On paper, nothing was going to change the fact that the Pittsburgh Steelers are a mismatch for the Miami Dolphins. The warm confines of Miami are natural grounds for a Steelers offense that is rolling. The mess that is the Dolphins offense makes a shootout exactly what they need to prevent.
The course of this week is making that plan more of a challenge. The injury report is a lengthy one for Miami, but one name in particular poses a major challenge in trying to defend the Steelers: Reshad Jones.
With one day of practice to go for the week, the seventh-year safety has yet to participate because of a groin injury. It’s worth noting because he has been Miami’s best player on either side of the ball, and he plays a spot on the field that will be absolutely crucial to keeping the Steelers from ripping off big plays.
Jones is most exceptional in his run-stopping blitzes and his plays on the ball down the field. Defensive coordinator Vance Allen has used him in a similar role this season as he did Reggie Nelson last year in Cincinnati, balancing between these traits. It’s the one part of the Dolphins’ transition under a new coaching staff this season that is working the best.
The Steelers have had no issue moving the ball or scoring in the two weeks since running back Le’Veon Bell returned from a three-game suspension for violating the league’s substance-abuse policy. They’ve piled up exactly 436 yards each week. Ben Roethlisberger has thrown 9 touchdowns and no interceptions. And it’s happened as he’s orchestrated the most diverse of distributive attacks, one that allows Bell to line up outside and for DeAngelo Williams to present a threat running the ball.
It’s succeeded this way as defenses have overplayed star receiver Antonio Brown to try to force lesser-known receivers to beat them. Brown has 64 and 78 yards the past two weeks, respectively, as safeties have provided coverage to the cornerbacks. Roethlisberger has instead fed a healthy dose of passes to Sammie Coates, who has dropped his fair share but has still managed to hit enough big plays.
It’s a plan that hasn’t played out perfectly for opposing defenses yet, as the Steelers are still in the top five in plays more than 20 yards and more than 40 yards. But it’s one that has the potential to stall drives, given Coates’ and Markus Wheaton’s tendencies for drops. If a pass rush like Miami’s could enter the picture, it’s possible the challenge would finally intensify some on the road.
Jones’ absence would negatively affect the Dolphins’ abilities against both the run and the pass. More importantly, it would clear out the best asset Miami has to try to combat the two best players in the Steelers’ offense in Bell and Brown.
Add to it that Jones’ solid co-safety, Isa Abdul-Quddus, has been limited in practice this week with a knee injury, and the Dolphins could be searching for the kind of help on defense a team needs to force the Steelers away from Brown and Bell and instead to more flawed players like Coates and Wheaton.
There’s no easy plan for defending the Steelers’ offense as it is currently constructed. The best is to find ways to play strength on strength and force a different offensive script. The Dolphins better hope they have theirs on Sunday.