One Game Elimination

Ben back in 2010 (Serota/Getty Images)

Before he became the head coach of the Miami Dolphins, and before he became the offensive coordinator of the Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers, Joe Philbin was the offensive coordinator of the Allegheny College ...

... football team that won the Division III national championship back in 1990.

You remember Jeff Filkovski hitting Kurt Reiser with that 15-yard touchdown pass to win it in overtime, don't you?

"It was the greatest athletics achievement in Allegheny's 175 years," said athletic director Norm Sundstrom.

And it was one of Western PA's finest moments.

Philbin stayed at the Meadville school until the end of the 1993 season, and then moved on to Ohio, and Northeastern, and then Harvard, before he was offered the head job at Washington & Jefferson College.

Philbin instead became the offensive line coach at Iowa.

"Pretty darn close," was how Philbin described his decision. "Twelve hours away from taking it. My wife was a nurse at a correctional facility in Massachusetts and she came home at about midnight and Kirk (Ferentz) had called me at about 11:30 and asked her if she liked corn. She had certainly never been to Iowa. It's kind of interesting how things work out, that's for sure."

The decision positioned Philbin to move next to Green Bay, where he coordinated the Packers' offense to a 31-25 Super Bowl 45 win over the Steelers.

In two games against the Steelers, Philbin's offense averaged 34 points, 412 yards and a 93.8 passer rating. But in almost two full seasons with the Dolphins, Philbin's offenses haven't come close to that kind of production.

This year's version is better, but is still averaging only 21 points, 322 yards and an 83.2 passer rating.

If only Philbin had brought Aaron Rodgers with him from Green Bay.

Philbin did hire a former Packers head coach, Mike Sherman, to become his offensive coordinator, and Sherman talked Philbin into drafting his quarterback at Texas A&M, Ryan Tannehill, to become the Dolphins' leader.

In Tannehill's second season, the Miami offense remains a work-in-progress, but one that believes it can break out of its shell of mediocrity today at Heinz Field against a Steelers pass defense coming off its highest three-game yield (893 yards) of the season.

"We are going to have to play our best game of the year," said Philbin. "You have to play your best football in December. We had talked about consistency and building off of what we did last week. It is a very, very important game."

The Dolphins are tied with the Baltimore Ravens for the final wild-card berth, a game ahead of the 5-7 Steelers and three other teams. The Steelers need this one, and stopping Tannehill will be the key.

"I see a quarterback on the rise, definitely," said Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau. "He has great timing, he's really good mentally, good vision, he sees the field well and he knows the timing of his routes. He's been very well coached. If you watch him from last year right up through today, you see him getting better almost every week. I think they've got themselves a very good young quarterback."

Last season, Tannehill started all 16 games as a rookie. He completed 58 percent of his passes, had a 12-13 TD-Int. ratio, averaged 6.8 yards per attempt, and had a 76.1 passer rating.

This season, after the Dolphins replaced WR Davone Bess with Mike Wallace and TE Anthony Fasano with Charles Clay, Tannehill has improved only slightly, but he has improved. He's completing 62 percent of his passes with a 17-13 TD-Int. ratio, averaging 6.9 per attempt, and has a passer rating of 83.2.

Last week against the New York Jets, the Dolphins gained more yardage (453) and Tannehill threw for more yardage (328) than they have in any game since an overtime loss in September of 2012.

"He's clearly playing better," Philbin said of Tannehill. "I think you can look on a piece of paper and say he is playing better, but overall I just think he has more command of the offense. I think his decision making has improved.

"This is an important game for everybody, our entire football team. It's going to be important for us to play our best football here Sunday. He's part of that, but yeah, I think he is making nice progress."

While Tannehill's progress has been steady, if slight, so too has been the decline of the Steelers' secondary. The defense overall has allowed 893 yards in its last three games and the pass defense has allowed a rocky 12.8 yards per completion in those games. Ryan Clark (34 years old), Ike Taylor (33) and Troy Polamalu (32) will certainly appreciate the extra three days off after playing on Thanksgiving night.

"I have a lot of respect for those guys that have been around a while," said Tannehill. "Guys that have played a lot of football I have a lot of respect for. They still make plays, they still run around and make plays. They're obviously very well versed in the defense that they're in, the system that they're in and can do it all. I definitely have a lot of respect for them."

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