Three months ago in the heavy South Florida heat, the Miami Dolphins, as Steelers safety Mike Mitchell put it, “pushed us around.”
Sunday, in the biting frigid air of a January afternoon in Pittsburgh, the Steelers, Mitchell said, “returned the favor.”
“We wanted to get out there and be as physical and violent as we could be,” Mitchell said after the game.
“Our mindset was tee off on them. It wasn't to wrap up and make tackles — it was to tee off on them. We really felt like they out-physicaled us in the first game, and we wanted to return the favor.”
The final score (30-12, after a 30-15 loss to Miami on Oct. 16) wasn't the only near-mirror image of what happened against the Dolphins last time.
Subjectively, the Steelers appeared to be the more physical team Sunday. Want quantitative proof? After being outgained by 94 rushing yards in the loss three months ago, the Steelers outgained the Dolphins by 127 yards on the ground Sunday.
The Le'Veon Bell-led Steelers attack had 179 rushing yards; the Dolphins — who got 204 yards from Jay Ajayi last time — were held to 52 yards on 21 carries.
“They were able to run the ball (Sunday). We couldn't,” Miami coach Adam Gase said. “It was the opposite of what we wanted to do.”
The Steelers did exactly what they wanted to do: relegate Ajayi back into the anonymity he mostly resided in before his 200 yards against them in October and lean on Bell in his first playoff game.
“(The Dolphins) got after it the first time we played them,” Bell said after his team postseason-record 167-yard performance. “We wanted to go out there and make a statement. They ran the ball really well last game, so we wanted to run the ball on those guys as well and stop the run.”
The tone on each side of the ball was set early: Ajayi had just one positive-yardage carry on four first-quarter attempts, and Bell had 10 carries for 78 yards during a Steelers touchdown drive that began in the first quarter but endured into the second.
Bell was given the ball on every play of that drive, one that gave the Steelers a three-possession lead and effectively ended the game though it was less than one-third complete. The longest of Ajayi's 16 carries was for 8 yards; 10 of Bell's carries were for at least 8 yards.
“I heard somebody said (the Dolphins) were going to be able to stop (Bell), and he said, ‘It's crazy if they're able to do that,' ” Steelers guard Ramon Foster said. “And I just love that (Bell said that to the media). I was just hyped that he acknowledged that, ‘Man, I'm that guy.' ”
Ajayi exhibited similar confidence heading into the meeting — but the results told a different story.
“They have a tremendous running back, and we were able to stop him,” Steelers defensive lineman Stephon Tuitt said. “And that caused them to be one-dimensional in form and fashion, which made it easy on us.”
Without a running game, and with backup quarterback Matt Moore under center, the Dolphins' offense couldn't produce much.
“They establish everything off their run,” linebacker Ryan Shazier said. “And if you cause him not to be able to run the ball and play the game like they want to play it, it puts them in tough situations and helps us out a lot.”
The Steelers didn't have Shazier or Bud Dupree the first time they played Miami, and rookies Sean Davis and Artie Burns and veteran linebacker James Harrison were in far less significant roles.
But outside of those personnel changes, the Steelers said they didn't make any schematic adjustments against Ajayi and the Dolphins this time.
“We just executed and outplayed them,” Davis said. “We wanted it more.”