While the Kansas City Chiefs are, offensively, known mostly for running back Jamaal Charles, they have some decent receivers, too. Among them is Travis Kelce, who I called "arguably the second-best tight end in the NFL right now", just last week.
Looking at the box score from Sunday night's game between the Steelers and the Chiefs however, you wouldn't know it.
That's because Kelce, despite a wealth of skill and athleticism that add up to make him a threat truly exceeded only by the New England Patriots' Rob Gronkowski, was Houdini'd right out of the game.
So how can a defense that is known to be abused by athletic, receiving-oriented tight ends shut down a guy like Kelce? The formula, as it turns out, is surprisingly, stupidly simple.
They pressured quarterback Alex Smith all night
Smith may never be considered a world-beating passer, but he is as good of a game-managing quarterback as the NFL has today. And Kansas City has a strong offensive line. But the Steelers were able to keep pressure on him throughout the night. Sometimes they did it the same way they ran their pass rush through the first three games of the season, sending only three or four rushers. But they found the most success when blitzing.
Kelce gets a free release off the snap, running directly between Lawrence Timmons, who covered the left flat, and Vince Williams, who covered the short middle zone. The Steelers were in Cover-3, and the depth of the route of the two receivers on the left of the formation left the medium-left and middle wide open -- and that's precisely where Kelce was headed. And he was wide open.
Th trouble was, though, that the Steelers' five-man rush got great penetration. In particular, defensive end Cameron Heyward simply walked his man straight back, nearly pushing him into Smith and getting a hand on him. Smith was able to spin away, but was in full-on flight-or-flight mode. Meanwhile, Kelce stood along the left sideline, twenty yards beyond the line of scrimmage, jumping up and down and waving his hands in a futile attempt to get Smith's attention. Ultimately, Smith slipped and fell, giving Vince Williams the easiest sack of his career.
They tackled well
For the most part, the Steelers' tackling was dramatically improved over their efforts a week prior in Philadelphia. Yes, there were still some missed tackles -- an egregiously bad attempt by free safety Mike Mitchell springs to mind -- but, by and large, they did an adequate job. Cornerback William Gay may be one of the top three tacklers on the team, and it showed on this screen pass to Kelce.
Off the snap, Kelce takes a step backward to receive the pass in the right flat. In front of him was a two-on-two situation between his fellow receivers and Steelers' defensive backs. That, however, quickly became two-on-doesn't-matter, as Gay quickly shed his blocker, eliminating the only thing between himself and Kelce. In the same motion, he breaks down and sets for the tackle, driving through the legs of the much larger tight end, dropping him for a one-yard loss. The play was read well by Gay but, more than anything else, this was all about execution.
They covered aggressively.
Cornerback Justin Gilbert, a former first-round draft pick who the Cleveland Browns traded to the Steelers for a song just before the end of the pre-season, has more natural athleticism and skill than at least 90 percent of cornerbacks in the league today. After wasting away in Cleveland for two years amid accusations of laziness and a poor work ethic, he managed to earn himself playing time in just his fourth game with the team. Though he only played eight defensive snaps, he was lined up across from Kelce for all of them, and in press-man coverage for most.
Until this year, the Steelers lacked any true, physical presence at cornerback. Ross Cockrell has decent size, but no one is going to mistake him for a true press corner.
Along with 2016 first- and second-round picks Artie Burns and Sean Davis, Gilbert immediately increases the athleticism and size of the Steelers' secondary. Gilbert has a leg or three up on the other two, though, in what looks like a true desire to hit something.
In this play, we see him actually step toward the receiver and initiate contact with him. He then sticks to him like chocolate stains on your best shirt, and maintains slight physical contact with him throughout. The pass ended up being completed to Jeremy Maclin for a 13-yard gain, but for Kelce, the frustrating night just kept getting worse.
Plays like this were not uncommon Sunday night, and in the end, Kelce wound up with five catches for 23 yards and a garbage-time touchdown. Good for fantasy football players, to be sure, but useless in the context of a game in which the winning point was scored with 5:10 left in the first quarter.
There's no guarantee the defense will perform as well against the Patriots and Gronkowski in three weeks, but right now there's little reason to believe the group isn't at least capable of it. For one night, though, it all came together to shut down one of the best receiving tight ends in the game today.
After the last few years have seen the team damaged heavily by receiving tight ends, they managed to shut down one of the best out there. That's got to feel pretty good.