortable. 

    Something has to give. The odds lie in the Steelers' favor since their primary goal will be to slow Ajayi and frustrate a career backup quarterback. 

    Who Has the Edge? Steelers

Steelers Offense vs. Dolphins Defense

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    Prior to start of the season, the Pittsburgh Steelers offense set a goal of scoring 30 points per game. The group fell short at 24.9 points per game, but it's still as dangerous as any found around the league. 

    Pittsburgh's presents a three-pronged attack that is nearly impossible for any defense to slow.

    Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger didn't have his typical season. In fact, his completion percentage, passing yards and yards per attempt all decreased. Some of the downturn can be traced back to a torn meniscus. The veteran signal-caller still threw more touchdown passes this season compared to last. 

    Wide receiver Antonio Brown led the league with 106 receptions and finished tied for second with 12 touchdowns. Running back Le'Veon Bell was second-best with an average of 105.7 rushing yards per game. In fact, Bell amassed 1,884 yards in 12 games. 

    When these two teams previously met, Roethlisberger suffered his knee injury and tried to play through it. As such, the Steelers offense never found a rhythm. He's far healthier now, and the Miami Dolphins defense will need to get after the 13-year signal-caller. 

    Miami's defensive front can be ferocious, too. Defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh and defensive end Cameron Wake are Pro Bow-caliber players and possess the ability to take over games. However, the Dolphins still rank 29th in total defense and surrender 382.6 yards per game. 

    Who Has the Edge? Steelers

Special Teams

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    Special teams are more important than ever. 

    The Miami Dolphins' Jakeem Grant is a dynamic kick and punt returner. The speedster averages 23.2 yards per kick return and 8.3 yards per punt return. He's fast, fearless and rarely calls for a fair catch. But he can only do so much. 

    Kicking games continue to decide contests. Due to the advent of extended point-after attempts and updated kickoff rules, specialists play a bigger role than they once did. 

    In Pittsburgh, kicker Chris Boswell is one of the best. The third-year pro only missed two field goals inside 50 yards and became one of five kickers to convert all of his extra points. 

    More importantly, Heinz Field is notorious for its kicking conditions. As such, Boswell owns a home-field advantage over Dolphins kicker Andrew Franks. 

    Also, Pittsburgh punter Jordan Berry holds a slight advantage over the Dolphins' Matt Darr in punting average and net yards per punt. 

    Who Has the Edge? Steelers

The Pick

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    Pittsburgh Steelers 24, Miami  Dolphins 17

    The Pittsburgh Steelers are the proverbial team no one wants to face. They're talented, relatively healthy and playing their best football as the postseason begins. 

    Mike Tomlin's team is explosive on offense. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is an elite signal-caller. Wide receiver Antonio Brown is arguably the best in the business and the NFL's hardest target to cover. And Le'Veon Bell is league's most well-rounded running back. 

    The defense also improved throughout the regular season even if a few question marks remain. 

    Of course, Miami Dolphins running back Jay Ajayi will be difficult to stop. He's already proved so against the Steelers. Yet, head coach Adam Gase can't expect his workhorse to post another 200-yard game. It's not realistic. 

    When Pittsburgh's playoff and Super Bowl experience is factored into the talent found throughout the roster and the added bonus of home-field advantage, the Steelers should prove to be too much for the Dolphins.