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Divisional Round primer: Steelers vs. Chiefs

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Background


The Steelers' Week 4 victory over the Chiefs was so long ago that James Harrison claims to have no recollection of the lopsided affair.

It's just as well. Both teams are materially different three months later.

Kansas City cornerback D.J. White, victimized early and often by Antonio Brown and Markus Wheaton in Ben Roethlisberger's five-touchdown flurry, has played just a handful of snaps since October. Pittsburgh's vastly improved defense will have five different starters this time around.

This matchup will feature a pair of balanced, mentally tough, well-coached squads playing at the peak of their powers in January.

Skeptics have spent the past couple of years bemoaning Kansas City's dearth of playmakers. That's now an outdated complaint with dynamic rookie sensation Tyreek Hill and All-Pro tight end Travis Kelce adding a big-play element to Alex Smith's offense. The defense is chock-full of stars with ball-hawking cornerback Marcus Peters, All-Pro safety Eric Berry and the disruptive edge-rushing trio of Justin Houston, Tamba Hali and Dee Ford.

The Steelers haven't lost since a 35-30 thriller versus the Cowboys two weeks before Thanksgiving. While the Killer Bees on offense draw the hype, the swarming defense leads the NFL with 30 sacks since Week 11. The ageless James Harrison is coming off one of the finest performances by any defensive star all season, while Ryan Shazier, Lawrence Timmons and Bud Dupree round out the league's most active linebacker corps.

Players under pressure


Chiefs linebackers: Earlier this week, Chiefs coach Andy Reid raved about Le'Veon Bell's unique rushing style -- "one that he's kind of created." Bell came off the suspension list to slice and dice Kansas City's defense for 178 total yards in Week 4. The second-team All-Pro hadn't even hit his stride at that point. In lockstep with his underrated offensive line, Bell is averaging a staggering 180.7 yards from scrimmage since Week 11 -- the fifth-best figure over a seven-game span since the 1970 merger. Reid's 26th-ranked run defense will have to exercise extreme gap discipline to counteract Bell's trademark patience.

If the Chiefs can't stop Bell, perhaps they crash the pocket on a gimpy Roethlisberger. Although the edge-rushing talent is certainly there in spades, the trio of Justin Houston, Dee Ford and Tamba Hali is a mystery right now. Houston's Week 12 performance at Denver might have been the most dominant by any linebacker all season, but he missed the final two games of the regular season with inflammation in his surgically repaired knee. As impressive as Ford was in the first half of the season, he and Hali have combined for just two sacks since Week 10. That won't cut it against a stellar Steelers offensive line that has allowed the second-fewest sacks in the league.

Steelers rookie defensive backs: The Steelers can thank their last three draft classes for a defense that is suddenly playing like a top-five unit. More specifically, Keith Butler's troops started to turn the corner when the rookie duo of cornerback Artie Burns and strong safety Sean Davis hit the starting lineup at midseason. After surrendering 22.9 points and 380.8 yards per game in the first half of the season, Pittsburgh's defense has put the clamps on opposing offenses, reducing those numbers to 16.6 points and 295.0 yards over the past eight games.

As much of an impact as Burns and Davis have had, though, they have not faced a stiff test since that loss to Dallas. We know they can shut down the Browns, Giants, Ravens and Scott Tolzien's Colts. Can they do the same to Hill, Kelce and Jeremy Maclin with bye-week master Reid calling the shots?

Matchup to watch


Steelers' big-play offense vs. Chiefs' ball-hawking defense: Roethlisberger isn't afraid to pull the trigger on deep throws, Bell is imposing his will on defenses and Antonio Brown can't be covered one-on-one by any cornerback in the league. It's no surprise that the Steelers lead the league with 122 big plays (a run of 10 or more yards, a pass of 20 or more yards). The flip side of that explosive attack, however, is Roethlisberger's tendency to throw balls up for grabs, resulting in eight interceptions over his past five games. He has been especially careless on the road, with a 9:8 TD-to-INT ratio and 78.4 passer rating.

There's no defense better at taking advantage of mistakes than Kansas City's, which leads the NFL with 33 takeaways. The Chiefs rank a pedestrian 24th in total defense (368.5 yards per game), but they compensate by forcing fumbles, picking off ill-advised passes and stifling offenses in the red zone. Pittsburgh won the battle of explosive plays in early October. Can they pull off the same feats away from Heinz Field?

Prediction:


The Chiefs boast one of the great homefield advantages in the raucous Arrowhead Stadium. They don't beat themselves and manufacture scoring opportunities with creative play-calling, an opportune defense and a game-changing kick returner in Hill. The Steelers, on the other hand, have been the most balanced outfit in the league over the past two months. They are the only team to score at least 24 points in each of their last nine games.

As much respect as I have for this tough-minded Chiefs team, the Steelers will have the three best players on the field if Roethlisberger plays to his potential. I'm placing my faith in that difference-making talent of the Pittsburgh triplets.

Pittsburgh Steelers 27, Kansas City Chiefs 24

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