Although the Pittsburgh Steelers play the Miami Dolphins tomorrow, their actual enemies are the list of teams blocking their path to a Wild Card playoff berth. And to be even more technical, their enemy isn’t so much the teams ahead of them in the standings but the teams they are going to play. If more teams follow the disgraceful example of the Indianapolis Colts and purposely tank games in order to “rest their starters,” our playoff hopes quickly go from slim to none. So before we worry about the Fins, let’s take a look at what needs to happen tomorrow:
1) Steelers win and Houston loses or ties and New York Jets lose or tie.
2) Steelers win and Houston loses or ties and Baltimore loses or ties.
3) Steelers win and New York Jets lose or tie and Baltimore loses or ties and Denver loses or tie.
Mister Woodley already made his thoughts known on what he thinks other teams are going to do. The Ratbirds travel out to Oakland while the Broncos have the Chiefs. Assuming those teams win, our best hope is for scenario number one. Displaying the class and dignity absent from the Colts, Bill Belichick has told Tom Brady that he is going to start against Houston. I can’t believe I just typed that. The Jets play the Bengals on Sunday night and Ochocinco has been talking trash on Twitter all week indicating the starters are also expected to play in that game. The problem is both New England and Cincy are locked into the #3 and #4 seeds so regardless of what happens, neither team can earn a first round bye which means how long the starters play is anybody’s guess.
Of course, all these what ifs are pointless unless the Steelers take care of their own business against the Dolphins. The Fins were basically eliminated from the race last week so they’re mostly playing the role of spoiler here. The 1-15 Dolphins of 2007 probably weren’t that bad while the 11-5 team of last year probably wasn’t that good. The 2009 team likely lies somewhere in between.
Offensively, they made great strides last season thanks to solid QB play from Chad Pennington and RB Ronnie Brown‘s exploits running the Wildcat. Both players were lost to injury earlier in the season so the offense has had to change a bit. Thanks to a resurgent Ricky Williams, they are still one of the top rushing teams in the NFL. Former #1 overall pick Jake Long anchors a solid offensive line and former WVU Mountaineer Pat White provides a new twist to the Wildcat. QB-of-the-future Chad Henne has come on as of late although this is still for all intents and purposes his rookie season. He’s a stronger thrower than noodle-armed Pennington and has good instincts although their WR corps is pretty weak. Basically, don’t let the Wildcat beat you and your chances of winning the game are pretty good.
Which is my one big concern this week. Last week, the Steelers were gashed in the running game. The loss of Aaron Smith and the abject failure of Lawrence Timmons as a run stopping LB finally reared its ugly head. Also, the Wildcat is a formation which does very well against a pursuing type defense where players fly toward the ball and leave their gaps. The Steelers fit that tendency to a tee. I hate to remind people of this but recall the debacle in Cleveland a few weeks back where Josh Cribbs killed the Steelers running out of the Wildcat. If the D can stay in their lanes and play a disciplined game, even our horrific secondary should be able to contain the Dolphins offense.
Defensively, Miami managed to hold nine opponents to 17 points or less last year, primarily due to a superb run defense. Woodland Hills alum (and Dancing With The Stars champion) Jason “Twinkle Toes” Taylor returned after a one year vacation in Washington to shore up the pass rush while old friend Joey Porter continues to play at a high level. Recognizing a weakness in their secondary, they used their first two draft picks on CBs Vontae Davis and Sean Smith. Rookie CBs tend to struggle early on and thus Miami currently ranks near the bottom of the league in pass defense.
Which is obviously going music to the ears of newly elected Team MVP Ben Roethlisberger and the rest of the offense. Even though Hines Ward is playing on two sprained hamstrings, he’ll suit up because the man is a warrior. And the passing game still has plenty of weapons regardless of his effectivenesss. I’m most impressed by Steelers Rookie of the Year, Mike Wallace, who is quickly emerging as future star. If Ben learns to air out the ball instead of underthrowing Wallace every damn time, we could be treated to a whole bunch of 40+ yard TDs for years to come.
Finally, a sad note. Troy Polamalu had targeted this game for his return. Although he has practiced in a limited fashion all week, all indications are he will not play. Actually, I’m happy for that. Not that I wouldn’t love to see #43 flying all over the field. In practical terms, this game means nothing. If the Steelers win and don’t get help, Troy rushed himself back for no reason. If the Steelers win and manage to sneak into the playoffs, I’d rather have Troy back for that game than this one.
Let’s just hope there is one more game left to play after this week.