Steelers entertain Wallace, Dolphins in key AFC matchup
(SportsNetwork.com) - Given their choice, Mike Wallace and his Miami teammates would rather be 12-0 and embarking on a victory lap before entering the AFC playoffs.
That scenario, however, is only a fantasy for a team just recently back to .500 at 6-6.
But that doesn't mean the Dolphins - and Wallace in particular - won't be particularly revved-up when they visit Heinz Field this weekend for a Week 14 matchup with the Pittsburgh Steelers.
A free-agent signee after four seasons in Pittsburgh's black and gold, Wallace has been slow to warm to his new task on South Beach, but he's shown recent indications that he's on the way to becoming worth the five-year, $60 million deal ($30 million guaranteed) he got over the summer.
The fifth-year product of the University of Mississippi had just one touchdown catch in his first 10 games in teal and orange, but has caught a pair of scoring passes amid 12 catches for 209 yards in the last two weeks as the Dolphins worked back into the postseason discussion.
Miami defeated the New York Jets, 23-3, last Sunday and now sit even with the Baltimore Ravens in pursuit of the conference's sixth and final playoff spot. If the season ended today, the defending Super Bowl champions would get the final wild card based on a head-to-head victory in Week 6.
But the Dolphins with three of four opponents - Pittsburgh, Buffalo and the Jets - who currently sit below .500, while the Ravens end with a three-week gauntlet of division leaders that includes Detroit (NFC North), New England (AFC East) and CIncinnati (AFC North).
Sprinkle that on Wallace's inherent motivation to beat his former team, and it's all systems go.
"I'm feeling more comfortable every week in the offense," Wallace said. "It's time to hit my stride. No more warming up. It's time to go. It's December. You've got to make plays now. You don't have time to wait. It's going to be exciting."
"I don't want to get caught up in too much hype about a personal battle with these guys, because it's not really about that. It's about moving forward. These guys stand in the way of our playoff hopes. They're another team in the way that has to go down."
The offense, after extended periods of dormancy early on, showed legitimate signs of life last week in the rout of the Jets - who entered with one of the league's premier defensive units.
Wallace caught seven passes for 82 yards, including a 28-yard touchdown, and quarterback Ryan Tannehill threw for 331 yards in a breakout performance that saw the Dolphins rack up a season-high 453 yards of total offense.
Tannehill completed 28 of 43 passes and connected with Brian Hartline for a TD and 127 yards.
The Steelers, incidentally, have been touched for an average of 287.6 pass yards over the last five games. They're 11th in the league through 12 games with a per-week average of 225.4 yards.
"We are in the playoff hunt, and we have to win every game," Miami linebacker Dannell Ellerbe said. "But it's very important to not look too far down the road."
Pittsburgh enters the game amid unusual controversy that came on Thanksgiving night, when coach Mike Tomlin - intentionally or not - impeded the progress of Baltimore punt returner Jacoby Jones during the Steelers' 22-20 loss at M&T Bank Stadium.
Tomlin was fined $100,000 for stepping onto the field and has spent the week doing damage control while trying to shift the conversation to this weekend.
"I apologize for causing negative attention to the Pittsburgh Steelers organization," he said. "I accept the penalty that I received. I will no longer address this issue as I am preparing for an important game this Sunday against the Miami Dolphins."
That focus could be helped by the availability on Sunday of running back Le'Veon Bell, who suffered a concussion against the Ravens after gaining 73 yards in 16 carries. He was knocked unconscious while trying to finish a scoring play in the fourth quarter and is listed as questionable for the Miami game.
The second-round draft pick from Michigan State leads Pittsburgh with 528 rush yards in nine games and has scored all five of the team's ground touchdowns.
Elsewhere, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has been equally solid in his last three games - completing 64.2 percent of his throws for 841 yards, eight touchdowns and no interceptions while posting a 105.8 passer rating.
For the season, he is at 64.4 percent with 21 TDs, 10 interceptions and a 92,4 rating.
Helping his recent surge is the fact that he's been sacked just once in three games. In that same stretch of time, the Dolphins have racked up 10 sacks - including six from Olivier Vernon.
"We've talked about how the performance level on the field has to be better in December, and part of that now is consistency," Dolphins coach Joe Philbin said.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
Ben on the run.
In addition to the Wallace homecoming, the Dolphins will attempt to thrive by harassing Pittsburgh's Roethlisberger, a task that could be made easier by the absence of Steelers center Fernando Velasco and the questionable status of tackle Kelvin Beachum.
Open up the playbook.
The Steelers' pedestrian ranks on offense - 22nd in scoring, 15th in total yards - has ratcheted up the heat on coordinator Todd Haley, who's a proponent of securing yards in small bites. Against a surging opponent, Pittsburgh has additional pressure to play from ahead on Sunday.
The Dolphins haven't done all that much to earn a role as favorites, but they do appear to be getting better - at least based on Week 13's evidence. If Tannehill can maintain his recent pace and the front seven can keep Roethlisberger uncomfortable, expect the playoff fortunes to improve.
Sports Network predicted outcome: Dolphins 21, Steelers 17
12/06 09:23:25 ET