The Pittsburgh Steelers defeated a 12-4 team on the road without scoring a single offensive touchdown. That borders on incomprehensible. If the Steelers can do that, then they very well could defeat heavily-favored New England on the road in this Sunday’s AFC Championship. Until then:
Stock up - The secondary
Pittsburgh’s secondary, two rookies and all, was the catalyst in Pittsburgh’s 18-16 win. Good thing, too. Had Pittsburgh not pulled through, numerous narratives this week would have criticized the Steelers for imploding on Kansas City’s final drive of the game.
During the course of that 7-minute scoring drive, Kansas City converted a long third down, a long fourth down and short fourth down. A bone-headed Travis Kelce penalty spotted Pittsburgh’s defense a 15-yard cushion, which Sean Davis effectively squandered several plays later by delivering an equally thoughtless helmet-first tackle on the defenseless Chris Conley.
It’s a shame those narratives had a chance to be written, because Pittsburgh’s secondary dominated Kansas City throughout the game. Kelce was Kansas City’s leading receiver with 77 yards, though the Steelers held him largely in check for the duration of Sunday’s contest. Rookie receiver Tyreek Hill, arguably Kansas City’s second-most dangerous weapon after Kelce, was similarly ineffective, having just 27 receiving yards. The usually-deadeye Alex Smith tossed 14 incompletions on Sunday and had only 172 passing yards. Pittsburgh’s front-seven certainly applied some pressure to Smith (five hurries and a sack), but not nearly enough to explain his inconsistency. The Steelers’ defensive backs played perhaps their best game of the season, which is precisely why Pittsburgh won.
Stock up - Le’Veon Bell and the run game
Bell rushed for 170 yards, breaking the franchise playoff record that he set only a week ago against Miami. Since the ground game became a focal point of their offense, the Steelers are undefeated. Continuing that trend might just be the key to beating New England.
Stock down - Ben Roethlisberger
The Steelers have been so good in other areas that the biggest threat to their continued success might be the best quarterback in franchise history. It’s unfathomable, but Roethlisberger actually has been this team’s weak link throughout its current winning streak.
The primary issue with Roethlisberger all season has been his consistency. Frankly, the Steelers have no idea which version of Roethlisberger they’ll see in a given quarter, let alone the entire game. On Sunday, Roethlisberger looked as sharp as ever between the 20s, but failed to lead Pittsburgh to a single touchdown. In his defense, Eli Rogers and Antonio Brown both dropped passes and Kansas City’s defense is absurdly good in the red zone (the Chiefs ranked 24th in total defense but 7th in scoring defense, which is a borderline statistical anomaly). The only upside is that Ben is still Ben, which means his “moment” likely is still to come.
Stock up - Coaching
I gave a lot of credit to Pittsburgh’s secondary, but Butler deserves recognition for devising an excellent defensive game plan. Hill and Kelce were non-factors in the passing game, and the Steelers did a good job handling some of Kansas City’s more unconventional packages. That’s a product of good preparation, so hats off to Butler and the rest of the defensive coaches.
Todd Haley also displayed his giant onions by calling two passing plays as Pittsburgh was attempting to kill the clock after preventing the Chiefs from tying the game with a 2-point conversion. One play was a quick-out to Eli Rogers and then they ran a broken play to Brown that initially looked like a slant. The Steelers converted both plays and won the game. Serves you right for firing Boss Todd, Kansas City.
Finally, Mike Tomlin may have lived in his fears a bit by taking points on Pittsburgh’s first drive instead of attempting to convert a fourth down inside of Kansas City’s 10-yard line, but it worked out for the best. If Pittsburgh fails to convert that fourth down it wipes three points off the board and the Steelers lose. Take—the—points.
Stock up - Special teams
Chris Boswell scored all of Pittsburgh’s points, setting an NFL postseason record in the process. Many of you seem to have an unhealthy, preoccupying hatred of special teams coach Danny Smith (which I will never understand), but you have to give credit when it’s due: Hill’s impact in the return game was minimal, and his best return was good for just 21 yards. Presumably, Smith also instructed Jordan Berry to send his lone punt directly out of bounds, which turned out to be a prudent move.
Stock up - Everything else
Kansas City and New England are similar in a lot of ways, both offensively and defensively, so the Steelers are well-positioned to make things interesting on Sunday. The Patriots beat a Roethlisberger-less Steelers team earlier this season, but plenty of things have changed since that meeting. Most notably, the Patriots will be without Rob Gronkowski and Jamie Collins, both of whom made big impacts in the previous meeting between these teams.
Nevertheless, the Steelers will go as Roethlisberger goes in the AFC Championship Game. The Steelers dominated the Chiefs—that much is evident in the box score. But six field goals and no touchdowns will not be enough to overcome Tom Brady playing at home in the playoffs. Brady is 23-9 in his postseason career, and he hasn’t lost a home playoff game since 2012.