Forget that it’s Monday night. Forget that the nation will be watching. Try to ignore thousands of screaming fans waving Terrible Towels. This will be the first of many challenges facing the Dolphins in their prime time matchup against the Steelers.
See, the Dolphins have the second youngest team in the league. They are filled with first and second year players, many of whom – in fact, more than half the active roster -- has never experienced what a Monday night in the NFL can be like. So even before they turn to X’s and 0’s they need to first embrace the moment and then not let it get the best of them.
“We can’t make it more than it is,” said rookie lineman Michael Deiter.
We heard a similar message this week from Coach Brian Flores: “Take it one play at a time. Look, it’s a road game on Monday night. It’ll be our first night game of the season. There will be a lot of attention paid to the game, but just take it one play at a time.”
It was encouraging a week ago how the Dolphins handled another difficult environment in Buffalo. They were not overwhelmed. They simply went about their business, putting together a couple of first half touchdown drives, leaving the crowd, at least temporarily, antsy and annoyed.
They are looking to do the same Monday night against the Steelers, though this time with the hope of finishing off what they start. This team has certainly had its encouraging moments through the first six games, more so over the last two. Now they must figure out a way to combine some of those moments into something more sustainable. They need to finish off drives on offense and force some turnovers on defense. They need to be smarter in their decisions and more detailed in their execution.
First, though, they must show that the spotlight isn’t too bright and the stage isn’t too big against a team in the Steelers who each year usually gets the maximum number of prime time appearances. For them, this is probably just another game. For the Dolphins, this is their first Monday night appearance since November of 2017.
It certainly helps to have Ryan Fitzpatrick at quarterback, a 15-year veteran who has had plenty of opportunities on Monday nights and will undoubtedly serve as a calming influence for those young players around him.
It is becoming clearer as each week passes of the path this team needs to travel to get that first victory. It’s got to start with Fitzpatrick, putting together some long drives, converting some big third downs, and on occasion bringing out the gunslinger in him. Fitzpatrick and his pair of tall, athletic receivers appear to be the strength of this team.
But it’s got to be more than that. It’s got to be running back Mark Walton providing some balance, the ever-evolving offensive line playing the way it did in Buffalo and the defense in general adding to the two takeaways it has gotten through six games.
“We’re a different team than we were in the first two weeks of the season as far as being settled and more competitive,” Fitzpatrick said. ”But we’ve got a big challenge in front of us. People can talk all they want about (the Steelers) record, they have a top 10, maybe a top 5, defense. They are really good.”
The Steelers have certainly had their share of issues this season, the loss of veteran quarterback Ben Roethlisberger for the season due to an elbow injury being the most pressing of those. But they still have an outstanding offensive line, a tough-to-bring-down running back in James Conner, an excellent big play threat in JuJu Smith-Schuster and a defense led by an outstanding rookie linebacker in Devin Bush Jr.
The Dolphins will have to find that elusive complete game, or very close to it, in order to be in position to win it late. My weekly five keys? Here they are:
- Give Fitzpatrick a chance: That means time to set his feet in the pocket, allow him the opportunity to survey the field and, of course, maintain an upright position. The line is coming off a solid performance against the Bills. They probably need to play better than that against this blitzing defense. We’ve seen Fitzpatrick become FitzMagic numerous times in his career. The Dolphins will need to see some of that magic against the Steelers.
- Get the crowd restless early on: This is a tough challenge because the Steelers have among the most rabid and loyal fans in the league. But if somehow the Dolphins can take an early lead, if they can put together a few defensive stops, it would certainly quiet things down and create a more conducive working environment. The last thing you want against the Steelers defense is to play catch-up especially when you’re trying to create some balance on offense.
- A breakout night from Preston Williams: We’ve sign clear signs this season of this rookie’s level of talent and how he can be a mismatch against so many defensive backs. Sooner or later, I believe, Williams will have one of those special games when he becomes the big story. Wouldn’t Monday night be the perfect time?
- Watch out for JuJu Smith-Schuster: This is a tough cover for the Dolphins’ secondary. Smith-Schuster has evolved into the Steelers’ big-play threat, a player who is liable to line up just about anywhere, causing problems with his elite quickness. The Dolphins are hopeful that Xavien Howard can return to the lineup after missing time with a sore knee. He would seem like their best option against Smith-Schuster.
- Win the turnover battle: As previously stated, the Dolphins have two takeaways this season, an interception by Bobby McCain and a fumble recovery by Minkah Fitzpatrick, who will be playing for the Steelers Monday night. This is a stat that needs to change. Flores often talks about takeaways coming in bunches. “All you need is one to get going,” he says. So let’s start with one against the Steelers and see where it leads.