When the story of the Pittsburgh Steelers’ 2017 regular season is written, Sunday’s matchup at Arrowhead Stadium with the Kansas City Chiefs may well be viewed as a turning point for the Black-and-gold. Ordinarily, that statement might be viewed as hype, but there’s nothing at all ordinary about the sharp contrast in circumstances between these two teams as they prepare for this rematch of Pittsburgh’s narrow 18-16 playoff win in mid-January.
Given the issues affecting the Patriots so far this season, the Chiefs have quietly become the team to beat in the AFC. As for the Steelers, they’re coming off of a disappointing home loss versus the Jacksonville Jaguars which only reinforced the lingering impression that they’re not the team we thought they were when the season began. Whereas the Chiefs will take the field on Sunday riding high at 5-0 and with the added boost of a rowdy home crowd, Pittsburgh will be on the road again looking for an opportunity to prove that rumors of their demise as an NFL contender have been greatly exaggerated.
In terms of sheer mathematics, of course, Pittsburgh could lose this game and still be in the thick of the battle for a divisional crown in the mediocre AFC North. But in the wake of last Sunday’s debacle at Heinz Field—and given all of the questions swirling around their overall performance so far this season—the psychological impact of yet another below-the-line outing in Kansas City might be severe. That’s why the Steelers currently appear to be standing at a crossroads, where one road leads to redemption and the other perhaps to purgatory.
Sooner or later during the season, every NFL contender faces teams that aren’t struggling with quarterback issues such as those nagging previous Pittsburgh opponents including the Browns, Bears, Vikings and, lately, even the Ravens. Eventually as well, every contending team faces an aggressive defense that takes the ball away (as the Jaguars did last week) or hounds its quarterback with blitzing linebackers (as the Chiefs are more than capable of doing). These are the points in every NFL season where your team’s mettle is truly tested. And that’s exactly where the Steelers find themselves in Week 6.
It’s a daunting challenge, but one which the team everyone thought the Steelers were this season would have no trouble meeting successfully. So without further ado, let’s look at the Three Keys to Victory for Week 6 at Arrowhead:
Key No. 1: Bring back “Ben Ball.”
Anyone who follows the Steelers is familiar with the trademark ability of Ben Roethlisberger to extend plays by escaping the pass rush and—usually while on the move—finding his receivers downfield with deadly accuracy. The fact that we’ve seen so little of these qualities in 2017 certainly is a legitimate cause for concern. If Pittsburgh is to upset the favored Chiefs, we’ll need to see a reemergence of the elusive and opportunistic Ben.
Roethlisberger has always thrived on beating defensive pressure and hitting huge plays that take the wind out of opponents. As a matter of fact, “Ben Ball” is the only offensive style at which No. 7 has consistently excelled during his remarkable career. Conversely, Ben always looks uncomfortable trying to run the dink-and-dunk offense, and particularly when trying to throw screen passes to his running backs. For Pittsburgh to beat the Chiefs, the old Ben needs to show up, at least for more than a cameo appearance. But in order for this to happen, the Steelers’ offensive line and running backs must have a solid performance in pass-protection against KC’s aggressive linebackers.
Key No. 2: Steelers defense must make Alex Smith play like Alex Smith.
While Smith undoubtedly is a capable NFL quarterback, he’s never been mistaken for Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers or Roethlisberger. Pittsburgh’s defense has been successful against the Chiefs in the past mainly because they haven’t allowed Smith to stand in the pocket and wait for his receivers to open up. Whereas the Big Ben of Steelers’ lore typically has played better under pressure, Smith has a track record of playing worse under similar conditions. Pittsburgh’s defense knows how to play the pressure game, but they might need the extra boost provided by the anticipated return to the field of James Harrison.
Key No. 3: Stop Kareem Hunt
Hunt is the same kind of dual threat as Le’Veon Bell, whether as a runner or receiver. Like the role that Ray Rice once played so well for the Baltimore Ravens, Hunt is the catalyst who makes an otherwise pedestrian Chiefs’ offense truly dangerous. If the Steelers’ defense can contain No. 27, then Kansas City’s offense becomes one-dimensional, consisting mainly of Smith chucking seam passes to Travis Kelce. The Steelers have seen that offense before, and they know how to neutralize it. But make no mistake—Hunt is a player with athletic skills on a par with Leonard Fournette and other top rookie running backs that Pittsburgh has faced this season. He’s a player who must be accounted for at all times when he’s on the field.