0: Wins the Steelers have this season when they have allowed a 100-yard rusher
1: Touchdown pass Ben Roethlisberger needs to become the Steelers' all-time leader in that category
1: Career 100-yard rushing game by Dolphins RB Lamar Miller
2: Interceptions by Steelers S Troy Polamalu in three career games against the Dolphins
3: Running backs who have rushed for at least 100 yards against the Steelers this season
4: Defensive backs among the Steelers' six leading tacklers
5: Catches of 40 or more yards by Dolphins WR Mike Wallace
5: Games in which Steelers RB Le'Veon Bell has had at least 90 yards from scrimmage
8: Consecutive games that the Dolphins have intercepted a pass
8: Catches of 40 or more yards by Steelers WR Antonio Brown
16: Interceptions made by the Dolphins, six more than they had all of last season
23: Receiving yards Steelers WR Emmanuel Sanders needs to establish a new season high
26: Dolphins' NFL rank in total offense
30: Steelers' NFL rank in net punting average
36.5: Average net yards per punt by the Steelers
37: Sacks by the Dolphins
49.5: Sacks by Dolphins DE Cameron Wake since 2009, the fifth most of any NFL player during that span
108.2: Roethlisberger's passer rating in four games against the Dolphins
321.9 : Dolphins' average yards per game
453: Yards the Dolphins had in their 23-3 win over the Jets last Sunday, their highest total of the season
For starters, the twins missed out on a chance to play against each other for the first time due to injury. Maurkice Pouncey is out for the year following an ACL and MCL tear in his knee. The brothers were teammates in high school and at the University of Florida.
This is the first meeting between Miami and Pittsburgh since Mike Pouncey was drafted in 2011. But only one twin will be on the field.
"No question, you always want to see your brother playing," Mike said of Maurkice Friday. "I hate that he's going through what he's going through this year. But he's a tough dude."
This is a big game for both the Steelers (5-7) and Dolphins (6-6). Both teams are fighting for the final wild card in the AFC, and the head-to-head tiebreaker could be crucial down the stretch. But the competition aspect won't separate the Pounceys.
Mike and Maurkice will have family in Pittsburgh for the game, and they plan to have dinner Saturday night when the Dolphins arrive. In a bit of a strange twist, Mike also is bringing members of Miami's offensive line to Maurkice's home.
However, strategy on the game is off limits.
"He didn't give me any tips. He has a lot of loyalty to his football team and those guys," Mike Pouncey said. "So we just keep it to the basics, our friendship. He didn't give me any tips and I definitely didn't give him none."
Given the momentous occasion, Wallace would seem like a logical candidate to try to score extra tickets for the game, but it turns he doesn't need any.
The Texas native can add to his personal cheering section exponentially if he can continue the stability at center that the Steelers have enjoyed despite losing Pro Bowler Maurkice Pouncey to a torn ACL on one of the first plays of the season.
Wallace is the next man up with Fernando Velasco joining Pouncey on the Steelers' injured-reserve list, and he has taken his promotion in stride. Wallace's demeanor is one reason why the Steelers shouldn't worry that the 6-4, 300-pounder has been overwhelmed by the specter of making his first NFL start.
“It hasn't been a huge ephipany or anything but definitely get excited about it,” Wallace said. “I've been in the league six years and haven't had a chance to contribute a whole lot during a game so I'm looking forward to it. I've been comfortable with the offense all year.”
The fact that Wallace has been with the Steelers since early September -- they signed him after he didn't survive the Buccaneers' final preseason cuts -- bodes well for him stepping in for Velasco and at least doing a credible job.
“You don't have a new guy coming in,” starting left guard Ramon Foster said. “That's the most important thing. You've got a guy that knows the system and the plays. He's worked his butt off. I respect his work ethic and I'm just ready to see him go.”
So is Wallace, who didn't even dress for the first five games of the season but stayed engaged in the Steelers' weekly preparations -- just in case injuries thrust him into the starting lineup at a time when the Steelers can't afford their offensive line to take a step back.
“You have to make the most out of your opportunites, you might not get another one,” Wallace said. “That's kind of the driving factor.”
Woodley has missed the past three games, and his anticipated return will allow the Steelers to start him opposite Jason Worilds, who leads the team with six sacks. Woodley has said he will start at left outside linebacker even though Worilds has shined there in his absence.
Bell still has to pass league-mandated concussion tests before he is cleared to return to action.
Unless he suffers a setback Bell will run behind an offensive line that will have its sixth different starting combination this season.
Cody Wallace will make his first career start at center while Mike Adams is likely to start at left tackle with Kelvin Beachum (knee) doubtful to play against the Dolphins.
Adams, who started the first four games at left tackle before losing the job, has been dealing with an ankle injury but he is listed as probable for Sunday.
Nose tackle Steve McLendon (ankle) is questionable for Sunday. Defensive end Brett Keisel (foot) had been ruled out earlier this week for the game.
Whether the Steelers can make a legitimate run at that second wild-card berth remains to be seen. A team that hasn't won four games in a row in more than a year has to do just that -- and get some help -- to sneak into the playoffs. What helps with the Steelers facing the first of four must-win games Sunday against the visiting Dolphins is that they somehow remain very much in the playoff picture despite everything that has gone wrong this season.
"It's good for morale. It just means too much more to play for each other, to be able to play for a team goal, that there's still a team goal out there," free safety and team captain Ryan Clark said. "It keeps you up in the locker room, it keeps you together, it allows you to understand that you're still fighting for something and that's good."
Jerricho Cotchery agreed.
"You never want to be in a position when you're playing for pride, things of that nature," the veteran wide receiver said. "You want to go into these four of the season and have the games be meaningful."
Meaningful could quickly turn to meaningless if the Dolphins win in Pittsburgh for the first time since 1990. That is why the Steelers still can't concern themselves with what happens around them even if, as Clark said, "We know our position."
"We know where we stand," the 12th-year veteran said, "but nothing matters if we don't win games."
That mentality is such that quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said earlier this week that the playoffs have already started for the Steelers.
"It's been that way for the last couple of weeks and it's going to keep being that way for us," Roethlisberger said. "My mentality is trying to get that first win. I don't care about the big picture right now. It's just this week."
Miami and Pittsburgh are fighting for the final wild-card spot in the AFC, which is currently held by the Baltimore Ravens (6-6). The winner of Sunday’s game will remain firmly in the playoff hunt, while the loser falls behind the pack.
ESPN.com’s Dolphins reporter James Walker and Steelers reporter Scott Brown weigh in on who will prevail in this important game.
Walker: Scott, I think much of this game will be determined by the matchup between Miami’s ninth-ranked pass defense against Pittsburgh’s eight-ranked passing offense. This is a strength vs. strength clash. The Dolphins are very wary of Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. Miami defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle knows Roethlisberger well from his days with the Cincinnati Bengals and has a healthy respect for “Big Ben.” He’s unlike any quarterback Miami has faced this season because of his ability to extend plays to throw deep, not necessarily to run for extra yards. There is a lot of pressure on Miami’s cornerbacks and safeties to maintain their coverage longer than usual to prevent big gains on broken plays.
Speaking of which, Steelers receiver Antonio Brown is Pittsburgh’s best playmaker, and leads the NFL in receptions. What makes him so dangerous?
Brown: It’s funny that Brown still doesn’t get his due as a No. 1 wide receiver, even from some media types in Pittsburgh, despite the phenomenal numbers he has put up this season. Brown might not have the size associated with No. 1 receivers, and he does not have blazing speed, but he has excellent quickness, is a superb route runner, and Roethlisberger has said he’s never seen a receiver who is able to adjust to a ball while it’s in the air the way Brown regularly does. Above all, Brown works at it. I mean really works at it. He is maniacal about training, and it’s not uncommon for Brown to hit the gym for a workout after spending all day at Steelers’ headquarters.
James, you have been immersed in one the biggest stories of the season, and I’m sure Steelers’ fans would appreciate your take on how the Dolphins have dealt with the turmoil and distractions caused by the Jonathan Martin bullying allegations. Have the Dolphins settled into any semblance of normalcy, or is their a new normal in Miami?
Walker: Things have been as close to normal this week as it's been since Martin left the team Oct. 28. There was a huge dark cloud hanging over the Dolphins, and things intensified and became very uptight the week NFL lead investigator Ted Wells visited the team. I expect things to be relatively calm for a couple more weeks until Wells completes the report and releases his findings. After that, all bets are off. There will be no winners in this complex situation. I don't expect Richie Incognito or Martin to return to Miami. So the Dolphins have already taken a hit. More heads could roll if others are found culpable.
Scott, one Dolphin who is excited about this matchup is former Steelers receiver Mike Wallace. What type of reception do you think he will receive, and how will Pittsburgh's secondary defend Wallace?
Brown: I think Wallace will hear his share of boos. I think he is perceived, fair or not, by a lot of Steelers fans as selfish and a player who did not produce enough last season or help the team chemistry because of his contract situation. I’m real interested to see how the Steelers try to defend Wallace. His speed is going to be a problem for a defensive backfield that has lost a collective step given the age of its starting safeties, not to mention top cornerback Ike Taylor.
Taylor usually draws the assignment of shadowing the opposing team’s No. 1 wide receiver, but I’m not sure the Steelers will do that with Wallace, since coach Mike Tomlin has a lot of respect for Brian Hartline as well. Whoever draws Wallace will get help from a safety, but he could have a big game at Heinz Field. The Steelers have given up seven passing plays of at least 50 yards this season, and I’m sure Wallace would love nothing more than to add to his former team’s total.
James, what are the early reviews on Wallace? It doesn’t seem like the Dolphins are getting the return from the investment they made in him, though I know it’s early.
Walker: It’s still a work in progress, Scott. Wallace hasn’t put up the production many in Miami expected, but there is plenty of blame to go around. Starting with Wallace, the drops are on him. Wallace had too many drops early in the season, although he’s gotten better in the second half of the year. But other factors such as scheme and quarterback Ryan Tannehill's inability to throw a consistent deep ball has made it tough for Wallace to make the same plays he made in Pittsburgh. Tannehill doesn’t have Roethlisberger’s arm strength or ability to extend plays. Wallace thrived off broken plays that Roethlisberger created. Tannehill doesn’t have near the same elusiveness and ability to out-throw the coverage. Wallace is getting open, but many of Tannehill’s deep balls have been underthrown, which allows defenders to recover. There are some things involved that Wallace cannot control. But he does have momentum coming into this game. Wallace has totaled 12 catches for 209 yards and two touchdowns in his past two games. I expect him to be amped for Sunday.
Finally, Scott, what do you think of Pittsburgh’s playoff chances, and how it relates to this game?
Brown: In spite of the latest wave of injuries to hit the offensive line, I actually think the Steelers have a chance to win their final four games and make the playoffs -- if they get the help they are going to need with the Ravens. My outlook probably changes if Aaron Rodgers is playing quarterback in the Steelers’ Dec. 22 game at Green Bay. But if the Packers drop out of playoff contention, does Rodgers play against the Steelers? That is a big if as of right now.
Green Bay is the only remaining road game for the Steelers, so the schedule sets up favorably, especially given Rodgers’ uncertain status. Roethlisberger is really locked in right now, and I think he is capable of carrying the Steelers and masking a lot of problems assuming an offensive line that is held together by duct tape can do a reasonable job of protecting him.
Bracing for Wallace: Teams have been throwing deep on the Steelers, who have given up 11 passing plays that have covered at least 40 yards. You can bet the Dolphins will take a couple of shots on Sunday with Mike Wallace, one of the fastest players in the NFL. Wallace has not gotten behind opposing defensive backs with as much regularity this season as he has just nine catches of 20 yards or longer -- the same number as Steelers' No. 3 wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery. The Steelers, however, are a favorable matchup for Wallace given how they have struggled with the speed of Calvin Johnson, Josh Gordon and Torrey Smith the past three weeks. When asked if teams are challenging the Steelers with the deep ball more, defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau said, "I would say that they're not really throwing it deeper any more than they ever have. It just appears to me that they're catching it a little more often than they did. We've got to cut that out. The games that we've been successful defensively are the games that we have done that."
Keeping the faith: Dropped passes were an issue for Emmanuel Sanders in the Steelers' 22-20 loss to the Ravens but Ben Roethlisberger doesn't sound like his confidence in the fourth-year veteran has wavered. "We cannot afford to have guys get down if they do have a drop because I have bad passes," Roethlisberger said. "Everyone makes mistakes. That's why we're human. I'm proud of the way those guys have played this year." The Steelers used their no-huddle offense to get back into the Ravens game in the second half, and they scored three touchdowns after intermission. Injuries along the offensive line has raised questions about how much the Steelers will be able to use the no-huddle offense against the Dolphins. But Roethlisberger said he doesn't think the injuries will force the Steelers to rein in the no-huddle offense on Sunday.
Biding his time: Markus Wheaton's potential has not translated into much production, and offensive coordinator Todd Haley said part of the reason for that is there aren't enough snaps to get the rookie wideout more involved in the passing game. Wheaton has caught just six passes for 64 yards. He missed four games following surgery to fix a broken right pinkie. "He was showing a lot of signs that he was going to help us," Haley said. "He had some setbacks. When they occurred the guys that played were playing at a high level. He's continued to work and get better. He knows when his opportunity comes he has to make plays."
Welcome back: Sunday will be something of a homecoming for Joe Philbin. The Dolphins coach played his college ball at Washington & Jefferson in suburban Pittsburgh, and he nearly became the head coach at his alma mater in the late 1990s. Philbin said he was about 12 hours from accepting the head coaching job at W&J when Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz offered him a job. Philbin went from Harvard to Iowa where he coached the offensive line and that move put him on a path toward the NFL. Philbin recalled how he gauged his wife's reaction to going to Iowa instead of W&J. "I asked her if she liked corn. She had certainly never been to Iowa," said Philbin, who spent four seasons at Iowa before moving onto the Packers. "It's funny how things work out."
Scouting Tannehill: Second-year Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill has thrown 17 touchdown passes but also 13 interceptions. Tannehill ranks 24th in the NFL in passer rating (83.2) though he is two sports ahead of Indianapolis' Andrew Luck, the first overall pick of the 2012 draft. "His mobility is surprising for me," Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. "He's capable of creating when plays break down."
Woodley has sent mixed signals this week, saying he is staying at left outside linebacker while also acknowledging that he would need little to no practice time at right outside linebacker before playing it in a game.
Mike Tomlin has seemed more open than ever to flipping his outside linebackers, and the fashion in which Jason Worilds has dominated from the left side should be the biggest consideration when the seventh-year coach tries to maximize the Steelers’ two best pass-rushers.
Woodley has missed the past three games with a calf strain, and during that span Worilds has passed the seventh-year veteran for the team lead in sacks with six. He has also established himself at left outside linebacker perhaps for the rest of this season – and beyond 2013.
It makes all the sense in the world for Tomlin to keep Worilds at left outside linebacker and accommodate him even though Woodley is the highest-paid defensive player in Steelers history as well as seventh on the team’s all-time sack list.
Worilds is simply the better and more reliable player right now, and Woodley has said he is willing and able to adjust.
“I think that our guys can play on either side,” Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau said. “We kind of practice in that way, more so in training camp than when we get in the actual season. We try to plan for the unexpected, if you will. That means guys have to be able to move around and play other positions. LaMarr, I think, is certainly athletic enough to play anywhere we put him, maybe at nose tackle. I think he’d do OK.”
LeBeau smiled after the last line.
Woodley isn’t lining up at nose tackle even though it looks more and more likely that Steve McLendon will miss a second consecutive game because of a high-ankle sprain.
Not should he line up at left outside linebacker if Worilds has played well enough there to make the job his to lose.
Some Ravens players have wished Bell well on Twitter and expressed their respect for the rookie embracing a head-on collision that left him with a concussion. And his teammates surely respect Bell for lowering his head at about the same time as Ravens cornerback Jimmy Smith because of his determination to get into the end zone.
“He’s bigger than I think people really understand,” Steelers safety Ryan Clark said of Bell. “He’s been extremely tough all year. He’s going to be a star here, I believe.”
Steelers offensive coordinator Todd Haley agreed with Clark. Sort of.
“I’m not going to start carving the bust for Canton, but at the same time, we've been excited from Day One [about] the things that he’s shown us, the attitude, his development, and he had some setbacks and he handled those in a positive manner,” Haley said. “He’s not there yet but he’s gotten better every week and definitely has the skill set and things you’re looking for.”
Bell is as important in the passing attack as he is in the ground game because of his reliable hands and the trust he has already earned from quarterback Ben Roethlisberger for his ability to identify and pick up blitzing linebackers.
Running the ball appears to be the last part of Bell’s game to truly come together, and part of that can be attributed to the Steelers’ season-long difficulty to consistently open holes for the backs. Despite averaging 3.3 yards per carry, Bell has shown promising glimpses. He averaged 4.7 yards per carry in his first two games against Baltimore.
Bell also matched the Ravens’ physicality in both meetings, and he said the extreme example of that – the collision with Smith while also taking a shot from Ravens linebacker Courtney Upshaw – won’t change his running style.
“As a running back you can’t think about getting hit because you’re going to get hit regardless,” Bell said. “That’s not the hardest I've been hit, and I’m sure I’ll get harder. I was just trying to do whatever it took to win. I really just wanted to get into the end zone.”
That mindset is one of many things for the Steelers to like about Bell. Here is another reason: Bell has completely transformed the Steelers’ running game, and he is still just scratching his potential as a runner.
“You’ve got a guy back there that’s a big dog, so to speak. It gives you a chance to be multidimensional and helps a lot of people out,” Haley said. “He gets it.”
Bell has passed all mandatory concussion tests so far this week and, barring a setback, should play against the visiting Dolphins.
Bell said he hasn't experienced any post-concussion symptoms from a frightening goal-line collision near the end of the Steelers' 22-20 loss to the Baltimore Ravens last Thursday night. Bell's helmet popped off after the 6-foot-1, 244-pound rookie and Ravens cornerback Jimmy Smith rammed into one another just short of the end zone, and Bell's head slammed off the turf at M&T Bank Stadium.
Bell has practiced both days this week and is expecting a normal workload against the Dolphins.
"I'm fine," Bell said after practice Thursday. "I passed all of my tests."
Bell, who leads the Steelers with 528 rushing yards and five touchdowns, has to pass league-mandated tests leading up to the game, but his recovery has provided good news for the banged-up Steelers (5-7).
One of the bigger questions going into the Sunday's game is the state of the line that Bell will run behind.
Left tackle Kelvin Beachum (knee) has yet to practice this week and right guard David DeCastro (foot) practiced on a limited basis Thursday. The Steelers are already down to their third center because of injuries.
The Steelers’ receivers apparently do.
“They took to heart (questions of) how good are we going to be on offense without Mike Wallace,” Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said. “I’m proud of the way they’ve handled things. We’ve had guys that have stepped up.”
Brown’s ascension and Roethlisberger staying healthy are the biggest reasons why the Steelers’ passing game has thrived in spite of the loss of Wallace, one of the fastest players in the NFL.
The Steelers are averaging 261.8 passing yards per game, compared with 236.7 last season. Roethlisberger has played every snap -- he is the only Steelers’ offensive player to do so -- and he already has 21 touchdown passes. Steelers quarterbacks had 27 last season when three of them started games because of injuries that sidelined Roethlisberger.
The passing game not only had to overcome the loss of Wallace, but also do without a legitimate receiving threat at tight end for the first two weeks of the season.
In addition to Brown's emergence as a No. 1 receiver, Jerricho Cotchery has rejuvenated his career -- the 10th-year veteran has a career-high eight touchdown catches -- and the Steelers can only imagine how good their passing game would be if they could coax more consistency out of Emmanuel Sanders.
Getting open hasn’t been a problem for the speedy Sanders, but he has struggled with drops, and his recent one came on a game-tying 2-point conversion attempt last Thursday in Baltimore.
Sanders appears to be doing fine after the fallout from that missed opportunity, and he pledged to become more reliable in the final four games of the season.
“Ben put a lot of great balls out there that I didn’t (catch) that I usually (catch) that I’ve got to make and that I will start making,” said Sanders, who has 54 catches for 604 yards and four touchdowns.
Fans lit up Sanders following the Steelers’ 22-20 loss to the Ravens on Twitter and other social media venues. He shrugged off the vitriol directed at him as something that “comes with the territory.”
“It’s been alright,” Sanders said on what the last week has been like for him. “People are going to say what they want to say, but I don’t really care. I’m just here to play football and win.”