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NFL Preview - Pittsburgh (4-1) at Miami (3-2)
By Scott Garbarini, Associate NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - Ben Roethlisberger was greeted with a hero's welcome in his return from his brief exile from the NFL last Sunday. The reception likely won't be as cordial for the controversial quarterback this week.
Roethlisberger makes his first road start since completing a four-game suspension for violating the league's personal conduct policy this Sunday, when the standout signal-caller leads the first-place Steelers into Miami's Sun Life Stadium for a key AFC battle with the contending Dolphins.
The scenario couldn't have played out any better for Roethlisberger, who received his lengthy ban after being under investigation for an alleged sexual assault in a Georgia nightclub this past March, in his comeback appearance. Not only was the two-time Super Bowl champion showered with a standing ovation by the Pittsburgh fans during pregame introductions of last week's matchup with Cleveland, he threw for 257 yards and three touchdowns in helping the Steelers cruise to a 28-10 victory that moved the club to 4-1 on the season and into sole possession of the top spot in the AFC North.
In the four games Roethlisberger was forced to sit out, Pittsburgh was last in the NFL in both passing yards (136.0 ypg) and pass attempts with youngster Dennis Dixon and longtime backup Charlie Batch sharing snaps under center.
The next few weeks should present more of a challenge for both Roethlisberger and his team, as the Steelers begin a stretch of three straight away tests that also includes showdowns with defending Super Bowl champion New Orleans and 2009 AFC North titleholder Cincinnati on Sunday.
There's an outside chance that Pittsburgh will be embarking on that tough sequence of games without one of the cornerstone players of its vaunted defense. Outside linebacker James Harrison, upset over a recent hefty fine levied against him and the league's recent crackdown on hard hits, was excused from practice on Wednesday and is reportedly contemplating retirement over the issue. The 2008 NFL Defensive Player of the Year was given a $75,000 fine on Tuesday after being involved in helmet-to-helmet collisions with Cleveland's Mohamed Massaquoi and Josh Cribbs, both of which resulted in concussions for the Browns receivers, during last week's win.
Miami enters Sunday's clash off an important and hard-fought overtime triumph at Green Bay in Week 6, with Dan Carpenter's 44-yard field goal six minutes into the extra session lifting the Dolphins to a 23-20 verdict. The win prevented Tony Sparano's squad from losing any ground in the competitive AFC East standings, where Miami trails both two one-loss teams in the New York Jets and New England.
The Dolphins moved to 3-0 on the year with Sunday's decision, but have lost both of their two home tilts thus far in 2010. In its last outing at Sun Life Stadium, Miami was handed a 41-14 shellacking by the division-rival Patriots on Oct. 4, with New England scoring two special-teams touchdowns and intercepting quarterback Chad Henne three times in the Monday night rout.
Miami is in the midst of a four-game home losing streak dating back to last season, which includes a 30-24 setback to the Steelers in the 2009 finale in which Roethlisberger put up three touchdown passes.
As previously noted, these clubs last met in the 2009 regular-season finale, with the Steelers posting a 30-24 triumph at Sun Life Stadium to record their fourth consecutive victory over the Dolphins. Miami last defeated Pittsburgh back in 1998, a 21-0 decision at home, and the Steelers hold an 11-9 edge in the overall series.
Miami holds a 2-1 edge in the postseason series with Pittsburgh, claiming AFC Championship wins in 1972 and 1984 while dropping an AFC Divisional Playoff in 1979.
The Steelers' Mike Tomlin is 2-0 in his career against the Dolphins, while Sparano lost his only previous matchup with Pittsburgh and Tomlin as a head coach. Roethlisberger has never lost in three all-time starts versus the Dolphins.
WHEN THE STEELERS HAVE THE BALL
The only negative during Pittsburgh's strong four-game start to the season was the absence of a vertical presence on offense, but that situation seems to be rectified now that the strong-armed Roethlisberger (257 passing yards, 3 TD, 1 INT) is back in the fold. The former first-round pick connected on long pass plays with speedy wide receiver Mike Wallace (12 receptions, 3 TD) and tight end Heath Miller (12 receptions, 1 TD), both of whom had touchdown catches as well in last Sunday's win, as the Steelers generated their highest yardage output of the year through the air. Wallace is the deep threat of a quality pass-catching tandem, as the sophomore is currently averaging over 25 yards per catch, with venerable vet Hines Ward (17 receptions, 2 TD) the reliable possession receiver. Roethlisberger's addition doesn't mean the Steelers will stray away from running the ball, however. Workhorse back Rashard Mendenhall (495 rushing yards, 5 TD, 8 receptions) had a season-high 27 carries for 84 yards and a touchdown against the Browns and is the centerpiece of the league's ninth-ranked rushing offense (131.0 ypg.).
Miami will attempt to neutralize the Steelers' solid ground game with a defense that limited the Packers to a harmless 76 rushing yards in last week's win. The Dolphins were aided by the return of linebacker Channing Crowder from a groin injury that kept him out of the first four contests, and the sixth- year pro combines with coveted free-agent signee Karlos Dansby (34 tackles, 1 sack) to form a stout duo inside. If the team is able to keep Mendenhall under wraps, it'll be better equipped to unleash a capable pass rush that generated five sacks against Green Bay, with dangerous outside linebacker Cameron Wake (16 tackles, 6 sacks) coming up with three of those takedowns. Rookie Koa Misi (12 tackles, 3 sacks) has also made an impact as a rusher opposite Wake, while second-year corner Vontae Davis (16 tackles, 1 INT, 3 PD) is emerging as a shutdown cover man in a secondary that's had some trouble coming up with big plays, having produced just four interceptions in five games. Roethlisberger wasn't sacked at all in his first game back, but was brought to the turf a total of 50 times a year ago.
WHEN THE DOLPHINS HAVE THE BALL
Miami's onus on offense is to wear down the opposition with its outstanding running back duo of Ronnie Brown (299 rushing yards, 1 TD, 10 receptions) and veteran Ricky Williams (240 rushing yards, 5 receptions, 1 TD). That philosophy proved effective last week, with the pair amassing 137 yards on 32 attempts to help key the win over the Packers. Wide receiver Brandon Marshall (37 receptions, 467 yards, 1 TD) did his part as well, with the offseason pickup racking up 127 yards on 10 catches as the clear-cut go-to guy for Henne (1195 passing yards, 7 TD, 5 INT), whose second season as the Dolphins' starter has been plagued by bouts of inconsistency. The 25-year-old was able to shake off his three-interception performance against New England with a steady showing last week, throwing for 231 yards and a pair of touchdowns. The Steelers won't be able to focus solely on Marshall when Henne drops back, however, as the shifty Davone Bess (26 receptions, 2 TD) can be a weapon out of the slot and fellow receiver Brian Hartline (15 receptions, 1 TD) is coming off a four-catch, 44-yard effort against Green Bay.
While the Dolphins want to run the ball, doing so efficiently could be a chore against a swarming Pittsburgh defense that's yielded league lows of 63.6 rushing yards per game and 2.7 yards per carry. Though safety Troy Polamalu (27 tackles, 2 INT) and nose tackle Casey Hampton (4 tackles, 1 sack) are both difference-makers who have been to 10 Pro Bowls between them, the backbone of the unit comes from a stellar four-man linebacking corps headed by Harrison (40 tackles, 5 sacks) and inside specialist Lawrence Timmons (59 tackles, 3 sacks, 1 INT). Both were major factors in last Sunday's win over the Browns, with Timmons posting 11 tackles, 2 sacks and an interception to garner AFC Player of the Week honors and Harrison adding an 11-tackle, two-sack day of his own. 2009 Pro Bowler LaMarr Woodley (19 tackles, 3.5 sacks, 1 INT) provides another top-flight pass rusher to a group that's surrendering a scant 12 points per game and has given up just three touchdowns through the air, tied for the fewest in the NFL. The Steelers will be minus one valued starter on Sunday, however, with unheralded end Brett Keisel (12 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT) declared out due to a left hamstring injury.
The Dolphins haven't exactly been an offensive juggernaut this season, and a matchup with Pittsburgh's stingy stop unit curtails the value of a number of the team's primary playmakers. It's probably best to leave both Brown and Williams on the bench this week, though Marshall should be safe to use and both Henne and Bess' values get a boost with the likelihood that Miami will have to take to the air more than usual after struggling to run the ball. There are better options on the Pittsburgh side, including a must-start in Mendenhall, who's averaging more carries per game than any back in the league. Roethlisberger's productive season debut helped eliminate any doubts as to whether he can still contribute for his owners, and Wallace, Ward and Miller all benefit from a fantasy perspective with Big Ben back directing the offense. The Steelers' defense remains an every-week play but avoid either kicker, as Carpenter could get limited opportunities on Sunday and Pittsburgh's Jeff Reed has had an erratic beginning to the year.
Roethlisberger probably won't have it so easy this week, considering Miami's adeptness at pressuring the quarterback, but he should receive plenty of support from a Pittsburgh defense that's been a stone wall all season long. The Steelers haven't allowed more than 75 rushing yards in any game this year, and a common link in both of the Dolphins' two defeats has been an inability to get its ground game untracked. Miami has proven to be no pushover and won't go down without a fight, but Pittsburgh's knack for inducing mistakes out of its opponents will be a factor against a team that's been turnover-prone at times this season.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Steelers 20, Dolphins 13
10/21 15:26:17 ET