PITTSBURGH -- This was never supposed to be Daniel Thomas’ day.
Two weeks ago, late in the Dolphins’ 20-16 loss to Carolina, Thomas sustained a gruesome ankle injury after being yanked to the turf by an awkward tackle. Reports soon surfaced that Thomas would be placed on injured reserve, ending the tailback’s third season.
Nobody, not even Thomas, expected he would return this soon. But after receiving treatment last week and finally stepping onto the practice field Friday, Thomas was back into the running back rotation beside Lamar Miller.
Miller and Thomas shared the load for the first half of Miami’s 34-28 victory over the Steelers, but Miller was knocked out of the game by a concussion midway through the third quarter, leaving Thomas, who had three carries for nine yards in the first half, as the only experienced option in the backfield.
“I had no choice but to go,” Thomas said.
And off he went.
Thomas, a Hilliard, Fla., native, bruised and bowled over the Steelers at snowy Heinz Field, his total damages coming to 105 rushing yards and a touchdown on 16 carries. It was his most carries since Week 2 of last season and the most yards since his debut, a 107-yard day against the Texans on Sept.18, 2011.
“I didn't think I was even going to play this week,” Thomas said. “Being able to come back and play was a blessing. … And being able to get the win here in December is definitely huge for us.”
Early in the second half with the Dolphins lined up at the Steelers’ 5-yard line, Thomas took a handoff from Ryan Tannehill, made a jab step left, bounced back against the flow of the line into a massive hole and waltzed into the end zone for his fourth rushing touchdown of the season.
“I really couldn’t believe it was that wide open,” Thomas said, grinning.
But his true highlight came late in the fourth quarter, with the Dolphins fighting from behind. Trailing 28-24 and with 4:31 left on the clock, Tannehill found Brian Hartline for a 9-yard gain.
The Dolphins lined up needing a yard for the first down — they got 55.
Thomas took the second-down handoff and veered left. Key blocks from Sam Brenner, Mike Pouncey and Hartline, sprang him into the clear. Twenty yards downfield he faced backpedaling safety Ryan Clark.
“He looked like he didn’t really want to tackle me,” Thomas said, “so I made something happen.”
Thomas, sucking wind, angled back across the field, leaving Clark and a slipping, sliding Cortez Allen in his wake, before being tracked down from behind by William Gay at the Steelers’ 16-yard line.
“I tried to get out in front and make a block on the last guy,” receiver Mike Wallace said, laughing. “Unfortunately for him, he’s slow.”
Admitted Thomas: “I was dead after the cutback.”
It was his longest run in the NFL.
Dolphins coach Joe Philbin called Thomas’s explosive play “much needed,” as it set up Charles Clay’s go-ahead touchdown two plays later.
It wasn’t Thomas’s only near-touchdown of the day. In the third quarter, he fought through two tackles, escaped to the edge and was a half-step from the open field before defensive end Cameron Heyward dragged him down by his shirt tails after a 13-yard gain.
“I was just trying to keep my legs going,” Thomas said.
Thomas wouldn’t say whether his ankle is back to 100 percent, but with Miller’s status questionable moving forward, a career day from Thomas went a long way toward lessening concerns in the backfield.