Steelers Opponent Preview: The Kansas City Chiefs
It hasn’t been nearly long enough since we’ve seen the Chiefs. For some reason the Steelers seem to have to play the Chiefs almost every year, and almost every time something bad happens. So let’s begin by checking whether this is actually true in recent years.
The most recent was just about 11 months ago, on October 25th. The quarterback for the Steelers was Landry Jones. Ben Roethlisberger had been injured four weeks previously, and his back-up, Michael Vick, had been injured the previous week in the win against the Cardinals. The Chiefs were 1-5, having won their first match and lost the subsequent five. And of course they turned out to not be as bad as you expect an 1-5 team to be. In fact, they didn’t lose a single game after that, including, of course, the tilt against the Steelers, and ended the season at 11-5. Although the Steelers’ ground game was very successful in last year’s game, thanks to Le’Veon Bell, the rest of the offense was not very impressive, and Landry Jones turned the ball over three times. Homer J. commented afterwards that “If Landry Jones is the answer, we need to find a different question.” The final score was 13-23, Chiefs.
The previous meeting was in 2014, 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.
Again 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. 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. Part of the ugliness was, the Chiefs were one of the worst teams in the league, sporting a 1-8 record.
The Steelers also 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?
In 2009 the game was also at Arrowhead, and was lost by a field goal in overtime, 24-27. Which means the Steelers are playing the Chiefs this Sunday for the sixth time in eight years, quite a lot for a non-division matchup. The Steelers have won every game between the two teams which was played at Heinz Field and two out of the three played at Arrowhead.
Barely. If you look at the total scoring, this has to be one of the lowest total scores against a single opponent not residing in Baltimore—86 total points for the Steelers, 84 for the Chiefs. This is an average of 17.1 points per game for the Steelers and 16.9 for the Chiefs, more or less. If you remove the relatively high-scoring 2009 game, it is an average of 15.3 points per game for the Steelers, 14.2 for the Chiefs.
But what about Sunday’s game?
Since the previous game was only a year ago, not a great deal has changed in the upper echelons. Andy Reid is still the head coach. Alex Smith is still the quarterback. The offensive philosophy is still the short passing game with some runs thrown in which was so problematic for the Steelers’ defense last week.
So far their passing game is averaging 241 yards per game, one yard per game more than last season. That translates to 6.7 yards per pass attempt. The running game has dropped to 91.3 yards per game, whereas it was over 100 per game at the time of the Steelers’ visit. Jamaal Charles has not played so far this season, although he was a “limited participant” in Wednesday’s practice, and by far their leading rusher is Spencer Ware, who has a 4.9 average. As noted, they were 1-5 last season when they hosted the Steelers. They are 2-1 so far this year.
It’s a bit early for this to be terribly meaningful, but I checked with Football Outsiders to see where they have the Chiefs ranked. As usual their defense is well up in the rankings, at No. 4. (Curiously, they rank No. 1 against the pass but No. 16 against the run. Perhaps this means it’s a really good week for Le’Veon Bell to return.) This is up from No. 15 the previous week. At this time of year things shift drastically, and, as noted, don’t mean a great deal.
As for the offense, they are ranked at No. 16. In case you’re wondering, the Raiders are No. 1. Crazy times we live in. The KC ranking is up from No. 21 the previous week.
You probably are wondering where the Steelers are located. Don’t ask. Well, okay, they are No. 14 in offense, down from No. 7 the previous week. The news on defense isn’t quite so good. They are currently holding the No. 26 spot, down from No. 14 the week before. Curiously, they are ranking No. 24 against the pass and No. 15 against the run. How they calculate these things is beyond me.
At any rate, history is pretty much out the window for this game. First, there is the body count. After the brutal whupping in Philly Sean Davis, Ramon Foster, Eli Rogers, Robert Golden, and Ryan Shazier were non-participants in Wednesday’s practice. From what I understand, Ramon Foster is almost certainly out, and Sean Davis won’t play if he can’t practice. (In addition, Cody Wallace and Senquez Golson were out, but we weren’t expecting them.) Oddly, what appeared to be the most brutal and serious injury, requiring a trip to a Philly hospital, was to Lawrence Timmons. It doesn’t appear to have fazed him, as he practiced fully. Roosevelt Nix was a limited participant.
On the Chiefs’ side, Tamba Hali, Marcus Peters, Charcandrick West, and Jah Reid did not practice. Unfortunately for us, Peters’ non-participation was due to illness, so he will almost certainly play on Sunday. As for Hali and Reid, they are grizzled vets who might well play even if they don’t practice.
What does this mean? First, it means the depth at defensive back, which was already not very deep, is perilously thin, especially if Davis can’t play. Justin Gilbert is, by all accounts, coming along well, and Ed Bouchette of the Post-Gazette reports that his teammates and coaches are happy with his attitude and work ethic. However, I’m not sure anyone is viewing Gilbert as a savior. It would be nice, and make a great story, but it is pretty unlikely.
And of course the defense is different, in a not very good way, when Ryan Shazier is limited. Not only is he perhaps the best player on it, he lines up the defense. However, Lawrence Timmons did it before, and presumably will do it again. But the sort of all-over-the-field plays Shazier makes has no replacement. Timmons could do that once, sort of. But not for quite some time now.
Robert Golden is going to be a real loss if he can’t play as well. I guess I never thought I would be writing those words. Nothing against Golden, but there was nothing much in previous seasons to indicate, at least to my untutored eye, that he had it in him to play as well as he has this season.
And of course the loss of Ramon Foster is a real blow. But to my surprise, apparently B.J. Finney rather than Chris Hubbard replaced Foster, and he didn’t do too badly. Pro Football Focus gave him a 71.0 rating for the 38 snaps he played last week, which is lower than both DeCastro and Foster, but not by all that much. So either Finney is better than expected or Pro Football Focus doesn’t know what they are talking about. (I’m guessing many of you would vote for the latter option…)
In past years this matchup has often been considered a “trap game” for the Steelers. I don’t think anyone is calling it that after last week’s debacle. The real question is, is it a trap game for the Chiefs?
After all, they must be feeling pretty confident after looking at the footage of the Steelers/Eagles, featuring a lot of familiar-looking game planning. As well it might be, as Doug Pederson was Andy Reid’s offensive coordinator in both Philly and Kansas City before winning his current gig. Let’s hope they breeze into Heinz Field expecting a win and leave with a loss. I wouldn’t risk any money on it, though. Not until I see rather more from this year’s team…