PITTSBURGH (AP) – Mike Tomlin’s sideline two-step against Baltimore on Thanksgiving night did more than just earn the Pittsburgh Steelers coach a $100,000 fine and a smudge on his otherwise well-polished resume. It also overshadowed the perilous position his team found itself in after a 22-20 loss.
When Ben Roethlisberger’s 2-point conversion attempt smacked off Emmanuel Sanders’ hands and fell incomplete, what little margin for error the Steelers (5-7) had entering December vanished.
A loss to the equally enigmatic Dolphins (6-6) on Sunday would doom the Steelers to a second straight non-winning season for the first time this millennium and give the team an early start on an offseason filled with questions to which there are no readily apparent answers.
A win would keep the future at bay a while longer. Four straight to end the regular season could change the conversation entirely.
“This is our playoff game right here,” Roethlisberger said. “It’s been that way the last couple weeks, and it’s going to keep being that way until the end.”
Miami finds itself in better position, but only slightly. The Dolphins, whose season has been pockmarked by accusations of bullying that make’s Tomlin’s misstep look comical, have won two of three. They did so behind a defense playing with a kind of snarl that has taken some of the pressure off second-year quarterback Ryan Tannehill.
The Dolphins are tied for fifth in the league in sacks (37) and ninth in points allowed. Miami held the New York Jets to a field goal in a 23-3 romp last week while getting to quarterbacks Geno Smith and Matt Simms four times, including three sacks by defensive end Olivier Vernon.
“It’s been a collective effort by the entire defensive guys,” Miami coach Joe Philbin said. “I think everybody ribs everybody, but I think as long as we get the quarterback on the ground I don’t think anybody really cares who gets it.”
Only Tom Brady and Drew Brees have found a way to score more than 23 points against the Dolphins this season. And while Roethlisberger is hardly a slouch, he’ll also be playing behind an offensive line that will have its sixth starting combination on the season after center Fernando Velasco tore his Achilles tendon and is lost for the year.
“That’s been a thing since I’ve been here,” running back Jonathan Dwyer said. “We have trouble keeping guys healthy, but we have belief that whoever is out there it going to be able to make plays when the time comes.”
Five things to keep an eye on as the Dolphins search for their first win in Pittsburgh in 23 years:
WALLACE’S HOMECOMING: Miami wide receiver Mike Wallace spent four seasons in Pittsburgh, developing into one of the league’s top deep threats and making the Pro Bowl in 2011. What Wallace didn’t get, however, was a long-term contract from the Steelers, at least not one he wanted to sign. He took $60 million and fled to Miami last spring, and for all the thrills he provided, he has no doubt what Heinz Field is going to sound like when his No. 17 flashes onto the video board.
“I don’t think everything ended on the highest note,” Wallace said. “I know between myself and the organization, we all know what the deal was, so I am good with it.”
TOMLIN’S TANGO: Tomlin called his foray onto the field against the Ravens when he nearly tripped Baltimore’s Jacoby Jones “embarrassing, inexcusable, illegal, a blunder.” He stressed it wasn’t intentional and remains adamant it will not provide a distraction.
“The only thing we can control is our preparation and, ultimately, our play this week,” he said. “That’s the now and what’s immediately ahead of us. I try to relay that sentiment and attitude to our team, and I think it’s something they embrace.”
CORRALING CLAY: The rapid development of third-year tight end Charles Clay has given Tannehill more options when defenses turn their attention to Wallace and Brian Hartline. Clay’s next score will give him as many this season as he had in his first two seasons combined. He’ll be facing a defense that has struggled at times against talented tight ends and will start two rookies at linebacker.
SNOW GLOBE? The early forecast for Sunday is a wintry mix of sleet and snow with temperatures hovering around the freezing mark. It sounds nearly as nasty as Miami’s last trip to Pittsburgh, which was played in a monsoon on a field that looked more like a slip-and-slide. The Steelers won 3-0 on a field goal with 17 seconds left.
The Dolphins haven’t done much in foul weather lately, though they could take some inspiration from the University of Miami, which beat Pittsburgh at Heinz Field the day after Thanksgiving with the thermostat set at a brisk 31 degrees.
THE OTHER WALLACE: Journeyman Cody Wallace will make his first NFL start on Sunday as the third center to play for the Steelers this year. Wallace played all of 58 snaps in five-plus seasons before signing with Pittsburgh in September.
“He’s a capable guy,” Roethlisberger said. “He’s been here a while, so he’ll be ready.”
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