Nov 28, 2013; Baltimore, MD, USA; Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin watches from the sideline against the Baltimore Ravens on Thanksgiving at M

Behind Enemy Lines: Pittsburgh Steelers Edition


 

With the upcoming matchup between the Dolphins and the Steelers on Sunday, I had an opportunity to do a Q&A session with Dominic Di Tolla who is the co-editor of our sister site here on the FanSided network, NicePickCowher.com.  The answers in both directions were pretty revealing, with a great deal of honest assessment of our teams. 

First up, Dominic’s questions and my answers surrounding the team and the upcoming game: 

Has Mike Wallace met the expectations of Miami’s fanbase this season? In your humble opinion, is he worth the hefty ($60 million) price tag?

Met expectations? Not yet, but he has shown a lot of promise thus far. Quite honestly, he’s putting up stats that most folks would be happy with if you don’t factor in the $60M price tag. There have been flashes of dominance on occasion this season, however, and even the threat of him being able to go over the top and occupying opposing defenses best CB is allowing other receivers the opportunity to shine. The timing between Ryan Tannehill and Wallace still needs a bit of work, but a bit of that is play design by Mike Sherman. I also don’t believe that Sherman is fully utilizing Wallace properly (for example, opposing defenses know where he will be lined up on roughly 99% of plays). The timing between Wallace and RT, however, seems to be getting more and more in synch, and you can see Wallace’s “mood” on the field improving via the effort level apparent as a result. There was a vicious stiff arm in the Jets game last week that Wallace threw on Milliner, and he absolutely buried him without even slowing down. As a Steelers fan, I know you’ve seen the rare speed that he has, so if they get their timing down it could be pretty lethal

Do you believe that the Dolphins’ brass will try to overhaul their offensive line during the upcoming offseason? Which position is in the most need of an upgrade?

They absolutely will. Looking at the multiyear plan that Jeff Ireland pointed to when he took over, and taking the 50,000 foot view of the team, Ireland set the table to have revamping the offensive line be a primary focus this coming offseason. John Jerry and Richie Incognito were both set with multiyear deals that expire this offseason. Clabo and McKinnie were brought in with the understanding that they were on a 1 year tryout. I think the expectation was there for Pouncey and Martin to be the cornerstone of the offensive line next season. That said, Pouncey could be the only starter from the first game that is still on the roster next season. I don’t foresee Martin coming back, especially not with the Dolphins. Depending on the investigation I could see a scenario where Richie comes back, though I think chances are slim. I’d like to see them resign McKinnie, and you may see Sam Brenner as a possible starter next year. Miami is currently carrying around $19M in cap space that they plan to roll into the cap for next year, so there will be a dearth of cap space. I expect them to snag several linemen in the draft, but also to make a splash in free agency when it comes to the O-Line. Some of that cap space, however, will be tied up in attempting to retain at least one of the two between Starks & Soliai on the defensive line, and hopefully in a multiyear deal with Brent Grimes. To the original question, however, the team may be looking at up to four new starters on the O-Line next year based on current contracts and pending investigations. If issues arise from the Pouncey’s role with Aaron Hernandez, it could even be a completely new line.

Which side will emerge victorious in the battle between Miami’s makeshift offensive line vs. Pittsburgh’s anemic pass rush?

Miami’s O-Line struggled due to various reasons, but has played well of late. They allowed 1 sack last week, the week before they allowed a few against a talented front seven in Carolina, including Tannehill running out of bounds. If Miami is utilizing the cadence that has caused them issues and given the advantage to the defense, you may see Miami struggle a bit there, but I expect there will be a few sacks in this game depending on if Sherman makes adjustments to how they are running their plays

How much has Ryan Tannehill improved from 2012 to 2013? Are there any areas of his game that he needs to work on moving forward?

I’m very encouraged by his improvement in year 2. He already surpassed many of his numbers from last season weeks ago, and he has the potential to be (I believe) Miami’s first 4000 yard passer since Marino retired. He will still make some mental mistakes, and has struggled to find his timing with Wallace, but I’ve seen a great deal of improvement there. You have to remember, this guy was only a quarterback for a very short time in college and is still new to the position. He throws far better in situations where he’s not forced to overthink what he’s doing – such as on the run, or in the 2 minute drill. As his confidence grows, you can see that start extending into the rest of his game. His reactions on the run and in the hurry up show he has the tools and ability and I’m excited for what he is turning in to. Miami also did a good job building out the skill positions around him

Who has been Miami’s most outstanding rookie through the first 13 weeks of the regular season?

This is a tricky one. Miami’s coaching staff shows a great deal of hesitation in playing rookies, preferring to bring them along slowly. As far as outstanding rookie, the more that they work in Dion Jordan, the more encouraged I am that they made a good call there. Even in limited action he has shown fantastic ability in disrupting games rushing the passer, as well as dropping back in coverage. They are beginning to get him on the field more and more (the last two weeks he has played 30+ snaps) and I’m very excited at what I see, as well as what he brings to the table in coming off the edge with guys like Cam Wake and Olivier Vernon. With the push Miami gets up the middle from the defensive tackle position, the impact the speed Miami has on the edge can be huge, and that includes from Jordan. Some of his stats won’t show up on paper, but he has been directly responsible for several interceptions this season as well impacting the quarterback as he throws and sending passes off trajectory

Do you have any predictions for Sunday’s game? A final score perhaps?

I know some Steelers fans won’t want to hear this, but I’m expecting that you’ll see a big game from Mike Wallace in this one. His timing with Tannehill has been getting better, and he’s been playing with a lot of motivation recently. I can’t imagine he won’t come into this game without a high level of motivation. I think Antonio Brown will have the most success for the Steelers, and they’d do well to move him around a lot so that he’s not always matched up on Brent Grimes – who is having a mind boggling year coming off his injury last season. I expect to see Big Ben shake off a couple of sacks, but I also expect that Miami’s defense will be hitting him often. If Bell can get outside he may see some success, but I don’t expect the ideal place for him to run will be up the middle against Soliai, Starks and Odrick. The biggest X-Factor for the Steelers will be what Antonio Brown can do.

I like the matchups on paper for Miami, and believe they probably take this one 27-10. I think the TD for the Steelers will be on a big play to Antonio Brown.

 

 

In addition to the above Q&A with their site, I had the opportunity to ask questions of Dominic as well.  The answers below from Dominic were very revealing, open and honest in regards to how the matchup is viewed from his perspective.

With the rough start the Steelers had to the season, what would you say turned it around to put them in the conversation for the AFC’s sixth seed for the playoffs?

The use of the no-huddle offense and Ben Roethlisberger distributing the ball into the hands of his playmakers is the biggest reason why they went 5-2 in the middle of the season. Roethlisberger is this team’s best player, and his play during the month of November was nothing short of fantastic. He earned the AFC Offensive Player of the Month Award for his efforts, and he is the main reason why this team is even competitive in the first place this year.

Pittsburgh is down several offensive linemen, I believe, and are down to their third string Center. How do you see their O-Line holding up against Miami’s front four – arguably one of the biggest strengths of the Dolphins?

It won’t be pretty. The Steelers are not only missing Fernando Velasco at center, they could be missing their starting right guard and could be without their best offensive lineman David DeCastro. In addition, Mike Adams will replace the underrated yet hobbled Kelvin Beachum at left tackle. While the line has played extremely well as of late when it has come to pass protection, I see no way that Cody Wallace, Guy Whimper, and Adams can withstand a continued onslaught from Miami’s front-four led by the likes of Cameron Wake and the underrated Olivier Vernon.

Antonio Brown is obviously a massive threat on any play, how do you see him matching up against Brent Grimes and the Miami secondary? Who else do you see that could pose a major threat to the Dolphins defense?

As Pittsburgh’s number one receiver this fall, Brown is on pace to set multiple single-season team records. He has caught at least five pass for 50 yards in every game this season, and I will look for him to have a solid afternoon against Grimes.

Miami’s defense had better be careful not to dedicate too much of their focus to the NFL’s leader in receptions. Roethlisberger will be more than willing to exploit other matchups with pass-catchers like Emmanuel Sanders, Jerricho Cotchery, Markus Wheaton, the reliable Heath Miller, and Le’Veon Bell out the backfield or in the slot.

Miami’s O-Line has allowed a large number of sacks this year and had a great deal of flux in personnel, but Pitt has struggled to get to the quarterback in some games. How do you see this matchup playing out?

If LaMarr Woodley plays, then Miami’s offensive line will coast on the edges. That tubby underachiever will force Jason Worilds, who has played fantastic as of late, to move to his less natural position of right outside linebacker and replace rookie Jarvis Jones. While Worilds could have a big day against Bryant McKinnie, I’ll look for Tyson Clabo to absolutely shut down Woodley in pass protection.

Woodley has played terribly over the last three seasons when he has been hobbled by injuries, and I can guarantee that his calf will limit his effectiveness if he is rushed onto the field. My hope is that defensive ends Cameron Heyward and Ziggy Hood can create some pocket collapse of their own. Thankfully both five-techniques are quite capable of supplying pressure, so all might not be lost if Woodley plays and those two have strong afternoons.

What matchups do you see that you believe could be exploited by Pittsburgh, and what matchups could be an issue for them?

As far as exploiting matchups is concerned, the Steelers will always be at an advantage if Roethlisberger is allowed to run the no-huddle and distribute the ball to his play-makers as he sees fit. It also doesn’t hurt that he has the offensive firepower at his skill positions to do damage to Miami’s defense.

Pittsburgh’s biggest matchup disadvantage, besides their makeshift offensive line vs. Miami’s pass rush, deals with Mike Wallace vs. Ike Taylor. The veteran cornerback has lost a step, or two, or three in recent seasons, and he has been absolutely abused by Calvin Johnson, Josh Gordon, and Torrey Smith during Pittsburgh’s last three games. What has hurt Taylor as of late has been deep-balls, and I will look for Ryan Tannehill to mercilessly pick on Taylor and the rest of the senior citizens in Pittsburgh’s secondary if he has adequate time to throw the ball.

Same question, back to you. Do you have any predictions for Sunday, including score?

While it pains me to say it, Miami will win this game and crush Pittsburgh’s 2013 postseason dreams. The Dolphins’ superior pass rushers should ravage the Steelers’ offensive line, Wallace will absolutely destroy the rapidly declining Taylor, and Pittsburgh’s pass rush will be at an enormous disadvantage if Woodley actually participates. Plus, don’t discount offensive coordinator Todd Haley from taking the ball out of Roethlisberger’s hands early and trying to establish what has been a non-existent running game either. If he tries to pussy-foot early on from a strategic perspective like he did against the Ravens during the first half, the Steelers have zero chance.

The only chance that Pittsburgh has of emerging victorious in this must-win game is if the coaching staff “lets Ben be Ben” and allow him to challenge Miami’s defense through the air with his most explosive offensive weapons. Adequate offensive line play of course will factor in, but Roethlisberger has ‘Houdini’d’himself out of plenty of jams and played behind even worse offensive lines. As much as I hope that happens, the Dolphins, not the Steelers, will move one step closer to the postseason after Sunday’s game. Miami: 30, Pittsburgh: 20

 

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