Running back Jay Ajayi was the main reason the Miami Dolphins defeated the Pittsburgh Steelers during the regular season.
The rematch in Sunday’s AFC wild-card game will likely be decided by quarterback play. Perhaps it will be the play of an experienced veteran, or maybe by a journeyman making his first career postseason start.
While the third-seeded Steelers are solid with sturdy veteran Ben Roethlisberger behind center, Miami ruled out regular starter Ryan Tannehill on Thursday and it will be Matt Moore behind center when the sixth-seeded Dolphins visit Pittsburgh on Sunday.
Tannehill sprained his left knee in a game against the Arizona Cardinals on Dec. 11 and is healing faster than forecasted. Coach Adam Gase didn’t rule out Tannehill early in the week in case of a drastic improvement but he and the staff didn’t see enough progress so Moore was officially named the starter.
“He’s our starter,” offensive coordinator Clyde Christensen said of Moore. “The other deal is on the side. It would have been more of a discussion if we felt like Ryan was ready to go.
“Moore knows he’s our relief pitcher. We’re trying to make the decision extremely early in the week because you get in a situation where it’s hard to get two guys prepared.”
Gase observed Tannehill closely and had no doubts choosing Moore was the right way to go.
“I think we’re close,” Gase said of Tannehill. ” … We’re still kind of in that gray area where we’ve got to keep talking to him and he needs to keep letting us know where he’s at and how he feels and keep talking to the doctors. We’re still in a lot of conversation and every day he starts moving around. We try to do different drills with him and just to try to figure out what he can articulate to us.”
The Dolphins (10-6) produced a 30-15 regular-season victory over Pittsburgh when Ajayi rushed for 204 yards as part of a stretch of three consecutive 200-yard outings by the second-year back.
And regardless of who quarterbacks for Miami, the Steelers (11-5) are focused on preventing a repeat occurrence at running back.
“We are not going to pretend like Jay Ajayi’s 200-yard day was a lightning strike,” Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin said. “No, it was very real. I don’t think it’s appropriate to take that approach. He ran for 200 yards twice against the Buffalo Bills this year.
“There is tangible evidence that we need to respect this preparation process. We need to have an understanding that what occurred the last time we played these guys was by no means a lightning strike.”
Roethlisberger was intercepted twice by Miami during the regular season but his high amount of postseason experience could be a crucial element in this contest if Moore is the Dolphins’ quarterback.
Roethlisberger is making his 18th career playoff start while Moore is making his first. Roethlisberger has an 11-6 postseason record with two Super Bowl victories.
Another factor is that the Steelers finished the regular season with seven consecutive victories as one of the NFL’s hottest teams.
“This game is about when you can get hot, when you can play your best football,” Roethlisberger said. “It’s important to play your best football late in the season when it matters the most. Staying healthy is such a key component to that.
“We have had so many injuries in years past, it’s hard to play your best football when you have guys down. To go into the postseason as healthy as I can remember, me feeling that way and the guys around me, that’s very important and huge for us.”
Running back Le’Veon Bell will be in the backfield on Sunday and that is a welcome sight to Roethlisberger.
The fourth-year pro rushed for 1,268 yards and had 616 receiving yards in just 12 games this season. But injury issues led him to miss all three of Pittsburgh’s playoff games during his standout career.
“I know how hyped I’m going to be. I think I deserve it,” Bell said. “This is going to be my first playoff game in my fourth year in the league. I’m going to be pumped and I need that. I need to keep my energy up, help my teammates feed off my energy, let them know how important this game is to me. I obviously want to go out there and show some people what I can do.”
Slowing down the Pittsburgh offense that includes star receiver Antonio Brown (106 receptions for 1,284 yards and 12 touchdowns) will be a challenge for a Dolphins’ defense that ranked just 29th in total defense at 382.6 yards per game. Miami gave up more than 30 points in three of its final five regular-season games.
“They’re going to make a lot of plays both in the pass and the run game, so we’ve got to tackle.” Dolphins defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh said. “We’ve got to make plays and counteract that, and that’s our job as defensive players to really corrupt what they’re trying to do on the offensive side of the ball.”
The Miami players say who plays quarterback for them isn’t an issue. That mindset is part of helping make sure there isn’t extra pressure heaped on the 32-year-old Moore, who did not start a regular-season game since 2011 before starting the final three games of the regular season.
Moore says the early week uncertainty involving Tannehill had no effect on him.
“No. I’m preparing like I have the past couple of weeks,” Moore said. “That’s all I can do. There is enough to worry about with Pittsburgh, so that’s where my focus is.”
Meanwhile, Dolphins cornerback Byron Maxwell (ankle) is listed as doubtful for Sunday’s game. Steelers tight end Ladarius Green is questionable with a concussion.