The Pittsburgh Steelers entered Miami on a roll. They’d won two straight games, had gotten their star running back back, their defense had perked up, and they were facing a 1-4 Dolphins team that had already given up 17 sacks. What’s more, their starting running back Jay Ajayi’s game high rushing total was 42 yards, or less than Le’Veon Bell’s longest run of the season.
As my 8th Grade World Studies teacher would say, it was a gimmie for the Steelers.
- And of course, as if on cue, the Steelers blew it.
And Pittsburgh blew it badly. The final score of 30 to 15 masks just how one-sided this one was, the Dolphins dominated the Steelers in every phase of the game that counted. The root cause behind the Dolphins drowning the Steelers is easy to pinpoint, its solution however remains elusive.
Is the Standard Still the Standard?
Since the day he was hired, Mike Tomlin has preached, “The standard is the standard, injuries will not be an excuse.” And the truth the men Tomlin leads in the locker room have taken this to heart. Backup really do see themselves as starters in waiting and the recent performance of former practice squanders Jordan Dangerfield, Chris Hubbard, and B.J. Finney offers proof.
But seemingly, there’s a limit to this? Seemingly, at some point injuries pile up beyond the point where focus and determination of the understudies can longer compensate for the collective drop in talent. Right? That’s what one Steelers fan argued on Twitter:
In all fairness, it has way more to do w injuries than anything else https://t.co/RIcuyA43Rf
— Marcus Johnson (@MJohnsonFTW) October 16, 2016
And there’s plenty of ammunition to support this argument:
- Ben Roethlisberger left late in the second half with a knee injury, and was not himself upon returning
- Vince Williams, who has been a one man wrecking crew of late, also left the game
- Sammie Coates suited up, despite a hand swelling with 7 stiches
- Markus Wheaton was out, further depleting the wide receiver depth chart
- Marcus Gilbert was out again
- Ryan Shazier and Cameron Heyward, arguably the defense’s two best players, were also out
All of that makes Miami’s cakewalk performance against the Steelers easier to understand, if not accept, right?
Wrong, that’s all a bunch of bull.
Injuries, in Fact, Are Not an Excuse
While the Steelers would have certainly liked to have had Shazier, Heyward, Gilbert, and Wheaton suited up and ready to go against Miami, their absence excuses nothing.
On the Steelers 5th series, Ben Roethlisberger threw his first interception before he left the field injured, and it looked to be a bad one. The Dolphins turned that into 3 points giving them the lead. Steelers injuries didn’t force Ben Roethlisberger’s the poor throw.
- Going into the game, Ryan Tannehill had been sacked once in every 10 drop backs.
To put that into perspective, had Ben Roethlisberger been sacked as often, he’d have been dropped 19 times this season instead of nine. Now there’s no doubt that not having Cam Heyward in there makes a difference, but does that explain the fact that the Steelers defense only touched Tannehill twice?
- And what about the inability to contain Watler Peyton er, um, Jay Ajayi?
Coming into the game, the Dolphins had NFL’s worst rushing offense and the Steelers boasted the NFL’s the best rushing defense. Jay Ajayi’s rushing total for the season was 117 yards. This should have been a slam dunk. Instead, the Dolphins imposed their will on the Steelers, with Ajayi enjoying better and longer runs as the game wore on.
You’d have to go back to Jon Vaughn’s 131 yard rushing performance the day after Christmas in 1993 to find a similar occurrence of a no name back dominating the Steelers run defense. That Steelers defense was ravaged by the flu, this one doesn’t have quite as convenient of an excuse.
- Then there the issue of play calling.
Anytime you see Ben Roethlisberger heading to the training room, you fear the worst. And if fan’s expectations of Landry Jones are unreasonable, seeing him warm up should still make you long for the days of Charlie Batch.
So Todd Haley did the right thing, he handed the ball off to Le’Veon Bell. Bell got 12 yards on his first carry. A false start on Alejandro Villanueva put the Steelers in the hole on first down. No problem. Bell ripped off runs of 8 and 6 yards, bringing in a third and one.
Instead of running the ball, or even trying a play action pass Jones threw it vaguely in the direction of David Johnson only to see the Dolphin defender mercifully fail to reel in what should have been an interception.
- So we ask, did injuries force Todd Haley into that play call?
Ben Roethlisberger clearly wasn’t himself after the injury, throwing another ugly interception, and failing to get the ball enough to Antonio Brown for Brown to be a factor. Darrius Heyward-Bey had a nice reverse, but couldn’t come down with the ball on either of his targets. Nor could Sammie Coates, who got targeted 4 times. Eli Rogers made 2 catches on 3 targets, but he dropped one that could have made a difference.
An offensive explosion like the only Steelers enjoyed vs. Kansas City wasn’t likely, but do injuries really justify a 3-11 thrid down conversion rate against a middling NFL pass defense? I dare say they do not.
Another Tomlin Team Caught Up in Another Trap Game
Let’s entertain the thought, just for a minute, that this game might mark the turnaround for the Miami Dolphins. ….
…..Maybe Miami will end up as the 2016 version if the 1989 Steelers.
…..Maybe Jay Ajayi will go on to out rush Walter Peyton, Barry Sanders and Emmitt Smith
…..Maybe the Dolphins not only make to playoffs, but shock New England with an upset at Gillette Stadium.
…..Maybe the Steelers rebound too, and we have another Steelers-Dolphins AFC Championship game.
If even some of the above things come to pass, the Steelers loss to the Dolphins will be easier to swallow in the rear-view mirror. But right now the Dolphins still look like a team destined to compete for draft position rather than a shot at the Lombardi.
- As for the Steelers, are they still a legitimate Lombardi contenders?
Losses like the one to the Dolphins make it hard to make the case. The “Fire Everyone” crowed undoubtedly is using this game as an example of why Art Rooney II should summarily fire Mike Tomlin on Monday morning.
On the flip side, criticizing Tomlin for seeing his teams give up trap games has become somewhat of a Taboo for Tomlin supporters, of which I remain.
- Nonetheless, the criticism remains valid.
The 2016 Pittsburgh Steelers are a more talented unit than the Miami Dolphins, but you’d never know that watching today’s game. As we observed in our 2016 Steelers season preview:
The fact is trap games trip up Mike Tomlin teams just as overconfidence self-destructed so many Steelers squads during the Cowher-Donahoe era.
Ben Roethlisberger’s Super Bowl window remains open, but it’s closing nears with each season, and that means that Mike Tomlin must find a way to keep his team from playing down to the competition.
The Miami 30, Pittsburgh 15 score says that six games into the season, Mike Tomlin is coming up short on one of his most important tasks of the season.