Let’s be blunt. The Steelers were battered by the Chiefs in Kansas City on Sunday the way FCS teams are when they take a million-dollar pay day to travel to Alabama to play piñata for the Crimson Tide. The game was nowhere near as close as the final score of 36-10 indicates. Pittsburgh found some garbage-time success to pad their stats. Otherwise, things were embarrassing.
The game in Kansas City magnified reoccurring problems for Pittsburgh. Two photos, one from each side of the ball, underscore the most pressing of these concerns. Here’s a look at what each one represents for the Steelers.
Photo No. 1: The Ill-Fated 4th and 1
With 1:28 remaining in the first half, down 23-0, the Steelers went for it on 4th and 1 from their own 34-yard line. Whether Pittsburgh should have left the offense on the field in that situation is a fair debate. A strong case can be made either way. The call the Steelers settled on, however, is difficult to defend.
Pittsburgh aligned in a bunch set to their right and ran a toss sweep to running back Najee Harris in that direction. The blue line in the photo below indicates the line of scrimmage while the orange line indicates the mark Harris needed to reach to attain a first down. As you can guess from the swarm of red jerseys between Harris and the orange line, he didn’t make it. He was run out of bounds for a three-yard loss:
In all likelihood, Pittsburgh ran the sweep play because they were anticipating Kansas City would pinch aggressively to stop an inside run. They hoped they could wash their defenders down with gap blocks and use a pulling lineman (right tackle Chuks Okorafor) to kick the corner and spring Harris.
Unfortunately, the Chiefs did not pinch. In fact, their edge player, Melvin Ingram, looped outside and beat the down block of receiver Chase Claypool, whose alignment was reduced in the bunch. The rest of the defense flew downhill to the ball, swatting away Pittsburgh blockers like they were gnats. In the photo, you can see eight Kansas City defenders at or inside the line of scrimmage. This prompted CBS commentator Jim Nantz to remark, as the play developed live, “Look at all the Chiefs waiting for him!”
The photo, specifically, and the play in general, reveal two unfortunate truths about the Steelers’ offense. The first is something we’ve known for a while now. They cannot run the football. I could list a bunch of statistics to verify this claim, but anyone who has watched them recently does not need numbers to accept it.
The reason they cannot run the football is because they’ve failed to adequately address the offensive line in the draft and free agency. Pittsburgh had a veteran line for a long time, anchored by stalwarts David DeCastro and Maurkice Pouncey, and they did a nice job supplementing them with dependable players like Alejandro Villanueva and Ramon Foster. As a result, they did not prioritize acquiring quality replacements. Since selecting DeCastro in the 1st Round in 2012, they have not taken a single offensive lineman higher than the 3rd Round of the draft since. Nor have they signed a marquee free agent. By comparison, they’ve taken five linebackers, four receivers and four defensive backs in the 1st or 2nd rounds over that time while investing their limited free agent dollars in skill players and defenders.
The Steelers got by with this plan for a while. Now, however, with the veterans all having retired or moved on and no adequate replacements in-house, it’s caught up to them in the worst of ways. The line that started against Kansas City consisted of two rookies, both of whom have been rushed out of necessity into the starting lineup, a practice-squad player, a free agent signee whose best days are behind him and a former 3rd Round pick (Okorafor) who, four years into his career, has largely underwhelmed.
Of the rookies, Dan Moore Jr. may be a keeper at tackle. But, for now, he is raw and overmatched when playing against veterans like Ingram. The center, Kendrick Green, is playing out of position. Green. who aligns most naturally at guard, started just six games at center in college. He’s now started twice that many as a pro. Green is simply not strong enough at present to play center in the NFL, and is getting abused on a weekly basis as a result.
The Steelers will probably have to kick Green to guard and acquire a center in the draft or free agency this coming off-season. They will have to invest in the tackle position as well, as Okorafor has not proven himself to be a player they can build around. Trai Turner, the right guard, will probably not be back. While Kevin Dotson’s return will certainly help, the Steelers are facing another major overhaul up front.
The other unfortunate truth the first photo reveals is the predictability of Pittsburgh’s play-calling. When the ball was snapped on that 4th and 1, the Chiefs had six defenders to the bunch side against five Pittsburgh blockers. Even if all five blockers executed their responsibilities correctly, which they did not, the Chiefs still would have had an unblocked defender running free to Harris.
Why did Kansas City overload to the bunch? And why did Ingram, the edge player, loop outside instead of pinch to defend an inside run? Because, when the Steelers align in a bunch configuration, they overwhelmingly do one of two things: throw the ball utilizing pick routes or run the ball to the edge.
Most often, this is the formation they prefer when executing jet sweeps. The idea is to compress the edge, thereby pulling the defense towards the middle of the field, and then try to outrun them to the corner. That’s all well and good when using a speedy player like Diontae Johnson or Ray Ray McCloud. It’s not as good using the 232-pound Harris.
As if announcing the play with their alignment and then tossing the ball to their power running back wasn’t problematic enough, there was nothing built into it to slow down the defense. No RPO. No motion. No tight end kicking the backside to create a split-flow read to slow the backers. This was a full-flow toss play on 4th and 1 when the defense was in a downhill mode. It’s the kind of play you run when you think your dudes are just better than the other team’s dudes. The type of play that says, You know what’s coming, let’s see you stop it. Well, Kansas City stopped it. They did so because Pittsburgh’s dudes were not better than their dudes. And because the formation gave the play-call away.
Criticizing play-calls is one of the easiest, and quite frankly, laziest things a fan can do. It’s incredibly hard to call plays in real time. Those who haven’t done so cannot adequately understand the pressure a play-caller is under. With limited time to digest an incredible amount of information, the preparation and anticipation it takes to be a good play-caller is remarkable.
That said, some calls simply jump out for their lack of imagination. This was one of them. Nantz’s commentary on the play — “Look at all the Chiefs waiting for him!” — is telling. While first-year coordinator Matt Canada has been dealt an unenviable hand — bad line, aging quarterback who is a poor fit for his preferred system, best receiver out for most of the season — he has shown himself to be exceptionally predictable at times. Sunday was one of them. There was never a moment when Kansas City looked uncomfortable on defense. Even when Pittsburgh dialed up a flea-flicker on the first play of their second possession, the Chiefs sniffed it out and produced an interception. They just weren’t fooled. Ever.
This is as damning a statement as any I can make about a coordinator. If you’re not going to make the defense uncomfortable with your calls, you’d better be able to beat them with your talent. Pittsburgh has done neither for most of the season. With line coach Adrian Klemm departing for the University of Oregon, the Steelers will have a crucial decision to make on his replacement. Canada’s job deserves scrutiny as well. No matter the hand he was dealt, the results demand an honest evaluation of whether he’s the right man to oversee the rebuild on offense.
Photo No. 2: The Gaping Void
I spent considerable time breaking down that first photo. I’m not going to do the same for the second one. If a picture speaks a thousand words, there’s no need for me to elaborate.
Here’s the set-up. This is a photo of a run play from the Chiefs offense against the Steelers’ defense. You should know two things about the play. First, that the Steelers executed a line-stunt where the front moved from right-to-left at the snap and the linebackers run-blitzed. The idea was to get Kansas City’s blockers to lock on to the slanting defensive linemen, thereby creating gaps Pittsburgh’s linebackers could penetrate.
Second, you should know that safety Terrell Edmunds (34), seen at the bottom left of the photo, slid over into the center of the KC logo to make the tackle on the running back for a seven-yard gain. So, despite the gaping void at the center of the line, this was not a particularly big play for the Chiefs.
Under no circumstance should an offense be able to generate a hole this large in the middle of an NFL defense. This photo is damning on many levels. It calls into question Pittsburgh’s personnel, its plan and the ability of its players to execute its scheme. While the situation up front on defense, where the Steelers have talent but have been devastated by injuries, is different from the one on offense, they have been unable to stop the run with any consistency this season. Kansas City didn’t run the ball down their throats the way other teams have done in recent weeks. But, as we see in this photo, they probably could have if doing so had been their focus.
In these two photos, we get the story of the Steelers 2021 season. They cannot run the football, and they cannot stop the run. These two things suggest the coming of a significant rebuild in the trenches this off-season. For Pittsburgh to reclaim its place among the elite teams in the league, they need to get it right.