When the Miami Dolphins took the field Sunday against the Pittsburg Steelers, everyone knew what to expect. After the season they’d been having, fans were not looking forward to this home game. Up until this game, Miami showed little signs of life, and nowhere near the capabilities to keep up with the 4-1 Steelers. Fortunately for the Dolphins, it wasn’t your typical Miami victory that happened out of happenstance.
There were plenty of expectations coming out of Miami when they won the NFL Draft lottery landing Laremy Tunsil, picked up Adam Gase, and brought in, via trade, playmakers on defense. However, the Dolphins being the Dolphins quickly let fans down to start the season. Losing 4 of their first 5 and barely beating the Browns had everything thinking they’re the same old Dolphins. So what changed on Sunday?
Miami had all five starters in on their offensive line
This has been the thorn in the side of the Dolphins for years. It took six games into the season before the Dolphins were healthy enough to play and the offense came alive because of it. Ryan Tannehill completed 75% of his passes, the run game was on fire, and receivers got downfield to make plays. Going forward, the Dolphins will live and die off the strength of their front 5. Even with backup tight ends MarQuese Gray and Dominique Jones, the most sacked quarterback remained upright.
Tannehill sure looks better when he has time to throw
When Ryan Tannehill has had starters Mike Pouncey, Brandon Albert, and Ja’wuan James ahead of him, his quarterback rating has never dipped below a 90. If the Dolphins want to get back on track, this is the most important stat. Tannehill completed 16 of his first 22 throws of the game, followed by 8 of his final 10 in the second half. While a few of his touchdown passes were called back, the quarterback had minimal mistakes. The Dolphins quarterback statistically might not be knocking on the doors of the Hall of Fame, but at least it’s a step in the right direction.
Jay Ajayi finally showed up
When the play came in that allowed Jay Ajayi to score in overtime against the Browns, it began the turning point for him. After the Dolphins had signed Arian Foster, Ajayi faded into the background enough that the team sent a message leaving him home against the Seattle Seahawks. Message received. Fast forward to overtime against the Browns and Gase seemed to send a message again. Calling Ajayi’s number and giving him a chance to lead the team to victory changed his tune. Miami put faith in the once starter and against the Steelers he responded. Ajayi had seven carries for 10+ yards and finished the game with 204 yards and touchdowns. For those at home that puts him in exclusive company as only he and Ricky Williams have carried the ball for 200 yards in a single game for the Dolphins. The team had high hopes for the second-year running back when they allowed starter Lamar Miller to walk this offseason. Sunday proved the gamble might have paid off.
Byron Maxwell might not be a bust
The biggest concern for fans coming into this game was Antonio Brown. As one of the top receivers in the league, he’s punished even the best defenses. Before this game, it was safe to say the Dolphins defense was not one of the best. Miami again made a head scratcher of a decision when they acquired Maxwell this offseason as it seemed his best days were behind him. Again on Sunday, a Dolphins gamble appeared to pay off.
Miami and Maxwell played a bit more physical defense, something he’d grown accustomed to in Seattle. Brown came into the game towards the top of the league in receptions and touchdowns and was held to 39 yards on four receptions and zero scores. It wasn’t until the 4th quarter that Pittsburg quarterback Ben Roethlisberger eclipse the 100 yards passing mark. If Miami can play the fast and physical style going the back end of this season, the Dolphins might not finish last in the AFC East.
Gase gets it right
When it comes to a winning formula, play selection is the key to games. For the first time in what seems like forever, Miami had a balanced attack on offense. Quarterback Ryan Tannehill attempted 32 passes, and Miami ran the ball 26 times and what a difference it made. Miami outgained the Steelers 7 yards per play to 5.6 yards per play. Slowing the game down and keeping the ball out of Pittsburg’s hand finally gave the defense time to rest.
Miami again struggled in the red zone, scoring just 2 out of 6 trips, but the Dolphins found a way to break out of their scoring drought, scoring 30 points for just the second time this season. Sunday’s matchup lived up to the team’s expectations of where they thought they’d be in the preseason. If they can continue their balanced attack, it won’t be long before the team is back above .500.
While it’s easy to get excited over a big win against a potential playoff team, it’ll be hard to buy into the Miami Dolphins. There has been plenty of times the team looked like it was going to turn around only to fall short. On the plus side of things, the team is getting key playmakers back over the next couple weeks. The healthier the Dolphins are, the better its chance at competing is. With the rest of the NFL struggling to get above .500, the ‘Fins aren’t too far behind. As of right now, only two teams on their schedule have winning records.
Unfortunately for the Dolphins, both reside in their division. They face the Bills two more times and the Patriots once. Granted there are still 10 games left to play, but they hardest part of Miami’s schedule is over. It won’t be smooth sailing from here on out, but there is still plenty of season left to salvage. Miami faces Buffalo at home Sunday with kick off scheduled for 1 pm ET.