Opponent Preview: The Kansas City Chiefs
As Mike Tomlin might say, this isn’t my first rodeo writing about the Chiefs. The Steelers, as perhaps every sentient being in the English-speaking world is aware by now, beat the Chiefs not only handily but decisively in Week 4, thus leading the bipolar Steelers fan base to assume that “Pittsburgh’s Goin’ to the Super Bowl.” At least until they subsequently lost to the unregarded Dolphins.
And pretty much any sentient English-speaking human being is also aware that 1. Arrowhead Stadium, the former haunt of Steelers Offensive Coordinator (and former Chiefs head coach) Todd Haley, is a really loud place, and 2. The Steelers have to go to said very loud place to play this game, and that prior to mid-season at least they weren’t a good road team at all, and 3. Especially on the road, Ben Roethlisberger has shown an unhealthy tendency to throw the ball to the other teams’ receivers, and 4. The Chiefs are, well, chief in the league in terms of gratefully accepting such gifts, and often cash them in for a touchdown while they’re at it. And 5. The Chiefs are almost certainly looking to avenge their Week 4 beat-down at the hands of the Steelers.
Oh yes, and 6. the Chiefs have a guy (Tyreek Hill) returning kicks and punts who is a really slippery character, and 7. The Steelers’ special teams haven’t been very, well, special, as Mike Tomlin would have it. Did I miss anything?
I suppose what’s missing is any indication as to what’s changed since the Steelers beat the Chiefs, and what those changes (for both teams) mean in terms of Sunday’s game. So let’s cast a quick look back to that game. Beforehand I wrote:
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.
I went on to look at the earlier games and found that it mostly wasn’t true. The 2015 game didn’t result in an injury to Ben—he was already out—but the Chiefs won, 13-23, which I suppose is bad enough. Although the 2014 game was without untoward incident, the 2012 game was the famous rib-fest, with Ben providing the ribs. The 2011 game was less memorable:
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.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the former Steelers-Chiefs games regards the scoring. Prior to this fall’s match, these games represented what are probably 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.
So what happened in Week 4? As I wrote before the game:
..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.
So what is it now? The season average in passing is 233.8 yards per game, which actually comes to seven yards per game less than 2015. It was good for 19th in the league. The running game averaged considerably more than they started out, at 109.2 yards per game. That is 15th in the league. Their leading back is still Spencer Ware, averaging 4.3 yards per attempt for the season. Jamaal Charles hasn’t played since Week 8, and has 40 yards rushing for the season.
At the time of the October game the Chiefs’ offense was ranked No. 16 by Football Outsiders. It is now ranked No. 13. The Steelers ended the season at No. 8 in Team Offense, but were ranked No. 14 back in October. The Philly game really skewed the numbers at the time (as did the lack of Le’Veon Bell.)
In other words, offensively not a lot has changed, other than Ramon Foster, who missed the Week 4 game, will play Sunday, Lord willing and the creek don’t rise. Which unfortunately still doesn’t tell us much about how the game is likely to go.
What about the defense? Prior to the game the Chiefs’ defense was ranked No. 4. The Steelers D had a firm grasp on the No. 26 slot. The Chiefs are now ranked No. 14, the Steelers No. 11. So I guess a lot has changed on that side of the ball, for both teams.
Certainly one of the things that has changed for the Steelers is the makeup of the defense. Cameron Heyward, the defensive star of Week 4, is on IR. Ryan Shazier, on the other hand, didn’t play in Week 4 but has been a force of nature in recent weeks. Other young guys, including Artie Burns, Sean Davis, and Javon Hargrave, have earned starting roles and have made tremendous strides.
But it’s foolish to assume the KC defense was treading water during this time. Unfortunately for the Steelers they have some fine pass-rushers who will be looking to renew their acquaintance with Ben, and some fine defensive backs who will be hoping to reap the rewards. We can only hope the interactions between all parties are fleeting and inconsequential.
Finally, I wrote back in Week 4:
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 [the Eagles’ head coach] 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…
And of course after a few more discouraging weeks we have indeed seen a great deal more from this year’s team.
As for the coming game, the worm may or may not turn at this point. But one thing I’m very sure of—whether or not this is a “revenge” game for the Chiefs, it isn’t a “trap game” for the Steelers. There’s something about the playoffs that sharpens one’s focus to an amazing extent. After all, you might as well “leave it all out on the field,” as the old sports cliché goes, because if you lose you’ll be cleaning out your locker.
Since one of the teams is going to have to do that, we can only hope it is the Chiefs…