Primed for Fireworks: Stats, Predictions and Keys to Victory for Steelers vs. Dolphins

The Narrative:

Through five weeks, there have been few teams as impressive as the Pittsburgh Steelers and few teams as embarrassingly disappointing as the Miami Dolphins. That makes this AFC battle a potential nightmare for fans of the home team as they face off in Hard Rock Stadium.

The Steelers are 4-1, with their one blemish coming in an outlier performance against the surprising Philadelphia Eagles. The Dolphins, meanwhile, are on the opposite end of the spectrum at 1-4, with their only “bright spot” coming in an unbelievably underwhelming win against the Cleveland Browns. No one expects Miami to make the playoffs, but they still desperately need to improve. It is actually quite difficult to imagine a scenario in which the Dolphins manage to execute worse than they have over the past three weeks.

Pittsburgh, on the other hand, is now widely seen as a Super Bowl contender. Led by a virtually unstoppable offense, and a talented but shorthanded defense, the Steelers could very well be the Patriots’ most threatening competition in the AFC at this point in the season. For these reasons, Pittsburgh enters Week 6 with huge expectations, while the Dolphins are on their heels and simply looking for some momentum heading into a division rivalry game prior to their bye week.

Stats:

Since Le’Veon Bell’s return, Pittsburgh has averaged 445 total yards per game and 37 points per game. These are staggering numbers, albeit over a small sample size. The “Killer B’s,” Ben, Brown and Bell, are simply too much for most defenses to handle. That doesn’t fare well for Miami, who ranks 32nd in run defense and 29th in total defense through five games.

The Steelers hold a sizable advantage over most teams on third downs, and that will be no different against the Dolphins. Pittsburgh converts on third downs 49.2% of the time, the second best percentage in the league. While on defense, they rank fifth, just ahead of Miami, in terms of percentage of third down conversions allowed.

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(Justin K. Aller – Getty Images)

The Dolphins rank dead last in terms of time of possession, indicative of their inability to neither establish a balanced offense nor force turnovers. The Steelers are significantly better in this regard as well, ranking 15th in the NFL. This would likely be a much higher rank if not for their elite big play differential (big plays for – big plays against,) as this both limits their time of possession and lengthens the opponents at times.

Additionally, Miami has mostly failed in terms of turnover differential as well. At -7, the Dolphins are tied for the second worst differential in the league. With a differential of 0, the Steelers are right at the league average. The Dolphins not only turn the ball over at a high rate, but also fail to tally takeaways as well. This could set them up for failure as they face Pittsburgh’s high-powered offense.

Overall, each of these stats suggests that the Steelers hold multiple advantages in this matchup and could play a vital role in deciding the outcome.

Keys to Victory:

Jarvis Landry:

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(Mike Ehrmann – Getty Images)

It’s a scary thought considering their performance thus far, but if Miami is going to be competitive in this game, they’re going to have to put up points. That starts with getting their best offensive player the ball.

Jarvis Landry received only three targets against Tennessee, and converted those limited opportunities into 28 yards. Of course, Ryan Tannehill only threw the ball 18 total times. Miami’s horrific performance in terms of time of possession has been a common theme in 2016 and was no different in Week 5. This gave Miami absolutely no way of getting into a rhythm, and Landry few chances of making an impact on this game.

The Steelers’ secondary is talented, but young and largely unproven. This is exactly the type of game that Gase would thrive in as an offensive coordinator, but he hasn’t had the same success so far in Miami. Landry will likely face off against rookie defensive back Sean Davis, giving Gase a prime one-on-one matchup to potentially take advantage of.

Forcing Big Ben into Mistakes:

Ben Roethlisberger is a monster, and few would have the audacity to suggest otherwise. Over his past two games, Big Ben has totaled 680 yards, 9 touchdowns and no interceptions. However, he has historically been much better at home than on the road. Just this season, Roethlisberger has the same amount of interceptions on the road as he does in Pittsburgh, but in 30 less attempts.

Miami has failed to intercept passes all season. They simply don’t have the necessary personnel in the defensive backfield outside of Reshad Jones. Vance Joseph hoped that the defensive line would be dominant, consistently attacking and applying pressure, while forcing quarterbacks into making mistakes. That vision has largely failed to materialize; perhaps due to the sheer amount of time the defense has been on the field.

It is unlikely that the Dolphins’ defense manages to completely shut down the Steelers’ offense, but forcing a couple of turnovers from Big Ben could at least get the home crowd into it.

Covering Le’Veon Bell:

Bell is the most complete back in the league. His combination of vision, patience, power and acceleration is unlike any other skillset in the NFL. That makes him nearly impossible to limit on the ground. However, the Jets found a way to at least slow him down, to the tune of 66 rushing yards on 20 carries. So how did he still manage to be an x-factor?

bell-catch

Many of Bell’s skills suit him well as a receiver. That led to him totaling 88 receiving yards on 9 catches against New York. He has fantastic hands and is a better route runner than many wide receivers around the league. While Joseph aims to protect against the deep ball from Antonio Brown and Sammie Coates, it is quite possible that Bell tears up the middle of the field just as he did against the Jets. This in addition to all of the damage he does on the ground.

Reshad Jones will play an obvious role in attempting to contain all of Pittsburgh’s playmakers, but this may ultimately come down to Kiko Alonso. Alonso has been solid for Miami, ranking third in the league in tackles. Yet his declining athleticism is extremely noticeable, and he faces an upward battle if he is tasked with covering Bell in man coverage.

Ryan Tannehill’s Pocket Awareness:

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(Richard Graulich – The Palm Beach Post)

The Dolphins’ offensive line is in flux right now. They gave up six sacks against the Titans. Tannehill was hit eight times and threw two interceptions under pressure. Billy Turner, Jamil Douglas and Dallas Thomas were all released this week. In other words, life hasn’t been easy on Miami’s quarterback.

Nonetheless, he is partially at fault. Much was made of Tannehill’s subpar pocket presence throughout the offseason, and Gase was supposed to help fix that. Instead, Tannehill looked more lost than ever before. He has trouble feeling pressure, moving in the pocket and going through his progressions, especially when the pocket is closing around him. He still doesn’t know when to hold onto the ball and when to get rid of it. His pocket awareness is, in short, exactly what we thought it was, and it’s simply being magnified by the horrendous performance of the offensive line.

Pittsburgh has struggled to pressure the quarterback ever since James Harrison’s prime, and while he is still with the team, he is a shell of his former dominant self. The Steelers lack depth at outside linebacker and will be without their best defender, defensive end Cameron Heyward, against the Dolphins. If we see the offensive line and Tannehill struggle in this one like they did against the Titans, Gase’s premier season may be beyond repair.

Staff Predictions:

Ryan Romaine:

As a Steelers fan, seeing this amount to anything closer than a three-possession game would be a major disappointment. Pittsburgh and Miami’s offenses are polar opposites right now. Miami doesn’t have a linebacker that can stick with Bell as a receiver nor cornerbacks that can limit Brown and Coates on the outside (few teams do). To make matters worse, Jesse James is a huge target and could be the latest tight end to take advantage of the middle of the field against the Dolphins. This should be a blowout in Hard Rock Stadium.

34-13, Steelers

Jacob Berkowitz:

The Pittsburgh Steelers have one of the best offenses in football. The Miami Dolphins have one of the worst…well…everything in football. Even if the offense gets it together this week after Adam Gase axed half the offensive line, there isn’t a shot they can keep pace with Big Ben’s high-octane unit.

35-20, Steelers

Max Himmelrich:

It’s not hard to figure out how this game could get really ugly for the Dolphins. It isn’t hard to imagine the combo of Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown producing at least 300 yards combined. This should be an easy win for the Steelers.

42-20, Steelers

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