"The chance for great victories is created by the adversity you have to overcome." -- Woody Hayes
As the Miami Dolphins prepare to reintroduce themselves to the postseason and an old friend in the Pittsburgh Steelers, it seems as though few so-called pundits believe the Dolphins have much of a chance of earning a win. This tells you all you need to know about the depth of preparation by many of these ‘experts’ before opening their mouths. They hope no one will notice, or call them on it.
The Dolphins didn’t go 10-6 by accident. They are talented and well-coached. They are also tough, resilient and physical. These are all attributes that good playoff teams need to have.
Yes, we wish they were in a healthier state. It simply isn’t possible to replace two starting safeties (Reshad Jones and Isa Abdul-Quddus), or a Pro Bowl center (Mike Pouncey). We are also impatient and wish the roster was deeper. But it says here that the Dolphins have enough to earn a win on Sunday at Pittsburgh (1pm ET, CBS), a team they have beaten once this season. But they’ll have to play it smart to come out on top.
That October win (30-15) was nice, but playoff football is different than the regular season variety. The intensity level is higher and constant. Mistakes are magnified. Coaching matters more, and can often be the difference in winning or losing.
The seasoned Steelers know this. The young Dolphins are about to experience it.
The Dolphins are fortunate to be blessed with a good coaching staff, many of whom have been deep in the playoffs before. This experienced leadership will really help get the team ready to go with a winning gameplan. Their biggest concern is how to best compensate for injuries to key starters, knowing that these losses greatly reduce the margin for error.
With this in mind, here are some rules that the Dolphins would do well to remember on Sunday. If they do, they should emerge victorious.
1) No Dumb Penalties
This roster is not talented enough to overcome unsportsmanlike penalties and silly fouls away from the ball, the kinds of boneheaded mistakes that kill drives or put the defense on a short field. The players must remember that every yard is extra precious in the playoffs. They must stay under control, be aware of the situation around them, and always maintain their poise under pressure. The Dolphins and Steelers were each penalized 109 times for almost exactly the same number of yards (919 vs 920). Therefore, the team that plays a clean game on Sunday will have a natural advantage.
2) Be Mentally Prepared
Football presents physical and mental demands. Everyone…and I mean everyone…is beat up at this point in the season. There’s a lot a player can do to alleviate the aches and pains but recovery is not always in their control, especially when Mother Nature has a different timetable. That being said, there’s a lot a player can do to be prepared mentally. This is where the grind of study can make all the difference. Today’s Dolphins should follow the example of their 1970s forerunners, who approached to postseason mentally ready to do their jobs well. Knowledge of tendencies, match-ups, keys, and assignments must be instinctive. Thorough and critical self-scouting can clean up unforced errors. The point here is that players must know their responsibilities inside and out, and as much as they can about their opponents’. This they can fully control. It’s how to put oneself in position to make impactful plays.
3) Play to Your Strengths
Football is a team sport but the star players are usually the difference-makers in the playoffs. Too often coaches forget this salient point. For the Dolphins, Cameron Wake, Ndamukong Suh, Kiko Alonso, Michael Thomas, Jarvis Landry, Jay Ajayi, DeVante Parker, Matt Darr, Walt Aikens, and Branden Albert together with the rest of the offensive line will likely have the most to say about who wins on Sunday. The gameplan should revolve around them and what they do best. For example, the offense should continue to prosecute the run with Ajayi and Kenyan Drake. The Steelers are likely to focus on preventing a recurrence of the 200 yard performance Ajayi hung on them last time, daring QB Matt Moore and the receivers to beat them. This is a bet the Dolphins would be happy to accept. Defensively, the Dolphins will be challenged to slow the explosive Le'Veon Bell while keeping WR Antonio Brown from knocking the top off the defense. The key to success will be in pressuring QB Ben Roethlisberger as they did before. It’s moments like these that are why the Dolphins signed Suh and are thankful to have Wake coming hard off the edge. Fortunately this team has no issue with self-accountability; the star players know they need to play to their God-given abilities if the Dolphins are to win.
4) Commit No Turnovers
Nothing kills winning faster than turnovers. This is especially true in big games where mistakes are unforgiving. The Dolphins were reminded of this in last week’s loss to the Patriots; their two turnovers were the difference in that game. If the Dolphins can protect the football in what will probably be a physical contest, they stand an excellent chance of winning. Ball security is especially critical, as is good decision-making by Moore. Of course it would help the cause immensely if the Steelers offered up some gifts to the Dolphin D.
5) Keep Grinding
Road playoff games, especially in hostile environments, are hard to win. The Steelers will deliver body blows and momentum can shift on a dime. The Dolphins have been excellent all season long in fighting through adversity to impose their will and, as RB Damien Williams said, “taking what we wanted”. This resilience has served them well, especially at the end of games. Even though the stakes are higher now, the Dolphins should continue to stick to their business and play the game one down at a time. They are a confident bunch and should approach Sunday’s game in that frame of mind.