It's difficult to give enough praise to the Pittsburgh Steelers run defense, which answered the bell in a big way against a vaunted Miami Dolphins rushing attack after being gashed back in Week 6 for 222 yards on the ground.
In the playoffs, with Ryan Shazier back in the lineup, a trio of rookies playing better every week and James Harrison getting full-time reps at outside linebacker, the Steelers were more than equal to the task. The defense bottled up Jay Ajayi all day, holding the back to 33 yards on 16 carries. The Dolphins managed just 52 yards on the ground on 21 rushes as a team for an average of 2.5 yards per carry.
A new wrinkle the Steelers added to their defensive approach was a three-safety look with one cornerback, bringing Jordan Dangerfield on the field to help their run defense. The team employed the strategy a few times throughout the game, including twice on the Dolphins' opening drive of the second half. The result? Two yards on two plays.
- Jack Conklin can win All-Pro and get a trip to the Pro Bowl but what he’s done this season in pass protection (where he gets a ton of helps from backs and tight ends) can’t hold a candle to what Marcus Gilbert is asked to do each week. From pulling several times on Sunday to handling Cameron Wake one-on-one without any consistent help in pass protection, Gilbert was masterful, showing the league why he’s in the conversation with Mitchell Schwartz and Brian Bulaga as the best right tackle in the NFL.
- Meanwhile, Alejandro Villanueva has taken over at left tackle and done a fine job, including making two key blocks on long runs by Le'Veon Bell. Both runs were dart schemes with Gilbert pulling across the formation to kick out the unblocked defensive end to the playside. Villanueva stepped down and eliminated the three-technique, one time putting the defender on all fours with a ferocious block. He’s been fantastic since midseason and really seems to be coming into his own as a reliable starter.
- Shazier’s interception was remarkably similar to the one he had against Baltimore a few weeks ago, showing blitz pre-snap/directly post-snap before dropping into coverage. Matt Moore struggled to check out of calls and get his team in favorable spots pre-snap, as Pittsburgh constantly rolled coverage and sent disguised pressure after the Dolphins quarterback. Miami’s offensive line struggled as well as the Steelers defensive front moved gaps pre-snap and confused the Dolphins’ blocking schemes.
- Todd Haley did a great job of getting Antonio Brown involved early and often, using pre-snap motions to keep Miami from getting the matchups it wanted in zone looks. Brown’s first touchdown was on a simple screen with great blocks by Jesse James and Cobi Hamilton that A.B. helped set up with an inside jab step to get tacklers out of their pursuit lanes.
The second touchdown was even easier to pick, as Miami rolled the strong safety into the box pre-snap, showing blitz. This left the free safety in single-high coverage in the deep middle of the field, leaving Brown one-on-one against man coverage in a wide split outside the numbers. Slant/flat concept pulled the inside linebacker to the sideline, opening up a big window for Ben Roethlisberger to throw the slant. The free safety took a terrible angle and Brown was able to jaunt 60 yards to the end zone basically untouched.
- Did this a few weeks ago and you guys seemed to enjoy it, so here’s the anatomy of the Steelers' 10-play, 83-yard drive that broke the backs of the Dolphins and gave the home team a 20-3 lead they would not relinquish:
1. 22 personnel, I-formation with Rosie Nix in front of Bell. Chris Hubbard is the sixth OL on the field. Inside zone with doubles on the nose and three technique. Instead of following Nix left, Bell slips through the backside C gap for eight yards.
2. Inside zone again from the same formation, only this time David Johnson moves across the formation to the offensive left pre-snap. The Steelers don’t get much movement, but Bell spins off the linebacker’s tackle and falls forward for five and a first down.
3. 13 personnel, Nix comes off, James on. Johnson the wing to the offensive left, comes across the formation to kick out the force defender and Bell pounds off right tackle for five. Excellent movement from Gilbert and David DeCastro to work Wake and Ndamkuong Suh off the ball. Dolphins jump offsides on the next snap, giving the Steelers a free first down.
4. Nix back on, James to the sideline. 22 personnel again, with Hubbard and Johnson to the right. Man blocking concept, with Nix rooting out Kiko Alonso in the hole beautifully on a lead iso. Ramon Foster falls off his block, but Bell makes a man miss in the backfield and accelerates to the second level, which is wide open thanks to DeCastro chasing out the SAM linebacker. Bell twists, stiff arms and drags tacklers for a pickup of 15. Now in Miami territory at the 45.
5. Another gap scheme run from 13 personnel this time, with Bell the lone setback. Strength of the formation is the offensive right, with James, Johnson and Hubbard the tight ends. The former two demolish Dolphins outside linebacker Donald Butler, while Hubbard down blocks the six-technique to the ground. Entire left side of the defensive line of scrimmage is gone, and Bell is in space one-on-one with a cornerback. The running back makes him miss, but slows him down enough so that the backside linebacker can run him down and make the stop after a gain of six. End of the first quarter.
6. 22 personnel, with Nix leading Bell through the right A gap on another iso run. Maurkice Pouncey and Foster double the nose tackle, before the center works to the second level while the left guard executes a beautiful takeover. Nix crushes the weakside linebacker in the hole on a run blitz, but Bell sees a crease to his left and cuts upfield for five. Suh makes the stop in pursuit. Another first down.
7. 13 personnel, same formation as two plays ago, but this time James goes in motion to the left, pulling a defender out of the box. Same play as No. 5 still, with down blocks coming from Hubbard and Johnson, while Gilbert and DeCastro root out Suh as the three-technique and drive him five yards off the ball. Alonso moved over alertly to run the gap, but Suh is deposited in his lap, knocking down the Dolphins' best linebacker. Bell runs behind the double and slithers through a crease for eight yards to the second level. A Dolphins defensive lineman throws up his hands in exasperation. At the Miami 26 now, 2nd-and-2.
8. 13 personnel, Hubbard, Johnson, James, all to the right of the formation. Dart scheme with Gilbert pulling right to left to kick out the unblocked outside linebacker for Miami. The defender gets too far upfield and tries a box technique, but Gilbert wraps him beautifully and Bell goes untouched all the way down to the 5, where he spins off contact to the one. Villanueva made an exceptional block to fold down the playside three-technique and seal off Alonso on the second level. Gorgeous stuff. Even Brown took the corner on him and drove him several yards downfield to let Bell get inside the five. No run through on the backside blocks at the line of scrimmage. Full team effort.
9. Goal line package, 13 personnel. Miami gap switched Villanueva and Foster on the right side knowing they would be firing off the ball head down, and gang tackles Bell at the one. Good call by Vance Joseph, their defensive coordinator.
10. Fold block with DeCastro pulling through the left B gap for the touchdown. Foster blew up the nose tackle and DeCastro got just enough of the scraping linebacker to get Bell across the goal line before Alonso hit him. And just like that, Pittsburgh snatched Miami’s soul with a drive of over five minutes and never gave it back.