All Falls Down: Examining Pittsburgh’s Strategy and Miami’s Struggles
It was just a matter of time.
In Week 13, the Miami Dolphins were eviscerated by the Baltimore Ravens, failing in the first test of a playoff push that they would later miraculously complete. John Harbaugh and his staff outcoached the Dolphins’ sideline leaders in every way imaginable; the Ravens ran, passed, played defense and held up on special teams better than the Dolphins.
At the end of the day, the loss to Baltimore didn’t sink Miami’s playoff chances. One team had 53 players sitting on their couches while the other took to Heinz Field. However, the performance against the Ravens could have been much worse for the Dolphins than it was.
In Weeks 14 and 15, the Dolphins’ opponents couldn’t utilize the Ravens’ approach regarding how to not only stop Miami’s offense, but also cut through the Dolphins’ vulnerable D. Arizona’s turnover-prone unit was doomed by their sloppiness, while the Jets simply proved how hapless they are by becoming the only team to lose by more than one possession to the Dolphins this year.
When the Dolphins flew up to Western NY to face the Bills, it was Buffalo’s lack of discipline that doomed them. Their frequent missed opportunities, failed field goal attempts and inability to get 11 men on the field in OT ended up sinking their attempts to spoil Miami’s playoff push.
In Week 17, it didn’t take the Ravens’ gameplan to beat the Dolphins. Neither team wanted to tip their hand with playoff position in good standing, and it came down to the better team winning. Tom Brady didn’t need the Steelers’ help to come out on top at Hard Rock Stadium, as his team thoroughly dismantled the Dolphins’ secondary.
For a while, the Ravens game was far from the forefront of the Dolphins’ attention. A game that should’ve served as the blueprint for every foe tasked with taking on Adam Gase’s squad ended up being followed by a 3-1 finish to the regular season. It looked as if the loss at M&T Bank Stadium would simply be chalked up as a learning experience for Miami.
Until the Dolphins arrived in the postseason.
The Steelers didn’t just use the approach outlined by the Ravens to beat the Dolphins; they perfected it. Baltimore seemed to find ways to get offensive weapons that lack elite talent involved early and often. Dennis Pitta tore through Miami’s LBs in coverage while Joe Flacco distributed the ball to 10 different players throughout the game.
The Steelers saw a team that tore through Miami’s defense with threats like Mike Wallace, Steve Smith Sr., Dennis Pitta and Breshad Perriman, led by Joe Flacco. Imagine what Antonio Brown, Le’Veon Bell, Darrius Heyward-Bey and Eli Rogers could do led by Ben Roethlisberger.
Now, it isn’t up to the imagination.
From the opening drive, it was obvious that the Dolphins would have their hands full with a player they largely contained in Week 6.
The Dolphins’ defense makes plays by gambling. A running back like Le’Veon Bell, whose greatest asset is his ability to virtually stop in the backfield and use elite vision to evaluate openings, is perfectly designed to tear through Miami’s defense.
Throughout the day, Bell was on a seek-and-destroy mission. He found gaps in the Dolphins’ defense and exploited them. Once he found gaps, he was able to take advantage of his size and draft Dolphins’ defenders for extra yards.
We’ve seen players drag defenders before, but the remarkable part of the way Le’Veon Bell embarrasses opponents is that he matches his brute strength with grace and speed.
Bell identified the cutback effortlessly, seemingly going from a walk to a sprint instantly.
While Le’Veon Bell tore through defenses all year, his plays against the Dolphins highlighted a unique weakness of Miami’s.
The linebackers were nowhere to be found.
On the play above, nobody closes the gap as Bell charges down the lane for a touchdown. Everyone appears frozen. Well, in football terms, they basically are perpetually still. Miami doesn’t have linebackers who can shut down lanes or chase down running backs, which makes Vance Joseph’s task that much more difficult.
Add in the loss of both starting safeties and a defensive line without enough players to create a rotation that doesn’t tire out stars, and you have one of the toughest situations for any DC in the NFL to work through.
On the play above, it looks like the Dolphins are playing with 9 men on the field. Where are the linebackers to make a stop? Well, by simply flipping the usual direction of the play, Pittsburgh can operate with confidence that Miami’s linebackers won’t be able to cover enough ground to catch up to Bell.
Returning to the issue of safety play: Watch Baccari Rambo’s angle on the play above and consider the difference that Reshad Jones would’ve made in this game.
That near-TD run by Bell highlights the greatest flaw in Miami’s defense, which is that the team lacks a linebacker who can make it across the field to stop running plays or track down players from behind. Each linebacker has a lower ceiling than the next, and they remain unreliable in both phases of the defense.
Antonio Brown’s first TD highlighted the futility of Miami’s defenders off the line of scrimmage.
Michael Thomas sees the play, but is twice unable to get to Brown. First, he chooses an angle that runs him right into a blocker as Brown takes the screen. Then, he’s unable to catch Brown as he clears into the open field.
Watch Jelani Jenkins on this play as well. His choice of angle seems both slow and clumsy; he, once again, freezes in traffic.
Then, Tony Lippett’s hesitation allows him to get trapped inside by the Steelers’ TE. He isn’t able to get close to Brown again after he allowed Brown to cut outside.
Later in the first quarter, another Antonio Brown TD highlighted the challenges posed to Vance Joseph in slowing down even a moderately talented offense, let alone one of the league’s best.
First, Tony Lippett is beaten in man coverage (not necessarily something to be ashamed of against Brown). Then, Baccari Rambo takes a poor angle, allowing the Steelers’ All-Pro WR to break free for six.
As you can see, it’s impossible for the Dolphins to fully defend any play on the backend with the injuries they faced in the secondary. If the pass rush doesn’t get home, it’s just a matter of finding the weak link, which isn’t difficult to identify in Miami’s current unit.
One of the best examples of this came on a failed attempt for the Steelers.
Cameron Wake trying to cover Antonio Brown? Ben Roethlisberger will take that any day.
The Dolphins frequently used looks that dropped linemen into linebackers’ spots this season, and the Steelers knew they could exploit that with an underneath route that challenged the pass rushers’ ability to catch up to receivers. Had Brown held onto the pass, it would’ve been really ugly for the Dolphins.
I’ve spent plenty of time discussing the defensive breakdown in Miami, but the offense played a huge role in the loss as well.
The team repeated two errors that you can never make if you want to pull off an upset against a superior team.
They turned the ball over at the worst possible moments, and they missed assignments.
Branden Albert and Laremy Tunsil need to pick this play up. Yes, Ryan Tannehill would’ve been able to get away, but with Matt Moore in at QB it is especially important to maintain a clean pocket. This late in the season, you can’t make mistakes of that nature that are purely mental.
Later in the game, Miami tried to use Damien Williams to supplement the failed attempts of the O-line to block Steelers rushers.
Definitely not great.
Sunday’s game should serve as notice of two things for Dolphins fans.
First, that the team has a very long way to go. Some of the Dolphins’ wins over subpar teams were far from convincing, and came too close for comfort. However, this leads us into our second takeaway: The Dolphins came so far with a team that battled the aforementioned issues for most of the season.
Without Ryan Tannehill, Isa Abdul-Quddus, Byron Maxwell, Reshad Jones, Mike Pouncey and Koa Misi, the Dolphins were forced to play a crew of players that should’ve been nowhere near the field in January. However, Adam Gase was able to lead the ragtag replacement crew further than anyone expected.
This article shouldn’t serve as an indictment of the Dolphins’ season; what is written here is not a reflection of the season as a whole. It will take more time to form a full and thoroughly reflective opinion on what this season meant for the Dolphins and what the team’s direction truly is.
However, this article does serve as a demonstration of what happens when the breaks don’t go your way. When your team doesn’t get the right bounces, the timely turnovers, the calls from the refs or the gust of wind that pushes a miracle kick through, a game looks like this.
Against Pittsburgh, things didn’t go Miami’s way. However, for the three months leading up to that game, the Dolphins were miracle workers, finding ways to win each and every week, culminating in a run of nine wins in 11 regular-season games.
Hopefully, the Dolphins will have another chance at January football in the near future.
If the team continues to grow, and things turn their way, there could be much more to celebrate than just the future in South Florida.