The Pittsburgh Steelers secondary is coming off a great performance against the Buccaneers, but this group gets the ultimate test against the Dolphins in Week 7.
If the Pittsburgh Steelers think their secondary couldn’t look any worse than it did against the Bills, I would caution them not to underestimate the Miami Dolphins on Sunday Night Football. The good news is that it looks like this team could be getting back four-fifths of its starting secondary. The bad news is that they have potentially the most brutal matchup they will face all season.
Trying to contain wide receivers Stefon Diggs and Gabe Davis against the Bills two weeks ago did not go according to plan. Now the Steelers secondary will face (on paper) the fastest wide receiver duo in the history of the NFL in Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle.
On the season so far, Hill and Waddle have combined for a whopping 487 yards after the catch, via Prio Football Reference. This is more than the entire Steelers team this year — running backs, receivers, and tight ends combined. Hill and Waddle were also able to manage this despite missing their starting quarterback for multiple games with a concussion.
Tua Tagovailoa’s return will make a big impact
What’s really scary for the Steelers is that Dolphins QB Tua Tagovailoa is returning to the field this week. While this might not seem like a big deal, Miami was averaging close to 28 points per contest in their first three games with a healthy Tua. Over the past three (including the Bengals game in which he left early with a concussion), the Dolphins only managed 16 points per contest.
Despite pedestrian arm talent and traits, Tua was considered a very early MVP candidate thanks to his timeliness and accuracy from the pocket. His ability to hit his receivers in stride and routinely find them down the field led to the biggest plays by a QB over the first three weeks. His outstanding 9.0 yards per attempt and 9.2 adjusted yards per attempt lead the NFL in both categories.
In Week 2, Tagovailoa earned 469 yards and 6 passing touchdowns thanks to the speed and run-after-the-catch ability of his receivers. Though Steelers fans can be thankful that Minkah Fitzpatrick, Cameron Sutton, Ahkello Witherspoon, and Levi Wallace are set to return, they should also be quite nervous about this matchup.
How Steelers must defend Dolphins receivers
This is going to be no easy task this week. If Ahkello Witherspoon is not hampered by the hamstring injury he suffered a few weeks back, he probably stands the best shot at matching up with Hill and Waddle on the outside, as he’s the only CB on the Steelers with a good combination of size and speed. However, he cannot do this without help.
Though Pittsburgh has been really aggressive with Terrell Edmunds near the line of scrimmage, they cannot afford to be this week. Defensive coordinator, Teryl Austin, needs to stick Edmunds and Fitzpatrick in a deep Cover-2 shell. Though this may limit the creativity of the defense this week, they simply can’t afford to get burnt over the top, and even Minkah can’t be expected to play single-high against this team.
Doing this may be able to prevent most big plays, but Steelers cornerbacks are going to need to be quick to close and tackle this week. If more passes come underneath because of the defense they are playing, they cannot afford to let Hill or Waddle get loose after the catch, as either player has the threat to go the distance on any play.
This is a particularly bad matchup for Levi Wallace. Despite average size for a boundary cornerback, Wallace has 4.63 speed, so sticking with a pair of sub-4.3 receivers is going to be nearly impossible. Likewise, Pittsburgh’s linebackers need to do a good job communicating on slants and drags over the middle when in zone. One missed assignment could result in a massive play after the catch.
If the Steelers can get Tua uncomfortable and contain these wide receivers well enough to avoid more than a few explosive plays, they will have a shot in this one. This will be the key to victory for Pittsburgh on Sunday Night Football.