Dolphins 34, Steelers 28: Takeaways & observations

It was a winter wonderland as snow fell most of Sunday afternoon at Heinz Field.

After watching a 10-point lead disappear, the Dolphins produced a fourth-quarter comeback in a 34-28 victory over the Steelers.

With Baltimore’s win over the Vikings, the Dolphins (7-6) remain behind the Ravens (7-6) via a tiebreaker for the final AFC postseason spot with three games remaining.

Miami scored a season high in points, while ending a streak of nine straight games of 23 or points fewer scored.

Ryan Tannehill’s 12-yard touchdown pass to Charles Clay with 2:53 left was the first offensive score by Miami over the past nine games. The offense had mustered just nine total points during that span.

The Dolphins snapped a five-game losing skid to the Steelers (5-8) and also won their second straight road game after dropping three in a row this year.

Here are a few takeaways and observations from the season-saving victory that almost turned heartbreaking on the final play.

1. Happy returns

Daniel Thomas, who injured his ankle two weeks ago in the 20-16 loss to the Panthers and was considered out for the season, played Sunday.

Thomas capped a nine-play, 80-yard drive with a 4-yard touchdown run in the third quarter. His playing time increased when Lamar Miller exited the game with a concussion.

His 53-yard burst, Miami’s longest run play all season, set up the go-ahead touchdown. Thomas finished with a season-high 105 yards on 16 carries.

Mike Wallace, who spent four seasons with the Steelers, made just two catches for 19 yards, but beat his former team.

2. Clay’s emergence

A week after setting a career high with seven catches for 80 yards in the victory over the Jets, Clay topped that performance on Sunday.

Clay, who caught a team-high seven passes for 97 yards, found the end zone twice. On both scores he broke several tackles, including a pair by Troy Polamalu.

3. Inconsistent Tannehill leads team in clutch

While Tannehill looked mediocre through the air — 8 for 15 with 53 yards and touchdown (first completion came with 1:53 left in the opening quarter) — in the first half, he did scramble with success.

On a third-and-3, Tannehill ran for eight yards to escape pressure. He then dashed a career-high 48 yards on a read-option on the ensuing play. Though the drive would stall, Caleb Sturgis made a 30-yard kick to trim the deficit to 7-3 with 45 seconds left in the first quarter.

Tannehill went 4 for 5 with 57 yards on the opening drive of the second half as the Dolphins extended their lead to 17-7.

Troy Polamalu, however, intercepted Tannehill and ran it back 19 yards for a touchdown, giving the Steelers a 21-17 lead.

With his team down, Tannehill rose to the challenge.

Brian Hartline caught a 4-yard touchdown pass from Tannehill, upon further review on an overturned call, to hand the Dolphins a 24-21 advantage. Tannehill found Clay for the second of their two touchdowns as the go-ahead score with 2:53 left in the game.

Tannehill went 20 for 33 with 200 yards, three touchdowns and one interception.

4. Defense struggles

Pittsburgh grabbed a 7-0 lead in the first thanks to a 12-play, 74-yard drive that lasted 7:05.

Le’Veon Bell carried nine times for 38 yards (4.2 average) in the first quarter (15-61 overall). He also caught a pair of passes for 14 yards. The Steelers entered the game with just 76.8 yards on the ground, last in the NFL. They managed just 77 total by game’s end.

Ben Roethlisberger opened 5 for 5 with 44 yards, including a 5-yard touchdown pass to Emmanuel Sanders. Pittsburgh converted its first three third downs and held a 9:13-1:27 advantage in time of possession.

But the Dolphins would go on to score 17 unanswered points as they shut the Steelers down for the next quarter.

Cameron Wake forced Roethlisberger to fumble at the Pitt 31, which set up Miami’s then-go-ahead touchdown drive in the second.

After Miami took a 17-7 lead, the Steelers responded on four plays over 1:52 to trim the deficit in the third quarter. Roethlisberger needed just three completions, including a 43-yard touchdown connection to Antonio Brown.

When the Dolphins regained a 24-21 advantage, Pittsburgh answered back with Roethlisberger’s third touchdown pass — a 16-yarder to Jerricho Cotchery.

Miami had given up just one score to a wide receiver through 12 games (three on Sunday). Roethlisberger finished 23 for 39 with 294 yards.

The Dolphins almost lost the game on the final play when the Steelers kept it alive with several laterals. Brown, who rushed into the end zone, had stepped out of bounds at the Miami 11.

5. Debatable decisions

Coach Joe Philbin will certainly be questioned following the game about a few choices he made.

For one, the defense stopped the Steelers on third-and-8 with 1:31 remaining in the half. Instead of using one of their three timeouts, the Dolphins allowed the clock to run. Pittsburgh tried to draw the unit offsides, leaving just 47 seconds left.

Miami recovered a 1-yard punt by Mat McBriar, who barely avoided a block by Jimmy Wilson, on the Pittsburgh 42 with 39 seconds to go. Facing a fourth-and-2, the Dolphins elected to send out Sturgis for a 52-yard field goal, which fell short.

In the history of Heinz Field, only one kicker — Jeff Reed on Sept. 12, 2010 — connected on a field goal of 50-plus yards towards the open end of the stadium.