Quarterback Ryan Tannehill gets a chance to show what he can do over the last four games of the season, starting Sunday at Pittsburgh, as the Miami Dolphins (6-6) will try to desperately secure their second playoff berth of the last decade.
Tannehill has to show he can do a few things, among them be an efficient third-down passer (he ranks 26th with a 69.1 rating), an efficient fourth-quarter passer (he's 34th with a 63.1 rating), show he can "throw guys open," and prove he can lead the team.
Coach Joe Philbin has other criteria for his quarterbacks - decision-making, accuracy, and play-making at critical times.
"In my mind those are the three most important attributes to quarterback play at any level," he said.
So far, Tannehill (280-for-451 passing, 3,115 yards, 17 touchdowns, 13 interceptions) has showed he can do things at certain times. But he hasn't demonstrated a knack for doing anything spectacular on a consistent basis.
The Dolphins need him to perform in these final four games. Miami has games remaining at Pittsburgh (5-7), against New England (9-3), at Buffalo (4-8) and against the New York Jets (5-7). Those are all winnable except for maybe the Patriots.
Tannehill, who practiced fully Wednesday despite a right (throwing) thumb injury, is trying to downplay the magnitude of these final four games.
"I've got to play well," he said of this week's game at Pittsburgh. "That's no different than any other week."
Tannehill has had shuffling personnel on the offensive line all season. They've allowed a NFL-worst 45 sacks. And the running game ranks 25th in the NFL at 88.7 yards.
Tannehill hasn't yet proved he can lift the Dolphins' offense out of its current doldrums. Too often, he plays at the level of his offensive teammates rather than elevating them to a higher level. Part of that is to be expected because Tannehill is only a second-year player.
However, the time is now for the Dolphins. They control their own playoff fate, and Tannehill is the man most responsible for the direction this team goes.
SERIES HISTORY: 22th regular-season meeting. Steelers lead series, 12-9. The last time these teams met it was memorable. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger fumbled near the goal line, but after review officials couldn't determine who recovered so they gave Pittsburgh possession and the Steelers kicked the game-winning field goal on the next play. Pittsburgh has won the last five against Miami.
--Dolphins wide receiver Mike Wallace returns to Pittsburgh this week, the place where he played the first four seasons of his career. Wallace (56 receptions, 743 yards, three touchdowns) is having a somewhat disappointing season. Wallace said Steelers fans probably won't like seeing him in a Dolphins uniform, and there's nothing he could say to make them understand why he left.
"I wouldn't say too much (to Steelers fans)," Wallace said. "Everything happens for a reason. At the end of the day, this is still a business. You can't get caught up in too many feelings and emotions with that, you have to take the business as it is. Most people won't understand that, so I wouldn't even try to even explain."
--The Dolphins need to win Sunday to keep their playoff hopes strong. Miami (6-6) is trying to barge its way into the AFC playoffs. And one of the big keys will be stopping Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.
One thing that will be interesting is whether Miami opts to blitz Roethlisberger and pressure him, or surround him on the pass rush and drop more guys into coverage.
"He's a unique challenge in that so many of his plays he's able to extend and create plays," Dolphins defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle said. "(He's) different from a lot of quarterbacks in that when he does create plays he's not running for the first down necessarily. He's throwing bombs down the field. You see it time-and-time again, and this year is no different. So we are going to have a great plan. We are going to have to really be disciplined in what we do against them."
--The Dolphins' running game, which accounted for 125 yards last week, its second-best total of the season, is easy to figure out, according to coach Joe Philbin.
"The easy answer as I've said before at times is that certain games we've had way too much penetration," he said. "Again, Tampa Bay we didn't have as many yards rushing. Cleveland we didn't have as many yards rushing. I don't know if it is one particular scheme or one particular defensive call, but that's the No. 1 culprit when you look at lack of production in the running game. Penetration usually leads to negative yardage plays."
The Dolphins did a good job blocking last week against the Jets. We'll see if the Dolphins can block Pittsburgh this week and give running back Lamar Miller (136 carries, 547 yards) holes to run through.
BY THE NUMBERS: 1 - Number of teams with a winning record (New England) remaining on the Dolphins' schedule.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "People always used to say we had the worst field in the league. I never really thought that because I was playing on it every week." - Dolphins WR Mike Wallace on Pittsburgh's Heinz Field.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
--DE Olivier Vernon won AFC Defensive Player of the Week honors for having 3.0 sacks and 10 tackles against the Jets. Vernon now has 10.5 sacks after a statistical update on Wednesday.
--RB Mike Gillislee (six carries, 21 yards), who made his NFL debut last week, should get an equal amount of work this week. Look for Gillislee to have a similar role this week.
--P Brandon Fields (48.9 yards per punt) is technically second in the NFL for the first time in weeks. But he's tied with Oakland's Marquette King (48.9).
--WR Rishard Matthews (30 receptions, 312 yards, two touchdowns) is almost statistically equivalent to Brandon Gibson (30-326-3), the man he replaced. But it's taken Matthews 12 games; it only took Gibson seven games.
--LB Philip Wheeler is having a good year. He leads the team in tackles (86), ranks third in passes defended (seven), fifth in tackles for loss (five) and is tied for fourth in quarterback hits (six).
--S Chris Clemons (one interception, six passes defended) is having a low-key but fairly effective season. His tackling and pass protection have been decent, but nothing special.
--DE Derrick Shelby (29 tackles, 2.5 sacks) was the defensive darling early in the season but he's tapered off in the recent weeks. Still, he's doing OK.
--DT Paul Soliai (27 tackles) was outstanding against the run early in the season. He's tapered off a bit but he's still doing well.
--G Sam Brenner could figure into the picture again this week if RG John Jerry (unknown injury) isn't ready. Brenner has played both right guard and left guard in the last three games.
--TE Michael Egnew continues getting lots of works as a fullback. Egnew only has two receptions this year, but he's increased his value to the team.
--CB Jamar Taylor (hamstring) didn't practice Wednesday. Injuries (first a hernia, and now a hamstring) have severely limited his rookie season.
--RG John Jerry (concussion) didn't practice. He left Sunday's game in the fourth quarter and didn't return.
--RB Daniel Thomas (ankle) didn't practice Wednesday.
--CB Dimitri Patterson (groin) was limited Wednesday.
--CB Nolan Carroll (right hand), who left Sunday's game in the fourth quarter but returned, practiced Wednesday.
--TE Michael Egnew (neck) was limited.
--RB Lamar Miller (pectoral) was limited.
--S Chris Clemons (knee/hamstring) was limited.
--QB Ryan Tannehill (right thumb) had full participation.
GAME PLAN: For the Dolphins to win, they have to play an efficient game just as they did last week in their 23-3 victory at the New York Jets. That means Miami has to pass the ball for the bulk of its offensive yards, run the ball enough to maintain a balanced offense, and make game-changing and game-winning plays on defense. The Dolphins don't need heroes, they need effective players who can do their jobs.
Last week they rushed for 125 yards, and running back Lamar Miller (72 yards) only averaged 3.5 yards per carry. But it was good enough to prevent the Jets from sending an all-out pass rush at quarterback Ryan Tannehill all the time.
Pittsburgh's offense (actually, its offensive line) has been terrible. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is 10th in passer rating (92.4) and wide receiver Antonio Brown (85 receptions, 1,103 yards, six TDs) is the league's leading receiver, but the Steelers, who started 0-4, don't have any consistency.
Defensively, the Steelers rank No. 13 in total defense. That's respectable. But if the offense can take care of business, and overcome being on the road, this is a winnable game.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH: Dolphins CB Brent Grimes vs. Steelers WR Antonio Brown -- Brown leads the NFL with 1,103 yards on 85 receptions. He has three TDs. But Grimes hasn't allowed a TD all season and he's been having an outstanding season. If this matchup can be handled by Grimes it goes a long way toward Miami winning and remaining a factor in the playoff race.
Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger vs. Dolphins pass defense -- Roethlisberger is having a good year. He's ninth in passer rating (92.4). But he's their offense. Pittsburgh is 31st in rushing at 76.8 yards per game. They have to pass to score. The Dolphins have to use their pass rush to get to Roethlisberger and they have to use their strength to get him to the ground.
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