PHIN-ISHED OFF

Steelers offense provides early playoff cushion, defense seals it with splash plays

The score: Pittsburgh 30, Miami 12

The bottom line: The oddsmakers were right. Miami wanted nothing to do with the frigid Pittsburgh weather or the red-hot Steelers offense and never really put up a fight in an exactly-as-easy-as-it-was-supposed-to-be-and-can-you-believe-that blowout of the six-seeded Dolphins that sends the Steelers to Kansas City for a Divisional Round game in front of the most formidable home crowd in football at Arrowhead Stadium.

It was over when… When Miami’s wide receivers showed up in sleeveless shirts to warm up in Sunday morning’s 10-degree weather, the psychological battle was on. Ryan Shazier quickly ended it by going shirtless for most of the morning. He then backed that braggodocio up by helping stuff Jay Ajayi with six tackles in the running game and making an athletic interception of Matt Moore with 6:32 remaining in the third quarter that put this one on ice early (not that Mike Tomlin acknowledged that).

Play of the day: After a literally perfect first half, Bad Ben Roethlisberger showed up to wreak havoc late in the second quarter with the Steelers up 20-6 and going for a dagger before the half. Roethlisberger threw back-to-back careless passes inside the Dolphins 30, the second resulting in an easy interception that was the only way Miami could have stayed in the game. Matt Moore responded by driving the Dolphins the length of the field in under a minute to set them up for a chance to make it a one-score game with a 1st-and-goal at the Pittsburgh 8 with :27 on the clock. Then, as he’s done so many times in his legendary Steelers career, James Harrison changed the game with one play, faking a drop into coverage to come shockingly free on an edge rush that resulted in a blindside sack and strip of Moore to end the threat and take the wind out of the Dolphins, setting up Pittsburgh’s second half domination.

Playoff picture:

+ The Steelers go to second-seeded Kansas City for 1 p.m. kick on Sunday and they opened there as favorites, almost unheard of at Arrowhead, where the Chiefs are brutally hard to beat. The news of Ben Roethlisberger’s ankle injury quickly flipped those odds and how the Steelers QB plays will shape the action in next week’s contest, as will the availability of Chiefs’ pass rusher extraordinaire Justin Houston. Also emerging as a storyline is whether Pittsburgh’s sloppy special teams can be had by Chiefs playmaker extraordinaire Tyreek Hill.

+ That means Bill O’Brien and the much-maligned Texans will go to New England as double-digit underdogs. The Patriots crushed Houston, 27-0, in Week 3 with Jacoby Brissett at quarterback. While you’d certainly expect a better showing from BOB’s boys this time, even with Tom Brady under center, probably the best you can hope for if you’re a Steelers or Chiefs fan is that New England has to play hard for four quarters.

Hot topics:

+ How valuable has Mike Munchak been to the Steelers? Under his tutelage, the offensive line has gone from a constant liability to a dominant, professional unit that matter of factly manhandled Ndamukong Suh and Kiko Alonso Sunday and allowed Le’Veon Bell to wrack up a Steelers playoff record in his first playoff start. David DeCastro, especially, answered the bell (get it?). It seems like neither Munchak or Todd Haley are on the “hot list” of potential head coaches right now, which hopefully eliminates that potentially distracting storyline during the playoffs.

+ Speaking of distracting storylines, we’ll have one all week now as Mike Tomlin left some key personnel on the field too long Sunday, allowing Ben Roethlisberger to roll his ankle on a meaningless play where not only should the quarterback not have been on the field, but Pittsburgh a) shouldn’t have been passing, and b) Roethlisberger shouldn’t have been scrambling. Roethlisberger, of course, donned a walking boot post game to turn up the drama he obviously loves when it involves his health and Tomlin’s press conference is likely to feature a few questions about the whole clusterfrack. Tomlin will explain it away with some of his patented gobbledygook. This is an example of the infuriating bad that you take along with the good with Tomlin. For better (most times) or worse (a few others), the guy is never going to change.

+ After getting increasingly involved in the defense over the past six weeks, Bud Dupree looked like an absolute monster Sunday, recording six tackles, a half a sack, numerous pressures, and, of course, exploding into Matt Moore for one of the most brutal football collisions ever seen at Heinz Field, at least since the Steelers-Ravens AFC Championship game in 2008. Although Matt Moore somehow stayed in the game and completed a lot of three-step drop passes the rest of the way, he was never comfortable on deeper drops for the rest of the game.

+ He didn’t have nearly as big a role, but DeMarcus Ayers made a couple plays again that made you double take at his burst. Don’t rule out that guy making a huge difference before all is said and done.

+ Speaking of making a huge difference, the Steelers are fixin’ to lose a critical game because of their poor and poorly coached special teams and we’re not sure anything can be done at this point to change that. Fitzgerald Touissant continues to do the wrong thing on every kickoff he returns, catching a ball at the goal line Sunday that he should have just let bounce through the end zone then returning a kick straight sideways, despite the fact he does not have sideways speed. When Mike Tomlin has been asked repeatedly about why Touissant remains on kick returns, he’s said he’s supposed to be the blocking back. As one Twitter cad pointed out Sunday, someone forgets to tell the opponent that every game. The Steelers also allowed two long returns Sunday (although to be fair, one was after the outcome has been decided and officials ate at least two illegal block flags they could have thrown) and committee one dumb hold (Artie Burns) on a punt return.

+ In a media world where Twitter follows, likes and retweets are an important currency, it’s hard to tell if the South Florida Sun-Sentinel’s Omar Kelly is literally the dumbest football analyst on the planet or if he was just trolling for attention when he went all in this week on the Dolphins-are-being-disrespected-and-will-shock-the-world-Sunday narrative. Foremost among Kelly’s bluster last week were contentions that Jay Ajayi was a better RB than Le’Veon Bell and that Kiko Alonso would easily neutralize Bell. As Don Adams used to say in “Get Smart”: “Missed it by that much.”

+ Cresson’s Josh Gallagher, recent finalist on NBC’s “The Voice,” performed the National Anthem and again at halftime. With his bushy beard, reflective sunglasses and Steelers tossle cap, Gallagher could have passed for any fan in the stands or parking lot. We donned him everyyinzer on Twitter, which is as big an honor as being a “Voice” finalist.

Zebra hunting:

+ Bud Dupree’s extremely violent hit on Matt Moore in the first half got into just about all the gray areas in the NFL’s attempt to protect quarterbacks. First, with Moore out of the pocket and running with the football, he no longer had “quarterback” protection BUT any player anywhere in a “passing posture” is considered defenseless so he had that protection. Second, Dupree’s hit was high, no doubt, but could have been in the chest had Moore not ducked his head slightly as he threw the ball (as we’ve seen happen so many times this season on plays called as illegal hits). So, how is a 270-pound human moving that fast supposed to process that a runner 1/100th of a second ago is now in a passing posture and detect that he’ll drop his head at impact? Can’t be done, but it’s still a penalty in Roger Goodell’s NFL. The official should just announce “sh*t happens, 15 yards, automatic first down.”

+ Otherwise, that was a pretty solid effort from a mixed crew. They stayed out of the way for the most part and let the talent level and execution of the teams decide who won. What a novel concept!

+ That is, until… the fourth quarter, when the officials seemed to want to get on their planes out of town almost as badly as the Dolphins and flat-out ignored a number of obvious calls. We’re guessing that will roll downhill on them in post-game evaluations. You can’t have that

Game mismanagement:

+We are so happy when we don’t have any items in this section for the Steelers. Personnel mismanagement? Yes. But the game mismanagement was thankfully absent.

+ Probably the most questionable coaching decision in the entire game was Adam Gase winning the coin toss and choosing to give the Steelers offense the ball first.

In the booth:

+ Phil Simms actually said that “except for the two fumbles and the interception, Matt Moore played a perfect game.

+ CBS finally acknowledged the Steelers base defense isn’t the vaunted 3-4 anymore, but the nickel, and showed two linemen, four linebackers and five DBs as Pittsburgh’s starters.

+ The crew had a rough time picking their spots to get in some of the pre-planned analysis they work on during the week, for example, choosing a play on which he was double teamed and blocked backwards to note how well rookie DT Javon Hargrave is playing. And, man, was he a factor Sunday, just not on the play CBS decided to use.

+ Simms was naming the Steelers defensive assistants late in the game and got off a classic “Jerry O’Slawsky.” You can tell Pheeeeeel hasn’t been to too many firehall weddings.

Sweet tweets:

+ @DukeForst: “You know it’s time to pull the starters when Phil Simms says to leave them in one more series.” (Blogger’s note: Yep.)

+ @theinclinepgh: “Le’Veon Bell showing he’s a (ahem) franchise running back.” (Blogger’s note: See, because the Steelers are going to put the franchise tag on him again….)

+ @DavidMTodd: On a scale of 1-10, Steelers kick return game is minus a billion. (Blogger’s note: Hard grader, but roughly accurate.)

Next week: The Steelers at Chiefs game is on NBC! We repeat: The Steelers at Chiefs game is on NBC!! That means a week (and maybe six months) off from Nantz and Simms.

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