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Steelers Enter Playoffs With Questions

Frank LaGrotta with the Chuck Noll-esque reminder that the Steelers need to play better defense beginning Sunday.

It’s not where you start, it’s where you finish.

The Pittsburgh Steelers have proved that time and again this season.

After a 4-5 start, the Steelers ran off an impressive seven straight wins to finish 11-5, with a home playoff game against the Miami Dolphins on Sunday.

After last Sunday’s first quarter in which the Steelers’ offense managed a total of three - check that THREE - yards against the less-than-hapless Cleveland Browns, while the defense allowed Browns’ retread quarterback, Robert Griffin III, to throw his first two scoring passes of the season with 10 minutes still remaining in the first half.

In fact, for the entire first half, it appeared as if the Steelers themselves were among the almost 10,000 no-shows for the meaningless NFL finale.

Then something happened:

Steeler backup QB Landry Jones, filling in for a resting Ben Roethlisberger, remembered he has a contract on the line and led the Steelers to two touchdowns in the fourth quarter, another one in overtime, and a 27-24 victory.

I wish I could say there was even more good news from the Steelers’ defense, but, ah, there wasn’t.

If it’s true, as iconic Steelers coach Chuck Noll always said, “Offense wins ballgames but defense wins championships,” the Steelers are a long way from their seventh Lombardi.

Playing without several regulars - including Stephon Tuitt and James Harrison - the defense gave up 437 yards in total offense, including 233 yards on the ground - a whopping seven yards per carry.

The Browns averaged 5.7 yards per play. Griffin completed 29 of 40 passes, and the losers controlled the ball almost 39 of the 72 minutes.

If not for four Browns’ turnovers, there would have been no overtime or final Steelers win.

Yeah, yeah…the whole cloud-silver-lining thing.

In this case there WILL be some good news when the Miami Dolphins come to Heinz Field on Sunday. Most notably, the offense will be as healthy as it’s ever been in a Mike Tomlin-coached playoff game. How long have Steelers fans waited to watch a playoff game in which a healthy Maurkice Pouncey snaps the ball to a healthy Ben Roethlisberger, who has the enviable choice of either handing off to a healthy Le’Veon Bell or throwing to a healthy Antonio Brown?

I know. Sweet.

It’s the defense that causes puzzled looks and queasy stomachs. Yes, Tuitt almost certainly will play Sunday. Harrison definitely will. That will help.

But will it help enough enough to stop a Dolphins offense that features a running back, Jay Ajayi, who gains a tick under five yards every time he touches the ball?

Steelers fans remember Ajayi’s 204 yards and two touchdowns when the Dolphins whacked the Steelers, 30-15, in October. Since then things have gone a bit sour for Miami, which got slammed by the New England Patriots, 35-14, Sunday.

Then again, who DOESN’T get slammed by the Patriots when they’re playing a must-win-for-home-field-advantage game?

Already it’s pretty clear the build-up to Sunday’s game will have two story lines - one that matters, one that really won’t.

Ironically, the one that won’t matter will get all the pre-game hype.

Will he, or won’t he?

“He” being Dolphins QB Ryan Tannehill and the question is whether or not he will play Sunday. Tannehill has missed the last three games with a knee injury, rumored to be a torn ACL that will require off-season surgery.

After the Patriots’ beat-down, Dolphins Coach Adam Gase said all the things you’d expect him to say.

“Gotta talk to the doctors…gotta see him practice…gotta see if he can move around…

“Gotta…gotta…gotta…yadda…yadda…yadda…”

The bet here is Gase already knows Tannehill won’t play, but won’t say it because, well, he’s an NFL head coach and everyone knows how NFL head coaches are. Sneaky. Secretive.

It’s as if their game plans and injury lists contain the nuclear codes.

Yeah, sure, they want to keep the opponents guessing and, OK, why show your cards and …

Bottom line: It won’t matter who plays QB for Miami. If it’s Tannehill, you blitz the blitz out of him because everyone in the stadium will know he will be more out-of-order than the elevator on “The Big Bang Theory.” If Tannehill’s back-up, Matt Moore, plays, you blitz the blitz out of HIM as well, because he’s 32 and doesn’t move well either.

Caveat here: beware of overconfidence if Moore does play. Just because he’s listed as Tannehill’s back-up, Moore is no slouch. He was named AFC Offensive Player of the Week after throwing for 236 yards and four touchdowns in a win against the Jets in Week 15. Moore finished the season with eight TD passes and a 105.6 rating in limited action.

The real question, though, is not who will start at quarterback, it’s whether the Steelers defense can stop the guy he’s handing off to. Because if the Steelers’ defense can hold Ajayi under 100 yards on the ground, it should - repeat, SHOULD - be able to keep the Dolphins offense in check.

That brings me to the second point. This game will come down to the pitifully bad-of-late Dolphins defense against a healthy Steelers offense that oddsmakers predict will light up scoreboards in both Pittsburgh and Kansas City before arriving in New England January 22, where, as always, all bets are off.

The Dolphins gave up 35 points to the Patriots on Sunday, and for Dolphins fans the more depressing numbers came the week before in the overtime win in Buffalo. With the Bills’ playoff hopes gone before the game, and their head coach, Rex Ryan, gone after, the Bills offense still posted 31 points and put up 600 offensive yards.

The Miami Herald’s Armando Salguero wrote that the Dolphins’ defense “seems broken.”

Broken, huh.

Sounds ugly — for Miami fans, that is.

For the Steelers’ faithful it’s music to their ears, and guess how the song ends:

With a first round playoff win for Pittsburgh.

Play that one again, Sam.

A healthy Pittsburgh offense against a “broken” Miami defense.

BUT - and it’s a HUGE but - do NOT start your sleep-over at the stadium for Super Bowl tickets just yet.

If the Steelers are to get to the big game, much less win their seventh title, the defense will have to consistently perform at a level much more proficient, more dominating, than anything it’s displayed this season.

If that doesn’t happen, the Steelers’ quest to give the Rooney family a different Super Bowl ring for every day of the week will end early; if not in Kansas City, definitely in New England.

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