The theme of revenge games seems to have permeated throughout the NFL this postseason, and while it makes for a good storyline, revenge doesn’t sustain championship goals. The Steelers are in it to win it, and that is all they are focused on, because the best revenge is hoisting that Lombardi trophy after the final scheduled game of the season in February. The Steelers are looking to do just that for the seventh time, and the next obstacle on the Stairway2Seven is the Kansas City Chiefs. In a week 4 prime time game, the Chiefs visited Pittsburgh and were treated to a 43-14 smackdown in which Ben Roethlisberger carved up their secondary for 277 yards and 5 touchdown passes. On the ground, LeVeon Bell ripped off 144 yards in his season debut. While it is nice to look back to that October night and assume a win is forthcoming, that game has no bearing on what will happen this Sunday in Kansas City, because the Steelers are a much different team now, just as are the circumstances surrounding this game.
It is nothing short of amazing to see how far the Steelers have come since falling to 4-5. There were serious questions about the depth at wide receiver, the secondary was a mess, there were the missed tackles at an almost obscene rate, and they were barely getting any pressure on the quarterback. Instead of panicking, the Steelers stayed the course. Currently, the depth at receiver is actually better than it was to start the year, the tackling and the secondary has been fantastic, and the Steelers are near the top of the league in sacks over the last half of the season, which brings us to Sunday’s game with the Chiefs. In a hostile environment such as Kansas City, these Steelers have become more equipped and disciplined than most to handle that environment.
When the Steelers have the ball:
The Steelers are blessed, offensively, with more weapons than any team in the NFL. Despit all of the weapons they possess, it will be their discipline in such a loud environment that will rule the day. Pre-snap penalties haunted the Steelers throughout their 4 game skid, and can absolutely kill them in a playoff game, so they must not become an issue. With one of the best offensive lines in the NFL, it will be important that they continue to keep Ben Roethlisberger clean, especially with the pending return of pass rushing specialist Justin Houston, who has been dealing with swelling in his surgically repaired knee.
To help offset a relentless Chiefs pass rush, look for the Ben to continue using quick passes to get the ball into the hands of playmakers Antonio Brown, Eli Rogers, and Demarcus Ayers, letting them pick up chunks of yards underneath, with the chance of taking one home. The key to Ben’s success against the Chiefs secondary earlier this season, was keeping them of balance by being deliberate but aggressive. He lulled them to sleep with the quick passing game, setting them up for the deep ball, and then turned Bell loose. It wouldn’t be a bad idea either to make more use of the no-huddle/muddle-huddle to keep the Chiefs from being able to substitute out.
Like the Dolphins, the Chiefs aren’t built to come from behind, so getting ahead early would be advantageous. With the Chiefs having a defense that is capable of putting points on the board with splash plays, ball protection is extremely important, meaning Ben has to be a bit more careful with forcing throws. However the Steelers choose to attack the Chiefs defense, it would be a good idea for Todd Haley to scheme about 30 to 35 touches for LeVeon Bell.
When the Chiefs have the ball:
Over the course of the last eight games, the Steelers defense has transformed itself from a borderline liability, to a unit that can change the momentum of a game. With the development of three rookies who are playing like seasoned veterans, two units have been strengthened considerably. The defensive line has been bolstered by Rookie Javon Hargrave and Stephon Tuitt, has become one of the better run stuffing units around and has progressively gotten more pressure on the quarterback. The Chiefs offense is not built to push the ball down field and is rather vulnerable if made one dimensional, so the first priority will be to take their running game away from and force Alex Smith to beat them. In their first go around with the Chiefs, Smith was sacked 4 times. With three originating from the defensive line.
The secondary is light years ahead of where they were in week 4, thanks to the play of rookies Artie Burns and Sean Davis, and have helped to keep some of the league’s better receivers in check. This week they’ll be tasked with keeping close eyes on Jeremy Macklin and Travis Kelce, who are two of Alex Smith’s most reliable targets. The way they handled these two the first time around should give them the confidence to do it again. The secondary’s job should be made a little easier by the presence of Bud Dupree and a linebacker corp that has really turned up the heat on opposing quarterbacks lately. In his seven games back, Dupree has had a huge impact on the pass rush, with 4.5 sacks and a forced fumble. His presence has made the entire unit better which is one more thing Alex Smith has to account for.
While past performance doesn’t guarantee future results, it just might in this instance. The Steelers have vastly improved since the last meeting between these two teams, bringing new and improved weapons on offense, and three rookies on defense who are playing like seasoned veterans. With a renewed vengeance, the defense has produced 32 sacks since week 9 and has all but shut down the opposition’s running game. That is two strikes already against a Chiefs vulnerable offensive line. About the only good news for them is that they are playing this one at home, where another 43-14 pasting is unlikely. The bad news is that the Steelers have even better weapons this time around, and they are bringing a much better defense with them. As good as the Chiefs have played down the stretch, it won’t be enough to overcome a focused Steelers team that moves on to the AFC Championship game with a 31-20 win.