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The running game and suffocating defense, the formula to the Steelers’ future success

Coming off of one of their worst losses of the Heinz Field era, the Pittsburgh Steelers bounced back on the road in a big way, handing the last undefeated team in the NFL its first loss of 2017.

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at Kansas City Chiefs Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

What a difference a week makes. From the lowest of most-recent lows to the emotional high of a sweet road win, the Pittsburgh Steelers have been on one heck of a roller-coaster ride this season. And Sunday’s test against the undefeated (until about 7:20 PM, officially) Kansas City Chiefs proved once again that the game is never played on paper.

Using a formula that’s worked in the past, the Black-and-gold pounded the Chiefs’ defense for a season-high 194 yards rushing, led by Le’Veon Bell’s season-best 179 yards on 32 totes for an eye-popping 5.6 yards per attempt. For whatever reason, the Chiefs felt the need not to crowd the box with 8-9 guys on first and second downs, instead playing nickel and dime all day long.

Bad choice by Chiefs’ defensive coordinator Bob Sutton, who didn’t seem to mind Bell carving up his players all afternoon.

Couple that with a defense that rose up against the NFL’s most potent offense, holding them to season-lows for rushing and total yards and denying the Chiefs even a single first down until 28 minutes of the game clock had elapsed. KC’s first-seven offensive drives totaled -16, 4, -5, 4, -8, 4 and 10 yards, yielding only two first downs and three points.

In the end, the Steelers were celebrating a well-earned 19-13 win over the Chiefs which lifts them right back off the floor on which they sprawled face-first last week, and back into sole possession of first place in the AFC North.

So how did this come to be? What changed? The difference, in my eyes, was the lack of bodies that the Chiefs committed to stopping the run. Simply put, had KC done what the Jacksonville Jaguars did a week prior, perhaps the ground game wouldn’t have been so effective.

Bell said after the game “We came in expecting to run the ball, we stuck to the game plan and we got a ‘W’ today.”

They sure did—and then some. I fully expected the Chiefs to change up their approach to handling Bell, given that he set a Steelers’ record in the playoffs back in January, running for a buck-seventy on them. But to my surprise, they didn’t clog the box up on first and second down throughout the game, allowing the league’s shiftiest runner to do damage and set up Pittsburgh scoring drives.

And for that defense to stop the Chiefs all afternoon long—really—was a sight to see. Even the old man himself, James Harrison, got into the act by sacking Alex Smith on the final drive of the game to help seal the win.

“When he was out there at the end, I was thinking he would either get a hold or a sack,’’ said Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlsiberger. “And sure enough he got the sack. It made my heart warm.”

Deebo didn’t see the field of play much, but made the most of it when he got the chance.

“I’m 39 years old,” said Harrison afterwards. “And I’m still playing a young man’s game. I’m extremely blessed and highly favored. This is all God’s doing. I’m just sitting back and riding the bus.”

Despite not forcing a turnover, the Steelers defenders were very strong all game long, not only plugging up running lanes, but also giving the speedy Chiefs’ wide receiver corps little room to operate. Outside of the De’Anthony Thomas 57-yard catch, run and scamper for a touchdown, there wasn’t much explosive action from a very good group of pass-catchers.

After six games, there’s much to be written about the story of the 2017 Pittsburgh Steelers. But this much I know— the formula for success is pretty obvious at this point. Run the football, and let the defense do with its been doing — suffocating opponents. After all, the story on this team is a tale that’s far from predictable, but could still have one Super ending.