Coming off of its first victory in over a month, Pittsburgh will try to make it two in a row down in South Florida Sunday night against the Dolphins.
The Steelers (2-4) snapped a four-game losing streak in improbable fashion over the weekend, holding on — behind backup quarterback Mitch Trubisky — for a 20-18 upset win over Tom Brady and Tampa Bay, which provided a much-needed lift in terms of confidence and positivity around the locker room.
“It’s big playing against Brady,” said Pittsburgh wideout Diontae Johnson. “One of the best to ever play the position, in my opinion. Just winning against him is special, because knowing Brady, you don’t want to give him that much time left knowing what he can do. You’ve seen what he can do over the years, and just us being able to close out the game is special.”
Pittsburgh rookie quarterback Kenny Pickett remains in the concussion protocol after taking a shot from Devin White in the third quarter Sunday, but has been cleared to practice this week (he’s expected to be a full participant Wednesday).
If he’s given the go-ahead by team doctors to play Sunday, Pickett will be considered the starter, according to Pittsburgh head coach Mike Tomlin.
“It’s my understanding that [Pickett’s] work won’t be limited in any way in preparation,” the coach said, “and so we’ll adhere to the protocol and we’ll follow that, and let that be our guide in terms of participation. I’ll say this — if he’s cleared to play, he’ll play.”
As a result, Trubisky, who Tomlin said was “aggressive in his pursuit of victory” against the Buccaneers, will again take second-team reps this week in practice, but as he proved Sunday, he’ll be prepared to step in at a moment’s notice.
Between the two QBs, the Steelers advanced the chains on 7 of their 15 third-down conversions against the Bucs after struggling mightily in that department during the losing streak. They were also 2-for-3 in red-zone opportunities, and didn’t turn the ball over all day. That formula will have to be replicated against the Dolphins if Pittsburgh wants to have a chance at another upset.
Najee Harris, who caught Pickett’s first career touchdown toss in the win over Tampa, believes the young Steelers are just getting started.
“I think that we’re flipping something right now,” said Harris. “I think we’re flipping the page and becoming a great team. We’ve got to keep stacking bricks and keep going after it.”
The Pittsburgh defense will have its hands full again this week against a talented Miami offense without T.J. Watt, even though the Steelers just won their first game ever without the star outside linebacker in the lineup (1-8 all-time). It has still not been determined exactly when Watt will be back in the lineup, but it could be another week or two, at least.
Playing without several of its other defensive regulars, Pittsburgh forced five punts on 10 possessions, and managed to limit Tampa to a single, late touchdown and just 75 rushing yards on the day.
The Steelers are hoping to get at least a few guys back before Sunday night (see injury report below), and they’ll need another complete effort across the board with Miami starting quarterback Tua Tagovailoa returning from a combination of back, neck and head injuries suffered earlier in the season.
Tagovailoa led the Dolphins to a 3-0, first-place start (including handing 5-1 Buffalo its lone loss of the season), but the team has dropped its last three without him. He was injured with about six minutes left in the first half of the 27-15 loss to Cincinnati on Sept. 29 (the Dolphins were trailing 7-6 when he left the game), and then Miami was blown out by the Jets, 40-17, before falling 24-16 at home against Minnesota last week.
Even though he missed a few games, Tagovailoa still owns the league’s best QB rating (80.0), and has completed nearly 70 percent of his passes (80-for-115), racking up 1,035 yards and 8 touchdowns (3 interceptions) along the way.
“He’s a captain for a reason,” said Miami first-year coach Mike McDaniel, “and as I’ve told you guys from the onset, I think he’s a very, very good player at that position.”
The highlight of the left-hander’s season was a 6-touchdown, 469-yard performance in a 42-38 shootout win over Baltimore the week before he was hurt.
“They stretch the field vertically. They do so very well. Their play-action pass game is awesome,” Tomlin said of Miami. “Tua is very good at turning his back to the defense and coming up throwing. He’s a lefty, he’s mobile. Those variables provide some challenges that are a little bit different from a preparation standpoint, and make him a difficult guy to replicate in prep, so we’ve got some challenges there.”
Tagovailoa has a pair of dangerous downfield weapons to choose from in the passing game, with star receiver Tyreek Hill leading the way. Hill, who played his first six seasons in Kansas City, is now the go-to guy in Miami, posting a league-high 701 receiving yards and a pair of touchdowns through his first six contests (his 50 receptions rank second in the NFL).
Meanwhile, former No. 6 pick Jaylen Waddle, in his second year out of Alabama, is fifth in the league with 533 yards and 3 scores. Tight end Mike Gesicki is another guy to keep an eye on, with 170 yards and three touchdowns on 15 catches this season.
Raheem Mostert leads Miami in rushing with 309 yards and a touchdown, as no other Dolphin rushers have eclipsed the century mark. Miami is averaging 81.2 rushing yards per game, in a running-back-by-committee which consists of Mostert, Chase Edmonds (89 rushing yards and 2 touchdowns; 96 receiving yards and another score) and Myles Gaskin (4 carries for 9 yards; 3 catches for 24 yards on the season).
“They’ve just got a wide variety of ways in which to attack you, and I see that on tape,” said Tomlin.
Tomlin had a ton of praise for the Dolphins’ defense, which is actually only ranked just a couple of spots ahead of the Steelers in a tie for 23rd, allowing 361.3 yards and 25.8 points (27th in the league) per game.
Tomlin remains impressed by what he’s seen on that side of the ball. As a group this season, Miami has registered 12 sacks, 23 tackles for loss, 26 pass breakups and an interception, while forcing 5 fumbles and recovering 3 of them.
“They are an attacking group, they’re a blitzing group, they do a really good job of staying close to people, good at playing man-to-man…,” Tomlin said of the Dolphins’ defense. “For us, it’s about minimizing negativity, and oftentimes they create negativity with a myriad of blitz packages and things that they run.”
The Steelers have dealt with significant injuries all season long, and Sunday’s contest looks to be no different. Aside from the aforementioned Pickett and Watt, kick returner Steven Sims (hamstring), G James Daniels (ankle), LB Myles Jack (ankle), DT Larry Okunjobi (knee) and C Mason Cole (foot/ankle) could all be limited in practice to start the week.
“We expect all of those guys to show,” said Tomlin.
In addition, Tomlin went over a few guys who have been out, but have a chance to get back on the field at some point this week — including three of his starting defensive backs, in safety Minkah Fitzpatrick and cornerbacks Cam Sutton and Ahkello Witherspoon, who all missed last week’s contest.
Also mentioned were CB Levi Wallace and TE Pat Freiermuth, who both entered the concussion protocol during the Tampa Bay game. Tomlin said neither had been fully cleared to play this weekend, but they’re also expected to participate with no restrictions in Wednesday’s practice. The team will release its first official injury report of the week later this afternoon.