On the surface, it’s tempting to assume that, because Pittsburgh handily defeated the Kansas City Chiefs 43-14 in their early-October matchup, they likewise should be able to handle the Chiefs in the win-or-go-home situation on tap at Arrowhead Stadium this Sunday. And when you scrutinize Kansas City’s statistics for the 2016 regular season, you might conclude this team isn’t particularly exceptional in any phase of their game. After all, the Chiefs rank 20th in the NFL in total offense and 24th in defense (total yards allowed). You might even ask yourself, “How did this team ever win its division and notch a 12-4 record?”
But if that’s how you’re thinking, you might be in for a rude awakening. Jumping out of the stats to deliver a wake-up call is KC’s remarkable record in the crucial areas of takeaways, sacks and special teams. Perhaps most ominously, the Chiefs rank No. 1 in the NFL in the critical Takeaway/Giveaway category, sporting a stellar +16 ratio on the strength of 18 interceptions and 15 recovered fumbles this season. In all, the Chiefs forced a total of 19 fumbles during the 2016 regular season.
If you watched the Chiefs’ 21-13 win over the Oakland Raiders on Thursday Night Football back in Week 14, you might know that they’ve lost the services of linebacker Derrick Johnson, the team’s leading tackler. Johnson suffered a ruptured Achilles tendon in the Raiders game and was lost for the remainder of the season, including the postseason. So, suddenly you’re feeling a lot better about things, right? Not so fast. The Chiefs’ right outside linebacker Dee Ford already has 10 sacks under his belt this season and he’ll be joined by Steelers-nemesis Justin Houston, a player returning from injury who, only two years ago, finished No. 1 in the entire league in sacks, notching a brassy total of 22 during the 2014 regular season.
The Chiefs also cause problems for opponents with their special teams. Kickoff and punt returner Tyreek Hill is an elusive speed-burner who’s an ever-present threat to take it to the house. Cairo Santos, the diminutive Brazilian placekicker, has been quite accurate for the Chiefs this season, and he’s had no problem hitting those longer-range field goals that can spell the difference in a tight game.
All this brings us to the 3 Keys for a Pittsburgh win, which come complete this week with a ticket to the AFC Championship Game:
Key No. 1: Avoid Turnovers
As the Steelers’ legendary head coach Chuck Noll once famously said, “Before you can win a game, you have to not lose it.” Regardless of the Steelers’ apparent advantages over the Chiefs on paper, turnovers are the great equalizer. Thus, it behooves Ben to be judicious with his throws and Pittsburgh’s running backs and receivers also must be possessive of the football. It’s obvious that the Chiefs aren’t a team that waits for turnovers, they create them.
Key No. 2: Establish the Run
Le’Veon Bell is one of the NFL’s top running backs and the Chiefs’ defense will be keying on him, doubtless motivated even more by the knowledge that Miami tried the very same thing without success last Sunday. The fact that KC will be primed for Bell, though, shouldn’t prevent Pittsburgh from running the ball early, often and effectively. Given the Chiefs’ ability to pressure the quarterback and create turnovers, it’ll be risky to call deep passes that expose Ben Roethlisberger to big hits. And the best way to prevent the Chiefs from teeing-off on No. 7 is to use the running game to create short- and manageable-yardage situations on second and third downs. But if the Chiefs stuff the run early, and Ben responds by switching to his hero-mode, he’ll be playing directly to the strength of KC’s defense.
Key No. 3: Special teams must shine
The Steelers’ kick coverage must be strong and disciplined to prevent easy points for T. Hill and the Chiefs. Obviously then, Jordan Berry and Chris Boswell need to be at the top of their games booting the pigskin.
While we often focus on the play of Big Ben as the chief difference between victory and defeat, the Steelers undoubtedly have the talent to win this game even without a career effort by No. 7. On the other hand, if Ben is careless with his targets, or if he takes too long getting rid of the ball when receivers are covered, the Chiefs are one team that definitely will take full advantage. So instead of expecting the Steelers’ hot-and-cold offense simply to blow the Chiefs out of Arrowhead Stadium on Sunday, a wiser approach against this opportunistic rival is to avoid costly mistakes while continuing to run the more conservative type of offense that was on display at Heinz Field last Sunday.
The essential story of Pittsburgh’s toughest losses during the past few years has been a tendency to jettison their original game plan too early, thus putting all of their eggs into the No. 7 basket. At times, this is precisely the response that opponents hope to elicit. On those occasions when they’ve taken the bait, the Steelers sometimes find they’ve abandoned their core strengths in the process. And as Antonio Brown showed us again last Sunday, you can strike gold just as easily on shorter pass routes as on deep bombs.
On paper at least, it’s undeniable that the advantage in Sunday’s matchup accrues to Pittsburgh. But Kansas City is a team carefully built to neutralize those apparent advantages. If the Steelers aim to move on to the AFC title game, they’ll need to play the Chiefs as though they were facing a Super Bowl opponent. The outcome of the teams’ previous matchup notwithstanding, Kansas City’s season record speaks of a group that knows how to stay in the thick of the fight, regardless of their competition. That’s why Pittsburgh not only must sustain the momentum that carried them to eight consecutive wins, they also must be physically prepared to wage what is shaping up as a genuine war of attrition at Arrowhead this Sunday.