Whether or not Ben Roethlisberger can play this weekend against the Kansas City Chiefs should be irrelevant for Mike Tomlin, Todd Haley and the planning for Pittsburgh's offense this weekend. The Steelers saw their third-string quarterback, Landry Jones, go 8-for-12 against a secondary that was highly touted in the NFL as he engineered two touchdowns against the Arizona Cardinals. If anything, Jones showed that he can make throws when they're needed and that the Steelers should give him some opportunities to do just that this Sunday.
The Chiefs' defense was once one of the most feared units in the NFL, but hard times have changed that. While their front-seven is still packed with big-name players such as Justin Houston and Tamba Hali, who you must account for, their secondary has taken a big hit. Eric Berry is playing but still isn't at the level he was prior to being diagnosed with cancer. Their first-round draft pick Marcus Peters is still learning how to be a consistent cornerback in the NFL.
Point being, Pittsburgh doesn't need to be afraid to test the Chiefs' secondary deep and often. Let's look at some of their plays from last week when they lost to Teddy Bridgewater and the Minnesota Vikings.
The Chiefs' strength comes from being able to win battles inside the box and preventing opponents from exploiting the levels of their defense behind the front-seven. To minimize this strength, Pittsburgh can utilize one of its biggest strengths by putting as many skill players on the field as possible and spreading them out to force the defense not to overload the box. In short, use your strength to expose your opponent's weakness.
Here, we see Minnesota come out with four receiving options and only one running back in the backfield. This forces Kansas City to account for each of their outside receivers and, when they show that they're playing tight single-coverage on each receiver, Bridgewater immediately capitalizes by tossing it to one of his receivers being covered by Chiefs' starting free safety, Husain Abdullah. The Steelers have big playmakers at wide receiver and Antonio Brown, Martavis Bryant, Markus Wheaton and Darrius Heyward-Bey each have shown that they can be deep threats which the defense must respect. If Jones sees matchups like this, look for some big splash-plays this week.
Here the Vikings spread the Chiefs out again and put their tight end Kyle Rudolph in the slot. Rudolph gets single- coverage from Eric Berry and he runs his route perfectly to open up the middle of the field. Adrian Peterson also is wide open for a touchdown on his circle route for Bridgewater to put Minnesota on the board.
The Steelers' red-zone offense has improved this season, and part of the reason is the focus on putting more playmakers on the field and using less of the bigger-package offensive units that include more lineman. Yes, Le'Veon Bell is still one of the most reliable players on the team, but the Steelers can still take advantage of the Kansas City by spreading them out and forcing them to cover multiple receiving options in the red zone.
Here's an example of the Chiefs' secondary making a play and creating a turnover. Marcus Peters may be a rookie, but he's a very talented cornerback who has been leading this secondary so far in 2015. Here he's able to run with his man out of the back-pedal and keep his eyes in the backfield to see where Bridgewater wants to go with his throw. Bridgewater appears to think Peters is covering his man down the sideline when really he is playing zone, and makes a great jump to take away the pass and grab an interception.
Jones would be susceptible to making a similar mistake, given his youth and inexperience, so hopefully he does a better job than Bridgewater did here in reading the defense. Peters isn't an elite cornerback but he already has three interceptions to his name, including one returned for a touchdown.
Pittsburgh isn't going to come out and try to pound through the Chiefs strictly with Le'Veon Bell and DeAngelo Williams, and this strategy would be prudent to avoid. This week was another example of how the Steelers have playmakers at each skill position on offense, so Haley will be planning to give Landry Jones multiple opportunities to get them the ball behind the Chiefs' pass rush. Jones showed against Arizona that he was adept in making reads against the blitz, something the Steelers were missing with Michael Vick. If he can repeat this against Kansas City and make the necessary throws, expect a big week from Pittsburgh's offense on Sunday.