The Chief Problem: Steelers Week 7 Opponent Preview
It’s been a musical week here on the site. Monday’s game recap featured the Coasters singing for QB Landry Jones. Today’s video, which you can watch here, (sorry, it won’t embed) features a vocal performance by a former Steeler which is notable for its tunelessness and yet oddly compelling. I think Steeler Nation will appreciate the message.
Last week I noted it’s been a while since the Steelers have seen the Cardinals. This week I feel as if it hasn’t been nearly long enough since we’ve seen the Chiefs.
History of the Matchup:
The first contest was held in 1970, after the AFL/NFL merger. Since then the win/loss record is Steelers, 20, Chiefs 9, a 31% win percentage for the Chiefs. During those years the Chiefs were 338/357/7, a 48.6% win percentage. So historically the Steelers have defeated the Chiefs more often than the overall record of the Chiefs vs. the league.
The Steelers had a tenth loss in the 1993 postseason. The 9-7 Steelers were the sixth seed, and played the No. 3 seeded Chiefs, who went 11-5 that season. Despite the game being in Arrowhead Stadium, the Steelers were winning for a great deal of it, and might well have won in regulation had it not been for a blocked punt in the last couple of minutes which allowed the Chiefs to tie the score. It took 11 scoreless minutes of overtime before the Chiefs won with a field goal.
The most recent was only a year ago, on December 21st. With a win, the Steelers could ensure themselves at least a wildcard berth in the playoffs, and indeed they won the game 20-12 at Heinz Field. There was nothing particularly notable about the game, except that Ben Roethlisberger didn’t get hurt in it. Many of us, I’m sure, were chewing our fingernails as we remembered the previous time the two teams met, in 2012.
Playing at Heinz Field, both teams ended the first half with right around 150 total yards of offense. In the third quarter things got ugly as Ben Roethlisberger was sacked at the end of the first series of the third quarter by Justin Houston, who laid on a little extra effort and broke something or other of Ben’s. I don’t know that the nature of the injury was ever really clarified, other than it had something to do with his ribs. It kept Roethlisberger out of the rest of the game.
Byron Leftwich came in with the score at 10-10, was promptly sacked at the PIT 21 yard line by Houston, and appeared to fumble the ball. Houston then returned it for a touchdown, or so he thought. However, the touchdown was reversed, and Houston was slapped with a 15-yard Unsportsmanlike Conduct penalty. It didn’t do any good, though, and after a few runs by Jonathan Dwyer, the Steelers elected to go for a 4th-and-1 with an Isaac Redman run up the middle. Apparently no one told Redman which direction he was supposed to run, because the play lost a yard and the Chiefs took over on the PIT 49. Despite the awesome field position they had to punt after a three-and-out. It was that sort of game.
By the end of regulation the score was 13-13, Ryan Succop having made a 48-yard field goal at :02 of the fourth quarter. It took exactly two plays in overtime for Matt Cassel to throw an interception to Lawrence Timmons, who ran it 23 yards to the KC 5 yard line. Shaun Suisham nailed the field goal for an exceedingly ugly win. Roethlisberger would miss three games after that, two against the Ravens and one against the Browns. He returned in time to lose in embarrassing fashion to the patched-together San Diego Chargers at Heinz Field.
The Steelers played the Chiefs at Arrowhead in 2011. The game was won by a score of 13-9. It featured plays such as a Mewelde Moore fumble, recovered by the Chiefs, who then returned the favor a couple of plays later when quarterback Tyler Palko fumbled at the KC 39, which was recovered by Brett Keisel. Nonetheless the Steelers had to punt after getting to the KC 24 after a holding penalty on Heath Miller and an 11-yard sack. But a win’s a win, right? You can watch the Chiefs’ press conference after the game if you like, with none other than Head Coach Todd Haley.
The Steelers also played the Chiefs in 2009, at Arrowhead, and lost by a field goal in overtime. (As an aside, can somebody explain the scheduling system to me? I get the six games against your division rivals and the four against the AFC division of the year, but it just seems entirely random for the remaining six games…)
At any rate, if you look at the seven games between the two teams beginning in 2001, the Steelers have won all of the ones played at Heinz Field but only half of them at Arrowhead.
Since the previous game was only a year ago, not a great deal has changed. Andy Reid is still the Head Coach. Alex Smith is still the quarterback, leading the league in passes of less than 3 yards (although Michael Vick has been giving him a run for his money this season.) Actually, I just made up that statistic. In fact, although Smith isn’t known for too many long bombs down the field, he takes very good care of the ball, and had a 1.2% interception rate last year. The Chiefs averaged less than 200 passing yards per game last season, but averaged almost 120 running yards per game.
In 2015 the passing game is averaging 240 yards per game, but the running game has dropped to just over 100 per game, and that may continue to take a hit, as Jamaal Charles is out for the season with a torn ACL. The Chiefs, who were 3-3 at this time last season, are now 1-5. Here is some of what Terez Paylor of the Kansas City Star had to say after last week’s loss to the Vikings:
1. Are the Chiefs done?
Yes, pretty much. For the Chiefs to go 9-7, they’d have to finish 8-2 the rest of the way. Anything can happen in this league, but given the new and inventive ways they’ve created to lose games this year, you just can’t give them the benefit of the doubt.
2. Is this what the offense will look like with Jamaal Charles?
Pretty much. Jamaal was the eraser back there. He was so gifted, he could turn nothing into something and cover for the mistakes of his teammates. Without him, the play-calling will need to be on point.
5. Was there a bright spot?
Well, rookie cornerback Marcus Peters continues to shine. His fourth-quarter interception of Teddy Bridgewater was big-time stuff. He took an educated gamble by abandoning his man and making a play on the ball, and it paid off. He could end up in the running for defensive rookie of the year.
Paylor also noted that Adrian Peterson has been held to 60 yards or less if he gets at least 25 carries only twice in his career—one of those times was last week’s game. The Chiefs also have four interceptions and two fumble recoveries. So, assuming Landry Jones plays on Sunday, which is almost certain, it looks like he might not have a great deal of help from the running game, at least at first. He will also have to make good decisions with the ball, something he hasn’t always been known for. In fact, this is the biggest knock against him, according to Dale Lolley.
But before we prematurely draw any conclusions, let’s look at the numbers.
Here are ratings for the purported starters, as per Pro Football Focus:
- All-Pro: none
- Pro Bowl: none
- Above Average starters: none
- Average starters: TE Travis Kelce (78.9), RT Eric Fisher (78.2), C Mitch Morse (78.2), WR Jeremy Maclin (77.5)
- Below Average starter: LG Ben Grubbs (68.8)
- Back-up: QB Alex Smith (63.4), RG Duvernay-Tardif (62.7), FB Anthony Sherman, (61.2)
- Below replacement: WR Jason Avant (59.1), WR Albert Wilson (52.4), RB Charcandrick West (44.5), LT Donald Stephenson (43.0)
Both of the best Kansas City offensive playmakers are on the injury report, but at rather different points. Travis Kelce (facial laceration) was a full participant in practice. Jeremy Maclin did not practice, with a concussion. He hasn’t practiced yet this week. If he can’t go on Sunday that would be a very bad thing for the Chiefs, as he’s their best receiver by far.
- All-Pro: Le’Veon Bell (95.0), Antonio Brown (92.2)
- Pro Bowl: WR Martavis Bryant (87.9), G Ramon Foster (85.2)
- Above Average starters: Marcus Gilbert (79.9)
- Average starters: none
- Below Average starters: Heath Miller (71.4), Will Johnson (71.2), and Marcus Wheaton (70.8)
- Back-up: David DeCastro (62.5)
- Below Replacement level: Alejandro Villanueva (59.9) and Cody Wallace (35.0)
Note: They have Michael Vick (51.0) in as the starter but it is almost certain to be Landry Jones (which they rate elsewhere as 53.1.) Either of them are in the Below Replacement category.
Cody Wallace has actually been surpassed for lowest-rated Steelers starter by Antwan Blake this week. Wallace just doesn’t get any love, and he has undoubtedly been the weakest link in the offensive line. But let’s also note this.
If you play one of the millions of highlight videos of Martavis Bryant’s 88 yard touchdown run this past week, you will see a couple of interesting things. (It’s worth a look just for the stunned look on Bruce Arian’s face. I think he was expecting to see a lot of that sort of thing—from his guys.)
First, note that the man blocking for him after he pushed off of Tyrann Mathieu is Antonio Brown (who was probably the only one that could keep up with the Arizona DBs.) Heath Miller also knocked a couple of guys over, well behind the action. But shortly after Bryant somersaulted into the end zone, you see a large man lumbering up to celebrate with him. That large man would be Cody Wallace.
He isn’t Maurkice Pouncey. Few men are. Maurkice’s twin brother Mike is currently rated the No. 2 center in the league—and was No. 1 last week. But it’s seriously impressive to me that very near the end of a long, difficult game, Wallace would haul all 300 pounds of himself all the way down the field. Craig Wolfley says defensive linemen hate him because he plays to the whistle and just that little bit beyond. Heart and effort count for a lot.
And as long as it’s story time, I’ll throw in a marvelous bit from Mike Tomlin’s press conference on Tuesday. A reporter asked him why the Steelers picked up a guy who was playing defensive end and converted him to an offensive tackle (especially given that much of said players’ experience had been at wide receiver.)
Tomlin, who was apparently feeling uncharacteristically forthcoming, said he had first spotted said player at a preseason game last year at Philadelphia. During the National Anthem he noticed a guy on the opposite sideline who was a head taller than everyone else, and saluting to boot. This caught his attention, and he made some discreet inquiries. Said player was of course Alejandro Villanueva.
Tomlin said they felt he had a classic tackle body, and the front office kept tabs on him. When the Eagles cut him the Steelers lost no time in snapping him up as a developmental project. You can hear the story yourself, told in Tomlin’s inimitable way, at about 16:45 in the video.
Prior to that Tomlin, when asked if he was surprised at the progress Villanueva had made at tackle, said “I’m not shocked by anything that Al does. He’s a unique, unique man. He’s a talented man. He’s a sharp guy, he’s a very gifted athlete—I think he’s capable of doing anything he puts his mind to.”
Back to the comparison at hand. How well do the PFF scores line up with the Football Outsiders‘ opinion of the two offenses?:
- Chiefs offense: No. 13, down from 12 the previous week, according to DVOA.
- Steelers offense: No. 5, down from No. 4 the previous week.
As far as individual players, we’ll compare them by category according to their ranking by Pro Football Focus:
Quarterbacks: Alex Smith: No. 28; Landry Jones: No. 38
For the first time since Ben went down there isn’t a huge inequity, at least on paper, between the two quarterbacks. Not that there is a lot of paper involved on the Steelers side. Landry Jones has now thrown exactly 12 passes in the NFL in a real game. Alex Smith, on the other hand, has thrown 3,359 passes, completing 2,032 of them. So far, Jones has a better completion percentage for his career (66.6) than Smith (60.5).
Obviously Landry Jones’ completion percentage is almost entirely meaningless. In some ways, Smith’s completion percentage of 62.4 so far this season is not entirely applicable, because in the five games played with Jamaal Charles at running back his percentage was 63.0—without Charles it was 59.5.
But Smith is an experienced and consistent quarterback. Landry Jones is a wild card. And things may be a bit more wild than we would like, given the combination of a very noisy Arrowhead Stadium, a very inexperienced quarterback, and a further weakened offensive line versus a very capable defensive line.
Le’Veon Bell, (No. 1), DeAngelo Williams (No. 19), Knile Davis (No. 108) and Charcandrick West (No. 117)
Losing Jamaal Charles (No. 8 before his injury) is absolutely huge. The Steelers saw last year how much damage could be done to the offense without a capable No. 2 back if you lose your No. 1. In some ways you can look on the Le’Veon Bell suspension as a blessing. Whether the Steelers would have felt compelled to address the No. 2 back in a meaningful way without it will never be known, but the suspension certainly forced their hand.
Kansas City is going to have to hope their backs get a lot better fast. West got over twice as many snaps as Davis last week, and lost a fumble. His season average is 3.9 YPA. Davis’ is 2.5 YPA. Charles was averaging 5.1 YPA, as well as having 21 receptions for 177 yards.
Contrast this with the backs for last week’s opponent. The Cardinals RBs are averaging 4.8 YPA (Chris Johnson), 8.7 YPA (David Johnson), and 7.0 YPA (Andre Ellington). The Steelers defense held them to 2.9 (C. Johnson) and 3.0 (D. Johnson.) Ellington had a single carry, for 7 yards. It’s hard to imagine the Chiefs’ backs getting any traction.
Antonio Brown (No. 2), Martavis Bryant (No. 7), Jeremy Maclin (No. 30), Marcus Wheaton (No. 61)
Everyone else is 70 (DHB) or well below. (Lookin’ at you, KC receivers.) Jamaal Charles is also a loss in the passing game. Did I mention that losing Jamaal Charles is huge?
Travis Kelce (No. 8), Heath Miller (No. 24), Matt Spaeth (No. 28), James O’Shaughnessy (No. 39)
I was concerned last week that the Steelers might make the rather underwhelming Cardinals’ tight ends look better than they were, but they didn’t. I trust Keith Butler isn’t sleeping on Kelce, because he’s the real deal, not to mention by far the best weapon in the Chiefs’ arsenal not named Maclin. So it is probably a good thing for the Steelers defense that the Chiefs are likely to be pretty one-dimensional.
- In Run Blocking KC is No. 5, PIT No. 7, down from No. 6 last week.
- In Pass Protection KC is No. 30, PIT No. 25, same as last week.
Here’s a stat which shows a lot of the reason for the Pass Protection ranking—the Chiefs’ offensive line has given up 24 sacks so far. (The Steelers have given up sixteen.) To be fair they have played two of the top defenses in the league, Green Bay and Denver, and gave up a huge number of sacks to them (13, to be precise.) That’s still 11 sacks in the remaining four games, and without a credible running game things generally get worse. They gave up two sacks last week to the Vikings defense, who Football Outsiders ranks at No. 19. Hopefully this is an opportunity for the Steelers defense.
- All-Pro: none
- Pro Bowl: OLB Justin Houston (89.9), S Eric Berry (89.0), DE Jaye Howard (87.8), ILB Derrick Johnson (86.1)
- Above Average starter: CB Marcus Peters (79.9), OLB Tamba Hali (79.4)
- Average starter: DE Allen Bailey (76.1), S Husain Abdullah (75.5), DE Mike Devito (75.5)
- Below Average Starter: CB Ron Parker (67.2)
- Back-up: CB Ramik Wilson (60.3)
- Below replacement: CB Sean Smith (55.4)
Justin Houston has an elbow injury, but was a full practice participant yesterday. If I were Landry Jones I would be sleeping a lot better if he was showing as DNP. On the other hand Mike DeVito didn’t practice (concussion) and Tamba Hali (knee) was limited, so this bears watching. S Husain Abdullah also has not practiced this week.
- All-Pro: none
- Pro Bowl: Cameron Heyward (87.7), Mike Mitchell (87.0)
- Above Average Starter: James Harrison (84.2), DE Stephon Tuitt (80.3)
- Average Starter: none (both Cockrell and McLendon were downgraded)
- Below Average Starter: Ross Cockrell (72.4) Steve McLendon (68.8), Shamarko Thomas (67.5)
- Back-up: none
- Below replacement: Sean Spence (55.6), William Gay (55.0), Bud Dupree (50.5), Lawrence Timmons (37.5), and Antwan Blake (34.9)
Note: Now that it looks like Ryan Shazier is actually going to play, PFF has substituted the actual starter for the past few weeks, Sean Spence. Shazier’s rating was 61.7. Also, they seem not to have noticed that it is actually Robert Golden playing the other safety spot.
Will Allen still didn’t practice, but they put a cast on Antwan Blake’s thumb (he has “a little fracture”) and he was a full participant. Stephon Tuitt has not practiced yet this week with the knee sprain. Jarvis Jones, on the other hand, was a full practice participant two days in a row, as was Ryan Shazier.
Jaye Howard (No. 6), Cameron Heyward (No. 7), Stephon Tuitt (22), Allen Bailey (No. 38), and Mike Devito (No. 41)
The rest are below 50.
Justin Houston (No. 3), James Harrison (No. 7), Tamba Hali (No. 19), Jarvis Jones (No. 67)
Everyone else is below 70.
Vince Williams (No. 51), Ryan Shazier (No. 63), Ramik Wilson (No. 74), Frank Zombo (No. 75)
Everyone else is well below this.
Vince Williams made a huge step up. I can’t work out why PFF hates Lawrence Timmons so much. They have him at No. 144. Okay then.
Marcus Peters (No. 24), Ross Cockrell (No. 61)
Everyone else is below 70.
Ross Cockrell plunged from No 29 to No. 61. The next closest Pittsburgh DB is William Gay, at 108. Phillip Gaines, who IIRC a lot of people thought Pittsburgh was going to draft, is at No. 76.
Eric Berry (No. 3), Mike Mitchell (No. 8), Husain Abdullah (No. 26), Shamarko Thomas (No. 52)
It goes way down from there.
These are the Football Outsider assessments:
- Steelers: No. 14, up from No. 15 the previous week
- Chiefs: No. 24, up from No. 29 the previous week
- Steelers: Run blocking: No. 11; Pass protection No. 11 (Nos. 8 and 7 previous week.)
- Chiefs: Run blocking No. 5: Pass protection No. 15
- Steelers: No. 16 (No. 24 last week)
- Chiefs: No. 5 (No. 9 last week)
I would be remiss not to note the inspirational story of safety Eric Berry (pictured above.) Berry was having chest pain during a game last November. After the usual sort of treatment it wasn’t resolving, so they did an MRI and discovered he had a ‘mass’ in his chest. Eventually he was diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma. The medical team indicated it was very treatable, and Berry released this statement shortly thereafter:
My family and I are very grateful for the amount of support we have received over the last couple of weeks. I can’t tell you enough how much I appreciate all the words of encouragement, the blessings and well wishes. I want to thank the Emory University School of Medicine, along with Dr. Flowers and his team, for all of their hard work and effort in diagnosing and creating a plan for me to battle this thing. I will embrace this process and attack it the same way I do everything else in life. God has more than prepared me for it. For everyone sharing similar struggles, I’m praying for you and keep fighting!
During the course of his chemotherapy Berry continued to work out. While I have been blessed enough to never go through chemo, a friend and my sister-in-law both went through chemo during the past year, and the process was phenomenally devitalizing. “Devitalizing” is definitely the operative word—after all, the purpose of chemo is to kill the cancer without quite killing the patient.
While different people respond differently, everyone I’ve ever known who had chemo said it took them at least a year after the treatments were over to even feel more or less normal. The fact that this young man is the No. 3 safefy in the NFL, 11 months after his treatments began, is nothing short of miraculous. I can’t hope for him to have a good game on Sunday (although he might well do it anyhow) but I wish him nothing but the best in the coming years.
Back to business. The Kansas City defense is without a doubt the most impressive unit on the team. They have a plethora of top-flight players on the defensive line, as well as a potential ROY candidate at cornerback and Berry at safety. Knowing this, it is rather odd that they are ranked considerably lower on total defense by Football Outsiders. So let’s do a little more digging.
The usual stat defenses are judged by is Yards Given Up per Game. The Steelers and Chiefs are right next to each other in this stat, at Nos. 23 and 22 respectively. But as we saw last week, Yds/G is pretty meaningless.
The Cardinals’ offense was theoretically the best unit of the four (two defenses and Steelers offense) and the money was on a relatively high-scoring game, at least on the Cardinals’ part. After all, they were averaging 38 points per game (somewhat less if you removed the defensive scores.) And indeed the Steelers gave up 414 net yards. I think it is fair to say nobody saw the Steelers defense holding them to 13 points.
And after all the only number which really matters is the one on the scoreboard. Philip Rivers threw for 503 yards last week, but the Packers beat the Chargers anyhow, as they only managed to get 20 points out of all those lovely yards. So let’s look at the two defenses in terms of points given up per game.
The Steelers are No. 5 in the league in this stat, giving up an average of 18 points per game. The Chiefs are No. 24, giving up an average of 26.8. In most of the other defensive stats (1st downs given up, yards per play, etc.) the Steelers are in the lower third of the league. But it explains why the Steelers are 4-2 (and a field goal away from being 5-1) while the Chiefs are 1-5.
If you look at it from the other side, the Steelers offense is averaging just over 24 points per game, six points more than the defense is giving up. The Chiefs’ offense is scoring just over 21 points per game, almost six points less than the defense is giving up.
As I wrote in last week’s preview:
If the Steelers’ defense can hold the Cardinals to 20 points…they will be the first ones this season. The closest was the Rams, who held them to 22 in an upset in Week 4. So it can be done, more or less. Otherwise, the Cardinals have scored 31, 48, 47, and 42 points in their four wins.
The guys came through in spades.
Furthermore, the Steelers defense has now gone 14 games without allowing a touchdown to a running back. Dale Lolley first tweeted this stat when it was 12 games. I finally checked out the “to a running back” part, and several weeks ago Joe Flacco handed the ball off to a WR who ran it in for a touchdown. But it’s still pretty impressive.
Who knows—maybe the Chiefs will break the streak. But it seems less likely than it did last week with the Cardinals’ stable of three excellent backs, and the Steelers defense practically shut them down.
There is a marvelous video posted on Steelers.com in which James Harrison is interviewed by a cast of characters from the NFL Network. You really should watch it, which you can do by clicking here. My favorite part is the little tiny pause between each question, in which Harrison, as he listens after the slight delay in transmission, looks as if the first words out of his mouth are going to be “You fool.” But he answers the questions dutifully, including this one:
NFL Guy: How does it change what you guys do on defense when you have a young guy on quarterback that’s playing for your team?
Harrison: [carefully not rolling his eyes] To be honest with you, it really doesn’t change anything that we do on defense. On defense we’re supposed to go out there and pitch a shutout…You’re paid to go out there and stop offenses from scoring.
Tangent alert—why is it that the actual footbally questions are asked by guys wearing serious work clothes, and then they pan to the giant screen with the James Harrison workout tweet, and next to it is a young woman with long carefully coiffed hair and tight black pants and high heels gushing over the video and asking him if he ever takes a day off and how many pounds he’s lifting in the video and does everything but simper over his big muscles? I’m sorry but that really annoys me. I’ll bet that woman was perfectly capable of asking the defense question, possibly even thinking it up herself, and one of the men could have made ‘guys in the gym’ kind of noises and asked about the weights. Isn’t it 2015 this year? Or have we inexplicably slipped back into the 1960s? I’m surprised she wasn’t in a frilly apron.
Okay, rant over. Last week was very gratifying. But with the way things go in the NFL, perhaps the reeling Chiefs offense will put up 40 points on the Steelers. Probably not, though. Have I mentioned Jamaal Charles won’t be playing?
Once again the question will be, can the Steelers put up one point more than the Chiefs? I’m guessing that will come down to whether the Steelers offense can keep the Chiefs’ defense from scoring.