Week 3: Pittsburgh at Miami

The good news is that the Pittsburgh Steelers are playing the Miami Dolphins early in the season. The bad news is that the Steelers are playing the Dolphins in September, at Miami. Pittsburgh plays on the road for the second week in a row, after an emotional game against the Baltimore Ravens. Can the Steelers take the Miami heat?

After a disappointing 2003 season, the Miami Dolphins are attempting a makeover. The biggest overhaul is on the offensive line, where there will be four new starters in 2004. The new players would be hard pressed to perform worse than last year's group. Unfortunately, the Dolphins let their best lineman, OT Todd Wade slip away during free agency.

Whether or not the new acquisitions on the line are good ones, the players will take time to gel. Barring disruptive injuries, this unit will get better as the season progresses. In this sense, the Pittsburgh Steelers are lucky to get a shot at the Dolphins in Week 3.

Miami looks quite similar to the Week 2 foe, the Baltimore Ravens. Head coach Dave Wannstedt prefers to control the ball offensively with a strong rushing attack, while keeping his team in the game with a fast and aggressive defense. However, last season Wannstedt's team found itself too far behind, too often, effectively taking the ball out of the hands of RB Ricky Williams.

With that in mind, the Dolphins brought in troubled WR David Boston and promising backup QB A.J. Feeley. Whether or not Boston can resurrect his career in Miami is a huge question heading into this coming season. Feeley, on the other hand, is another perennial benchwarmer waiting to shine when his turn behind center comes. At the very least, the front office hopes that Feeley is a better replacement for Jay Fielder than Brian Griese was.

The real problem in Miami is that the defense is on the downside of its domination. Zach Thomas, Junior Seau, Sam Madison, Jason Taylor, and Patrick Surtain lead an experienced group that will average over 29 years of age when the Steelers face them. Injuries to these marquee players seem much more common of late, often keeping the best talent off the field.

In this sense, the Steelers might benefit from a later meeting with the Fins in, say, December, when Miami traditionally swoons and the older players tire. Furthermore, Bill Cowher's teams usually do not fare well in the heat of September, as early season trips to Jacksonville can attest.

As luck would have it, the Steelers do not often face what look to be the best passing attacks in the NFL for 2004, including the aerially challenged Miami Dolphins. The Steelers defense is still manned to stop the run and their experienced front seven should have a big day against an offensive line trying to get on the same page.

Wide receivers David Boston and Chris Chambers will pose some match-up problems for the Steelers secondary, but the focus must be stopping Ricky Williams. The easiest way to do this, of course, is score first, forcing the Dolphins to play catch up through the air.

Maybe the Steelers could wear down the elderly Fins defense with a punishing ground attack, but better yet to have the 35-year-old Seau chasing releasing tight ends and running backs out of the backfield all day. Add to that the increasingly likelihood of prized pass rushing DE Adewale Ogunleye holding out, and the Steelers might feel comfortable beating the Miami pressure with Maddox finding Hines Ward or Plaxico Burress in single coverage.

This is a game that looks good on paper for the Steelers. In fact, if the young safeties can garner some experience early on without Pittsburgh digging too big of a hole, Pittsburgh may look at a schedule that plays to their strengths, as the season wears on.

Winning in Miami during September is a very difficult feat. The Steelers could mark themselves as a team to watch with a victory here, which is certainly within their grasp.

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