The Pittsburgh Steelers' defense has exceeded expectations for the early part of the 2015 season. Their current points allowed average per game, as well as their sack totals, are each in the top ten defenses of the NFL. They're younger and have held the No. 1 and No. 2 offenses in the NFL, the New England Patriots and the Arizona Cardinals, to the lowest amount of points that either team has scored in a game this season.
So what happened when the Steelers allowed 23 points to the Kansas City Chiefs, the second most points they allowed in a game all season?
For one thing, the Steelers were not able to stop the Chiefs' running game. Their backup running back, Charcandrick West, went for 110 yards on 22 carries and a touchdown. While that wasn't the most yards the Steelers surrendered to a running back this season, it was enough to give the Chiefs manageable down and distance situations for Alex Smith to not have to take as many risks throughout the game.
One of the key weaknesses the Chiefs sought to exploit against the Steelers was the absence of Stephon Tuitt and the necessity of Cam Thomas to fill his shoes on the defensive line. We take a look at some of the situations where the Chiefs took advantage of Thomas and it led to solid ground gains.
Here is one primary example of Thomas' lack of drive off the ball. If nothing else, being able to explode off the snap with his size to maintain the line of scrimmage would be enough for a backup player. But here we see Thomas get driven way off the line and opening a huge lane for West to have open space to make a play between Timmons and Moats.
On the technical side, Thomas gets stood up by his opponent which allows this to happen. He needs to have his pad level lower in order to gain the leverage needed to make plays. The Bengals will most certainly run away from where the offensive line steps and Pittsburgh cannot afford to give them running lanes such as this one.
Another nine yard gain here by West can be pointed to the Chiefs blowing up Thomas, though the play was not designed to go to his side.
Here you see Thomas get forced into the second level of the defense which clogs a rushing lane for Ryan Shazier to attack West before he can even get going. You can see the same issue as before, the offensive lineman easily gets under Thomas and his lack of a drive becomes a serious liability in the defense that starts to limit the play making abilities of other players.
Runs like these keep a defense on edge and takeaway opportunities for obvious passing downs. The Steelers' style of defense has always been at its best when the running game is limited and opposing offenses are forced to convert second and long as well as third and long situations on a regular basis. When these types of runs continue to happen in a game, quarterbacks like Alex Smith have a much better chance of making plays and a smaller need for them to take risks that could lead to turnovers and stops.
We chose to use an above view so that you can better see the space created by the Chiefs' offensive line. The Chiefs pull two players to the right side but their job is made much easier when Thomas is driven out of the hole. McCullers' great surge at the line falls into the margin of pointless when the Steelers lose on other key situations in goal-to-go plays.
The Steelers' defense has taken pride in a bend-but-don't-break theme in 2015. That theme failed to hold true on this drive with a touchdown that gave the Chiefs a 13 point lead, the largest of the game, and put the Steelers' offense into an even bigger hole.
Jeff Hartman's injury report that included Tuitt's non-participation in practice on Thursday scares me because now the Steelers will most likely have to rely on Cam Thomas against an undefeated Bengals team that has two young and talented running backs. He's a veteran, which means he should not be having as many problems with fundamentals as we have seen, yet we still see this time after time. In a limited amount of snaps, Thomas has been less of a liability and even an asset on some plays, but last week made it apparent that he is not an every down reliable replacement for Pittsburgh.