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How the Kansas City Chiefs broke the Steelers defense

Despite a strong start to the playoff game for the defense, the Chiefs had the last laugh.

NFL: JAN 16 AFC Wild Card - Steelers at Chiefs Photo by Scott Winters/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Steelers gave up 42 points to the Kansas City Chiefs in their Wild Card matchup, so it may surprise you to know that the Steelers defense made their mark against the Chiefs, doing something no defense has done to the Chiefs’ offense in several years.

The Steelers held the Chiefs to zero points on their first 5 drives of the game, something that hasn’t happened since the Chiefs faced the Colts on October 6, 2019. The Steelers defense also scored before the Chiefs offense scored, something that hasn’t happened to the Chiefs since 2012, also against the Colts.

My point here is the Steelers needed to have an incredible start against the Chiefs to be in the game, and they got that from the defense. The offense during that stretch failed to score, win field position or even eat clock, so 5 drives into the game, when a defense should be getting ready to go into the locker room for halftime, there were almost 11 minutes left in the first half.

In their 6th shot at the Steelers defense the Chiefs put together their first good drive, scored a touchdown and tied the game. They would score on the next 5 drives, countering the Steelers shutting them out for 5 straight drives with 6 straight touchdown drives. A couple things happened to let the Chiefs break through, and that is what we are going to talk about today.

Steelers vs. Chiefs, 1st quarter, 9:38

Cameron Heyward is on the line, second from the bottom.

This is what Cameron Heyward saw the entire game. The Chiefs almost constantly hit him with double teams, neutralizing his power at first contact and slowing his push into the pocket. They left T.J. Watt, Alex Highsmith and Chris Wormley in 1 v. 1 matchups most of the time in order to double Heyward. It’s an incredible, and well earned, show of respect for Heyward’s importance to the Steelers defense. You can see the point of it too. Look at the pocket in front of Mahomes, if Watt or Highsmith get a good turn around the edge to pressure Mahomes he can just step up into the pocket and throw. The Steelers blitz Devin Bush on this play and he gets in Mahomes face, messing up this throw.

Steelers vs. Chiefs, 2nd quarter, 4:37

Cameron Heyward is on the line, second from the top. Devin Bush is the linebacker on the hash mark to the bottom of the screen.

This time the Chiefs pick up Bush’s blitz, but you can see Cameron Heyward getting off his block and into the pocket, stopping Mahomes from stepping up. The Steelers were able to get in Mahomes face when they were aggressive and blitzing him and disrupt his throws. When they didn’t, or it didn’t work, they paid the price.

Steelers vs. Chiefs, 2nd quarter, 4:34

Cameron Heyward is on the line, second from the top. Devin Bush is the linebacker on the hash mark to the bottom of the screen.

Bush is blitzing from deeper on this play (why?) and he has almost no impact at all. The Chiefs have three blockers on Cameron Heyward and Isaiahh Loudermilk, and it keeps them back and out of the passing lane. Mahomes throws a dart here that, had Heyward been able to get inside and closer, would be ripe for a deflection. Instead it was a big gain.

One big problem the Steelers had was the lack of quality defensive linemen outside of Cameron Heyward this season. That allowed teams, like the Chiefs, to focus on neutralizing Heyward and forcing the Steelers other defenders to win the play with a man advantage but without their captain wrecking plays like usual.

They were able to pull it off a few times.

Steelers vs. Chiefs, 1st quarter, 6:30

Cameron Heyward is on the line, second from the bottom.

The Chiefs triple-team Heyward, put the right tackle on Chris Wormley and put T.J. Watt in the spotlight. If he rushes Mahomes Kelce should have an easy catch and room to try and turn and run for more. Watt doesn’t fall for it, and is able to get to the ball, tipping it to Devin Bush for a turnover. It’s nice seeing Devin Bush closing quickly to Kelce and making a play on the ball, small signs of hope that his awful 2021 season of being hampered by injury could be something he leaves in the past going forward.

Steelers vs. Chiefs, 3rd quarter, 12:54

Cameron Heyward is on the line, second from the bottom, Montravius Adams is just above him.

The guard is preparing to help double Heyward as Heyward makes a move outside. That gives Adams time to beat rookie center Creed Humphrey for a sack.

Let’s break down the equation real quick. The Steelers were having success disrupting Patrick Mahomes in a few situations.

First off, when players other than Cameron Heyward or T.J. Watt were able to exploit 1v1 matchups, which as we know all season didn’t happen a lot.

Second, when they were aggressive blitzing and either got a free rush on Mahomes because of the double team on Heyward, or the blitz forced the Chiefs to block everyone with just one blocker.

The Chiefs offense broke through when they started exploiting that aggressiveness, and because the Steelers offense lack of clock usage forced the defense to rotate their best players out more.

Steelers vs. Chiefs, 1st quarter, 10:51

Cameron Heyward is on the line, second from the bottom.

The Chiefs, instead of doubling Cameron Heyward on this play, just funnel him outside a bit to set up for this screen. The only player to pick up on the threat is Minkah Fitzpatrick, but he gets eaten up by a blocker and it is a big gain for the Chiefs.

Steelers vs. Chiefs, 2nd quarter, 8:20

Cameron Heyward is on the line, second from the top.

The double team on Cameron Heyward leaves him too far downfield to seal the pocket, Watt’s inside rush off the stunt with Henry Mondeaux gets picked up, and Mahomes is able to run for a big gain on a long yardage down.

Steelers vs. Chiefs, 3rd quarter, 11:53

And here’s the Chiefs second leading receiver, backup running back Jerrick McKinnon setting up another touchdown with a big gain on another screen. The Steelers had to be aggressive to put pressure on Mahomes and keep him and Travis Kelce from dominating the game. But when they did, the Chiefs were able to slip the ball past the rush and score big gains. The Chiefs strategy of doubling Cameron Heyward on most snaps paid off because the rest of the Steelers were not able to capitalize.

Now I’ve been mostly talking about Cameron Heyward and ignoring T.J. Watt, because that’s a whole different topic, but to make sure I’m not sounding like I’m lumping Watt in with the rest of the defensive front that rarely won 1v1 matchups, Watt was frequently being chipped and the Chiefs did a great job using Travis Kelce to disrupt his rushes, and also force Watt to think coverage first on plays like the one where he tipped the pass to Devin Bush. His day was a lot more complex than Heyward’s, they just double teamed Heyward to limit him, they schemed to limit Watt. It’s one reason Devin Bush was on Watt’s side of the field, so Watt wouldn’t have to worry about Kelce as much. And when the Chiefs got rolling you could see them motion Kelce back and forth to get Kelce matched up with Robert Spillane.


Conclusion

Yeah, I know I’ve talked about the defensive line falling apart and wrecking the defense a lot this season, but it showed up again in the Wild Card game. The Steelers were able to hide the lack of 1v1 wins by defensive lineman not named Cameron Heyward by being more aggressive and blitzing, but the Chiefs were able to counter that with screen passes and scrambling. When the Steelers didn’t blitz, the Chiefs double teamed Cameron Heyward, messed up T.J. Watt’s rush path with ships and Travis Kelce and Patrick Mahomes had time to find holes in the defense.

All things considered it is still surprising to me that the defense pulled off the start to the game that it did, and if the offense had been able to score some points and run clock to get the defense to halftime before they were worn out the Steelers likely have a shot at winning this game.

For as bad as the final score was, I don’t think this defense was that far off from being one the Steelers can compete with, mostly the defensive line needs solved. There’s upgrades to make beyond that, but if the line isn’t solved, those other upgrades won’t matter much.