By Dale Grdnic
PITTSBURGH — Some might believe the most difficult matchup for the Pittsburgh Steelers (4-1), who face the Miami Dolphins (3-2) Sunday afternoon in South Florida, will be the heat as the temperature is expected to approach 90 degrees during the game.
But Miami should provide several interesting matchups personnel-wise as well for the Steelers.
In recent years, running back Ronnie Brown provided Miami’s opponents with a difficult challenge, but since the emergence of Chad Henne at quarterback, the Wildcat formation — with Brown at the helm — has been de-emphasized. Still, Steelers inside linebacker Lawrence Timmons should be matched on Brown no matter where he lines up.
Timmons is among the NFL’s leading tacklers, fourth overall with 59 total stops, but he has played one less game than some due to an early bye for the Steelers. And Brown isn’t featured as much, as Ricky Williams gets his share of carries for the Dolphins.
“It’s always in our game plan, and we always have our personnel to be able to jump into it,” Brown said. “It’s like going no-huddle. So, it’s one of those things that our team is familiar with and the only thing unfortunately just this season we haven’t been as successful with executing the way that we’d like to.
“So, I know there was an opportunity last game we just stayed in our regular sets, and we were having some success in that area. So, there was no need but at the same time it’s always there. (But) it’s about execution, like any other play. You’ve got to block who you’re supposed to block.”
Brown (299) and Williams (240) have combined for 539 rushing yards this season, while Rashard Mendenhall is sixth overall with 495 yards. So, the running game will be critical for both teams.
“They’ve got two quality running backs, Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. “It starts from there for us trying to contain those men. They can wage a war of attrition if we don’t do a nice job against those guys. In that, of course, is included the Wildcat attack.
“They’re originators in this league of that attack with what they do with Ronnie Brown. He is special and different from most Wildcat runners because he is a runner. He is a tailback. He’s a force to be reckoned with in that offense and in that base offense. (And) they convert 49.3 percent (on) third down.”
Henne has been able to throw the ball effectively to get the job done in that regard, and he is playing much better since securing the starting job. His top target generally is Brandon Marshall, a Central Florida product, who is a perennial Pro Bowl-caliber player, according to Tomlin.
At 6-foot-4, 230 pounds, Marshall should be a matchup problem for the Steelers’ secondary, and Henne will go to him constantly if not pressured. The Dolphins threw 17 times toward Marshall last week, and he had 10 catches. So, cornerbacks Ike Taylor and Bryant McFadden need to keep him in front of them.
“Henne’s really played well lately, and they have two really good backs,” Steelers defensive end Aaron Smith said. “Their offense has functioned at a high level, and they’re going to be a good test. The Wildcat, we just have to play sound technique and run to the ball.
“Anybody you put in that is going to be a dangerous guy, but they have a two-headed dragon, so to speak, with their two running backs. And when Henne drops back, he has a big weapon in Brandon Marshall.
So, we need to pressure him and try to make him throw the ball earlier than he wants to throw it.”
Miami tackle Jake Long and Steelers outside linebacker James Harrison should be another good matchup. Although, with all that Harrison has gone through this past week, anyone who gets in his way Sunday could be in for a long day.
Defensively, Randy Starks on the line, Karlos Dansby at linebacker and Vontae Davis at cornerback are the top players for Miami. The Dolphins also will have an advantage with playing at home. It’s the first of three straight road games for the Steelers, which could make or break their season.
“You’re always going to have challenges from week-to-week in this league, and we’re going to play some tough teams back-to-back at home here, too,” Steelers defensive end Nick Eason said. “So, it’s always going to be tough, but we just have to go out there and take each game that day and then move on.
“Don’t forget, the one year we won the Super Bowl, we had to play all three playoff games on the road. So, we’ve done it before. Sure, it’s tough, but not an insurmountable challenge. So, we don’t focus on that and look at it any other way than another business trip for this football team.”
Notes: It looks like Keisel (hamstring) is the only player unavailable, unless Essex (ankle) has a setback. And Legursky might start anyway. … Eason will start at right defensive end for Keisel with Ziggy Hood as the backup. … Also, it looks like Emmanuel Sanders will return kicks again this week and be the No. 4 wideout, while Antonio Brown will be deactivated.