Dolphins hope to avoid wrath of Steelers
MIAMI — Ninety minutes up the Florida Turnpike, a restaurant in Fort Pierce advertises its hours: “We take Sundays off, just like the Dolphins.”
In South Florida and beyond, Miami’s NFL team is again the butt of jokes. They’re laughing in Fort Lauderdale, Fort Pierce and probably Fort Collins.
Another punchline of a score could come today when the Dolphins (1-4) play host to the Pittsburgh Steelers (4-1).
The Dolphins are one-touchdown underdogs at home, for good reason.
Their only victory came in overtime against winless Cleveland, and in two games since, they’ve been outscored 52-24.
Following last week’s dismal home loss against Tennessee, first-year coach Adam Gase described his offense as inept, and his defense might be even worse.
The Steelers, meanwhile, lead the AFC North following consecutive wins by a combined score of 74-27. Here are things to know about two teams headed in opposite directions:
BAD START: Rather than contend for their first playoff berth since 2008, the Dolphins are in the mix to pick No. 1 in the draft for the first time since … 2008.
Defensive end Cameron Wake is in his eighth season with Miami and said losing doesn’t get easier.
“I hate it as much as my first high school game, the first time I lost,” Wake said. “The same pain, the same disgust, same fury. It boils inside of you. Unfortunately, I’ve experienced it too many times.”
As usual, fans have directed the bulk of the blame at the quarterback. Fifth-year starter Ryan Tannehill has led the offense to just one touchdown in three of Miami’s five games, and he was jeered like never before last week.
But there are plenty of other culprits. The Dolphins rank fourth worst in the NFL in yards, and fifth worst in yards allowed. Their run defense ranks last, and their running game next to last.
“It ain’t just one person. It ain’t one group,” center Mike Pouncey said. “We all have to do better to win games.”
BAD BLOCKING: After Tannehill endured six sacks against the Titans, Gase released two offensive linemen who made emergency starts, sending a signal that even the Dolphins have standards.
That ensures more lineup changes this week. Because of injuries and illness, Miami has had three starters at left tackle, three at left guard and three at center.
ANOTHER REVAMPED LINE: The Steelers will play without defensive end Cam Heyward for the first time since they took him with the 31st overall pick in the 2011 draft.
Pittsburgh will split Heyward’s snaps between rookie Javon Hargrave and veteran Ricardo Matthews, while Stephon Tuitt will take over the defensive line calls, a role Heyward prepped Tuitt for over the past two-plus years.
“He’s telling me he’s talking a lot more, and we need him to do that,” Heyward said. “When I come back, we can do that twice as much. He’s only going to grow in this situation.”
Pittsburgh’s pass rush has picked up after a slow start. The Steelers have seven sacks in their past two games, numbers that could rise significantly against a Miami offense that’s allowed Tannehill to be sacked 17 times. Only the Colts have given up more.
“We’re getting more pressure, but we’ve got to figure out ways to get the quarterback down,” linebacker Lawrence Timmons said.
NUMBERS LIE: Pittsburgh is just 25th in total defense and 30th against the pass, an area the Steelers pledged to shore up in the offseason when they spent high draft picks on cornerback Artie Burns and safety Sean Davis.
Yet Pittsburgh is a respectable ninth in points allowed (18.6) thanks in part to effective work on special teams and an offense that is holding onto the ball.
Coach Mike Tomlin said he can live with the lack of “splash” plays like turnovers and sacks if it means the defense doesn’t give up “chunk” plays that can flip the field and momentum in a hurry.
“We just have a desire to be a difficult team to beat, and for us it starts with not beating ourselves,” Tomlin said. “Defensively specifically, we look at not being a highly penalized group and one that makes our opponent earn it, and by that I mean keeping the ball in front of us.”
FAMILY REUNION: The Pouncey twins will butt heads Sunday. Not literally, because both play center, but the Steelers’ Maurkice and the Dolphins’ Mike will go against each other for the first time.