AFC Wild Card primer: Dolphins-Steelers on Sunday


The Backstory


The Dolphins' Week 6 30-15 blasting of the Steelers in Miami signaled the breakout game for running back Jay Ajayi. The bulldozer plowed his way through and around Pittsburgh defenders to the tune of 204 rushing yards. Since then, Ajayi has continued his plowing ways, compiling two additional 200-yard games and he ranks first in the NFL in rushing yards since Week 6 with 1,155.

Ajayi will once again be the motor that moves the Dolphins' offense. Steelers coach Mike Tomlin admitted this week his defense will need to stack the box to slow Ajayi, noting his 200-yard performance in Week 6 wasn't an aberration.

"We're not gonna pretend like that was a lightning strike," Tomlin said. "He ran for 200 on Buffalo the second time he played those guys."

Pittsburgh's defense has stiffened since early season struggles and should have Stephon Tuitt back after the lineman missed the past two games. Gang tackling will be vital for the Steelers, who have seen their share of missed tackles this season. Ajayi's 783 rushing yards after contact are the most in the NFL this season. If the back can plow through arm tackles Sunday, he could keep the Dolphins offense churning and the Steelers offensive Triplets on the sideline.

Miami's defense shut down Ben Roethlisberger in Week 6 by battering the quarterback to the tune of six QB hits and two sacks. Much of Big Ben's struggles came thanks to a knee injury he suffered in the second half. Roethlisberger returned, but his mobility and accuracy were clearly compromised (19 of 34 passing for 189 yards 1 TD, 2 INTs).

Vance Joseph's defense usually makes life difficult for Antonio Brown (four catches for 39 in the last meeting). But AB is facing a banged-up secondary missing several key defenders. Byron Maxwell (ankle) is doubtful to play, which is a big blow for Miami's pass defense after the corner helped lock down Brown in Week 6. Le'Veon Bell got slowed the last meeting, but in his first career playoff game should be able to run over a Miami defense that gives up an averaged of 140.4 rushing yards per game. If the Steelers triplets are flying high Sunday, Miami's offense will struggle to keep pace.

Under Pressure


Matt Moore, QB, Dolphins: Those Dolphins fans holding out hope Ryan Tannehill might return for postseason play got their dreams dashed. The 32-year-old Moore will make his first postseason start. Of the three backup quarterbacks starting in the AFC, Moore provides the most experience, starting 28 career games. Moore can run the offense, but his limitations could hamstring Adam Gase's playcalling. Moore's inability to consistently stretch the defense allows defenses to crowd the line of scrimmage, which hinders the run game and quick-passing attack that relies on YAC to move the chains. Those restrictions are particularly noticeable on deep outs and passes in the 15-20 yard range. Moore is 14-of-29 passing with a 2-3 TD-INT ratio and a 68.0 passer rating on passes of 10-plus air yards this season. When Moore does uncork his deep shots against a Steelers secondary that can be susceptible to miscommunication, the veteran can't miss.

Steelers young defenders: In Pittsburgh's seven-game winning streak, the defense has gone from a spotty operation to a force. In the past seven weeks, the Steelers rank in the top four in points per game allowed (17.3) and yards per game (293.6), and are first in sacks (25). That improvement is largely thanks to the development of rookies defenders. Corner Artie Burns, safety Sean Davis and nose tackle Javon Hargrave have breathed life into a porous defense, solidifying the back end and mucking up the ground game. The return of Bud Dupree also can't be overlooked as the Steelers have got after the quarterback with more regularity since he was given the majority of snaps opposite James Harrison. Versus Ajayi and the Dolphins, will Tomlin's young players continue their stout play in a big spot or regress back towards the mean?

Matchup to Watch


Dolphins D-line vs. Steelers O-line: The Dolphins mauled Big Ben in the first meeting. It's not a surprise that performance coincided with Cameron Wake's entrance into the starting lineup. The 34-year-old went from a pass-rush specialist to a wrecking ball, leading the team with 11.5 sacks and spurring Comeback Player of the Year consideration. The Steelers boast an underrated offensive line, but the combination of Wake off the edge and Ndamukong Suh up the middle could make it a long day for Big Ben. It's paramount for Miami to pester the quarterback to help cover up injuries and deficiencies on their back seven. If Roethlisberger has all day to throw, the score will get out of hand quickly for Miami.

Prediction


Most are calling for an easy home win for Pittsburgh, but I think it will be tight heading into the fourth quarter. Adam Gase has done too good a job coaching to see his team blown out in their first playoff appearance since 2008. Vance Joseph -- a hot head coaching candidate -- is familiar with the Steelers from his days in Cincinnati and will make it difficult on Pittsburgh's triplets. At the end of the day, however, talent wins out. Matt Moore won't make enough plays on key third downs while Big Ben, Brown and Bell will be too much for the injured Dolphins defense. Pittsburgh pulls away in the fourth quarter.

Pittsburgh Steelers 24, Miami Dolphins 15