MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — The Pittsburgh Steelers got out to a really poor start in all three phases on Sunday against the Miami Dolphins.
Two of those three phases figured things out sooner rather than later. The third, the Steelers offense, looked as helpless as ever.
Let’s start with the ugly breakdown of what went wrong in the first 15 minutes of football between the Steelers and Dolphins.
The Dolphins started with the ball, and marched through the Steelers defense basically unopposed. After getting into a 2nd and 19 hole with a penalty and a screen pass for a loss, Tua Tagovailoa just unloaded on the Steelers defense, largely attacking the underneath zone coverage areas.
He completed a 20-yard pass to Jaylen Waddle, a 17-yard pass to Tyreek Hill, a 9-yard pass to Hill, an 18-yard pass to tight end Mike Gesicki, and then hit running back Raheem Mostert for an 8-yard touchdown.
The Dolphins needed just eight plays to span 80 yards and had only one third down on the drive. One big play can happen, but that’s about as quickly and efficiently as a defense can possibly be categorically dominated in the way the Steelers were.
Then, somehow, things got worse. The Steelers got the ball back, ran Najee Harris into the line twice to set up a third and short, and then Kenny Pickett threw a deep pass on 3rd and 3 to Diontae Johnson that missed its intended target by far more than the three yards the Steelers needed to gain.
Pressley Harvin III followed the abysmal offensive outing with a 23-yard punt.
Tagovailoa led the Dolphins right back down into scoring position, with Minkah Fitzpatrick crushing Mostert at the goal line to keep Miami out of the end zone.
It was the defense that got its shit together first.
“They were just making plays over the middle, the RPO game and getting the ball out quick,” Fitzpatrick said. “It’s what we expected. We were making the tackles, but they were getting yards and driving down the field.
“We started putting our corners up and having them be physical with those speedy receivers, getting our hands on them. … We came in here, we made our necessary adjustments, and we just tried to stop them. That’s a testament to who we are: Steelers football.”
It’s probably not a good thing that the Steelers weren’t ready to deal with the Dolphins doing what they’ve done all season, but adjustments are a big part of football. The defense made them, went to some more man, played some more press, and generally disrupted things going forward.
That put some of the defenders in some tough individual situations, but like Art Maulet and Devin Bush carrying slot players all the way through the second layer of the defense at times.
“We just settled down,” Bush said. “We had to play defense. … It was my job. I had to do what I had to do.”
The end product for the defense turned out quite nicely. They allowed 16 points, keeping Miami out of the end zone after the first drive and off the scoreboard entirely after the halftime break. They gave Pickett and the offense try after try to get back into the offense.
Harvin figured things out, too. After the 23-yarder, he wasn’t needed again in the first half. In the second half, with rain driving down at Hard Rock Stadium, he posted punts of 47, 43, 36, 45 and 57 yards to finish with a 41-yard average. His six punts were returned a total of one yard.
In his second pro season, Harvin continues to be inconsistent, but he is largely doing his job. Only one NFL punter has more fair catches than Harvin, and his 14 kicks that have been returned have averaged just 5.6 yards per return. Of the 17 punters with 27 or more punts this season, only two have allowed fewer return yards than Harvin.
So the short kicks continue to be an issue, but on the whole, Harvin is doing his job, despite a growing sentiment of criticism against the young punter.
The Steelers offense looks like it might be a lost cause. Pickett was fine outside of the three interceptions, and even the first one was not his fault, but that’s the ultimate, “how was the play, Mrs. Lincoln” scenario.
Pickett has now thrown seven interceptions in the equivalent of three games. In that span, it’s the biggest problem in an offense full of them.
Pickett had the team driving on potential game-winning series in the fourth quarter before those interceptions, too.
The Steelers moved from their 18 to the Miami 20 with a 14-play drive before Pickett started down Diontae Johnson a little too hard on the right side and Jevon Holland stepped in front of the pass.
Given another chance by the defense, Pickett took the ball at his own 13 with 2:31 to play an no time outs. He had taken them all th way to the Miami 25 when Pickett scrambled to his left. With no one in front of him, he could have ran for an easy first down and probably more, and likely could have gotten out of bounds with about 15 seconds left and the ball inside the Miami 20.
Instead, he threw behind Johnson at the goal line and Nick Igbinoghene made an incredible interception. Pickett said he was expecting Johnson to come back to him after he started to scramble.
“I thought [Diontae] was going to come back down,” Pickett said. “He went vertical. That’s on me. I either gotta throw it away and give us another chance or make a better throw over the top to him. [So] that’s definitely on me … I either gotta run it there and get out of bounds or just throw it away.”
Pickett’s interception problem probably won’t persist. He threw just seven in his entire 13-game senior season of college football.
But the other problems with the offense aren’t going anywhere. The Steelers offense tried over and over again to get the run game going, rushing on first down nearly two-thirds of the time.
The result? A measly 3.8 yards per carry by Najee Harris. The Steelers did get into third and short situations, but they still didn’t convert them, finishing 4 for 14 on third downs.
George Pickens was solid early, but then went missing. Pat Freiermuth was literally missing in the third quarterback before coming on strong late. But the offense never connected or clicked in a way that made anything they did look easy — a stark contrast to the Dolphins ability to move the ball at will.
The Steelers now have three offensive touchdowns in their last three games, and don’t seem to have any hope of building on anything as an offense. Pickett’s interceptions were the reason the Steelers lost to Miami, but they are not the reason the team doesn’t have, and doesn’t seem to have a chance of having a capable offense.
That lies with an overall lack of connected talent and play calling from coordinator Matt Canada that has not elevated the talent he does have to work with.