Friday, December 19, 2014

Chiefs vs. Steelers preview

By Adam Teicher and Scott Brown
December 18, 2014

Jamaal Charles and Le'Veon Bell

When: 1 p.m. ET, Sunday Where: Heinz Field, Pittsburgh TV: CBS 

The Pittsburgh Steelers (9-5) say they have been in playoff mode since the beginning of the month, but the Kansas City Chiefs (8-6) may be the more desperate team when the two meet for the third time since 2006 in Pittsburgh this weekend. If the Chiefs lose Sunday, they will need to beat the San Diego Chargers in the regular-season finale and get some help to make the playoffs as a wild card. 

The Steelers, on the other hand, would guarantee themselves a spot in the playoffs if they beat the Chiefs for a fifth consecutive time in Pittsburgh. And the Steelers are aiming for more than just a spot in the postseason with the AFC North there for the taking. 

ESPN NFL Nation Chiefs reporter Adam Teicher and Steelers reporter Scott Brown take a closer look at one of the Week 16 games that has significant playoff implications: 

Brown: Adam, this looks like a favorable matchup for the Steelers given their struggles in the secondary and the Chiefs’ shortcomings at wide receiver. Kansas City still doesn’t have a touchdown catch by a wide receiver, yet it is 8-6 and in the thick of the AFC playoff chase. How have the Chiefs compensated for a lack of a downfield passing game, and how do you anticipate them attacking the Steelers? 

Teicher: During their five-game winning streak earlier in the season, the Chiefs were excellent on third downs and at scoring touchdowns in the red zone. But things like that don’t generally last and, sure enough, although their red zone production has still been good, they fell off dramatically on third downs. It’s no coincidence the Chiefs broke their three-game losing streak last week against the Raiders by finally unveiling a downfield passing game. The Chiefs had their two longest pass plays of the season against Oakland. I would expect the Chiefs to look downfield against Pittsburgh if they can protect quarterback Alex Smith as well as they did last week. Pass protection had been a weakness for the Chiefs and a big reason they rarely took shots down the field. 

Scott, the Steelers have had a season much like that of the Chiefs. They’ve had some big wins against other playoff contenders (Indianapolis, Baltimore, Cincinnati) but some discouraging losses to bottom-feeding teams (Tampa Bay, New York Jets). How do you explain the unpredictable nature of their season? 

Brown: It’s been that way since 2012, when the Steelers developed, to the chagrin of their fans, a maddening habit of losing games they should win. Three of their five losses this season have come against losing teams, and the one against the Buccaneers was particularly bad because the Steelers could not protect a seven-point fourth-quarter lead at home against a team that is in line for the No. 1 overall pick of the 2015 NFL draft. The Steelers’ recent history is why I thought their 27-20 win in Atlanta this past week was huge. A 5-8 team playing without its top offensive player (star wide receiver Julio Jones) is the kind of opponent that has given Pittsburgh fits. But the Steelers did enough to beat the Falcons and remain on track to win the AFC North. 

The Steelers have steadily improved in stopping the run, but they will be challenged in that phase of the game Sunday. Jamaal Charles is one of the best running backs in the NFL and has to be included in any discussion for the NFL’s best player at that position. He’s dealt with some nagging injuries this season. Is a heavy workload catching up with him, and will the Steelers see more of a one-two punch Sunday with Charles and Knile Davis

Teicher: I don’t know that Charles has been right all season, and he’s frustrated about that. He hurt his foot moving himself out of the dorm at training camp, of all things, and it’s been one thing after another since then. He missed only one game early in the season but now is dealing with both soreness in his knee and a sprained ankle. The Chiefs would like to play Davis more, but they’re not as effective with him in their lineup. Charles is averaging 5.2 yards per carry, Davis 3.6. Charles is much better as a pass receiver and protector, so it’s difficult to see the Chiefs going away from a productive Charles in a game as important as this one. 

The Steelers started the season relatively sluggish on offense but have scored at least 27 points in seven of their past eight games and are now one of the NFL’s highest-scoring teams. What changes did the Steelers make to energize their offense? 

Brown: They largely just stayed the course. The Steelers were stopping themselves as much as opposing defenses were stopping them earlier in the season, particularly in the red zone. While some fans wanted to run offensive coordinator Todd Haley out of town, the Steelers insisted they were close to putting everything together. I think it’s safe to say they have done that, as the Steelers lead the NFL in a handful of categories, including total offense (424.9 yards per game) and yards per play (6.2). The emergence of rookie wide receiver Martavis Bryant has added a deep threat to the offense, but the play of the big three (quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, running back Le'Veon Bell and wide receiver Antonio Brown) is the biggest reason the Steelers’ offense has ascended this season. The Steelers have achieved the kind of balance that has too often eluded them in past seasons, and don’t discount what has taken place on their offensive line. The unit has stayed remarkably healthy -- its five starters have missed a total of six games -- allowing it to develop the cohesion that has helped take the Steelers' offense to another level. 

The line will be tested this week, as the Chiefs have a pair of tremendous pass-rushers in Justin Houston and Tamba Hali. Do those two allow Kansas City to get pressure on opposing quarterbacks without blitzing much, and how much better do they make the Chiefs’ defensive backs? 

Teicher: The Chiefs had one of the best pass-rush games of the season last week, not just in terms of sacks (four) but also consistent pressure on the quarterback. They had Oakland’s Derek Carr off his game all day, and as a result, the coverage down the field was outstanding, maybe the best of the season. The Chiefs blitzed on more than half of Oakland’s pass attempts, which is a very high rate for them. They hadn’t blitzed as much this season and had mostly been content to let Houston, Hali and their other main rushers get the work done. I don’t know whether they will try the blitz as often this week on the road against a veteran quarterback like Roethlisberger. But I think if the Chiefs are going to carry with them this week just one thing from the Oakland game, it’s their ability to consistently get pressure. If they let Roethlisberger get comfortable and stay in his comfort zone all day, it’s difficult to see the Chiefs coming away with a victory. 

When fans think of the Steelers, they think of defense, but that’s been a weakness for this season’s team. While the Chiefs certainly don’t have the league's most potent passing game, they made some plays down the field last week against Oakland. Are the Steelers versatile enough defensively to get pressure on Smith and slow down the Kansas City passing game while still limiting Charles and the Chiefs’ running game? 

Brown: The Steelers have just 24 sacks this season, and they have been inconsistent as far as pressuring opposing quarterbacks. This past Sunday was a perfect example. The Steelers pressured Matt Ryan early and blitzed the Falcons' quarterback a lot. But once Ryan and Atlanta adjusted, the Steelers weren’t able to get enough pressure on Ryan to get him out of the rhythm he developed. And for how underwhelming the Chiefs appear to be at wide receiver, the Falcons played without star wideout Jones and still threw the ball all over the field against the Steelers. Is Smith as good as Ryan? No. But Kansas City’s running backs are superior to the ones Pittsburgh faced in Atlanta, and the Steelers could give up a lot of yards for the second consecutive week. But if the Steelers make timely stops and get a game-changing play on defense, as they did against the Falcons, that should be enough for Pittsburgh to win unless its offense goes into the tank. 

Steelers run defense to face test from Chiefs

By Will Graves
December 17, 2014
Steelers run defense to face test from Chiefs
Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Vince Williams (98) and cornerback Antwon Blake tackle Falcons running back Steven Jackson (39) short of the end zone, stopping a drive in the red zone during the second half of an NFL football game on Sunday, Dec. 14, 2014, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Curtis Compton)

PITTSBURGH (AP) -- The numbers, at least byJames Harrison's impeccably high standards, aren't good enough. Not by a long shot.
Try to offer the occasionally snarly Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker an olive branch about the improvement in the team's run defense over the last two months and he swats it away.
''By no means is it where we would like it to be,'' Harrison said.
Maybe, but the Steelers (9-5) are closer to respectable than they were two months ago. After a sluggish start in which the front seven played as if stuck on a treadmill running in reverse, Pittsburgh is showing flashes of reponsible play.
The dividing line is pretty clear, at least on paper. The Steelers are 5-2 in their last seven games, allowing less than 100 yards rushing in all five wins and more than 100 yards on the ground in both losses. Whichever trend holds up on Sunday against Kansas City (8-6) will likely determine whether Pittsburgh ends the weekend with its first playoff berth in three years.
Pittsburgh is 11th in the NFL against the run, not bad until you consider the franchise ranked in the top 10 every season from 2004-12, a stretch that included three Super Bowl appearances and two championships.
Harrison, who has been limited by a knee injury the last two weeks, knows the difference between good and great. At the moment, he figures the Steelers are passable at best.
''We're going to continue to work at getting it better and getting our defense all-around better,'' Harrison said. ''Our location and assignments and just making plays when we in position to make plays.''
They're coming, but not with the frequency Harrison would like.
Pittsburgh has given up just two rushing touchdowns since Halloween, including a fluky 20-yard sprint by Cincinnati's Andy Dalton two weeks ago that proved only a footnote in a resounding 42-21 win over the Bengals. The large swaths of green grass opponents darted through in September and October have closed up of late as Pittsburgh's revamped group of linebackers has discovered some cohesion.
Injuries to Harrison, Jarvis Jones and Ryan Shazier forced defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau to giveArthur Moats, Vince Williams and Sean Spence extended playing time. Finding the right mix with so many new faces was not easy. Pittsburgh gave up 132 yards rushing four times in the season's first seven weeks, often putting up little resistance until running backs were well into the secondary.
''I feel like in the past we've got hurt because we were trying to do too much at certain times and we weren't as mentally disciplined as we need to be,'' Moats said. ''We've got to keep our eyes on our assignment. For us to go forward and go where we want to go, we need to continue to do that.''
Considering the way quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and the NFL's top-ranked offense is currently piling up yards and points, the Steelers don't need to shut opponents down so much as they simply need to slow them down.
They'll face perhaps their biggest test of the season from the Chiefs, who rely heavily on the electric running back tandem of Jamaal Charles and Knile Davis. The two have combined for 1,388 yards and 15 rushing touchdowns. While Kansas City quarterback Alex Smith's inability to throw to a wide receiver in the end zone has become a punchline of sorts, Moats figures that just makes what the Chiefs are able to do even more impressive.
Even without an outside threat, Kansas City is in the thick of the postseason chase even though everyone knows exactly what is coming.
''The fact that they're still winning games and haven't been able to have passing touchdowns like that, it shows that they're a very resourceful team,'' Moats said.
One that figures to put whatever momentum the Steelers believe they've found to the test. With the defense as healthy as it has been all season, Pittsburgh is running out of time and excuses.
''Earlier in the year we were getting used to guys, guys didn't really know how each other are playing,'' Jones said. ''Guys are feeding off each other now and getting into the right places. I think it's all coming together.''
NOTES: Safety Mike Mitchell (groin), safety Troy Polamalu (knee) and tight end Matt Spaeth (elbow) did not practice. ... Center Maurkice Pouncey (ankle) and cornerback Ike Taylor (shoulder/forearm) were limited.

Comeau leads Penguins over Avalanche 1-0, OT

By Dan Scifo
December 18, 2014
Comeau leads Penguins over Avalanche 1-0, OT
Pittsburgh Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury (29) stops a shot by Colorado Avalanche's Dennis Everberg (45) with help from Christian Ehrhoff (10) during the first period of an NHL hockey game in Pittsburgh on Thursday, Dec. 18, 2014. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

PITTSBURGH (AP) -- The Pittsburgh Penguins and captain Sidney Crosby hope that a recent bout with the mumps is a thing of the past.

Three Stars

  1. Blake Comeau
    #17, Pittsburgh
  2. Marc-Andre Fleury
    #29, Pittsburgh
  3. Calvin Pickard
    #31, Colorado
Blake Comeau scored 2:24 into overtime to give the Penguins a 1-0 victory against the Colorado Avalanche on Thursday night.
Marc-Andre Fleury stopped 29 shots, registering his career-best sixth shutout of the season just hours after the Penguins thought their starting goaltender had the mumps.
''It wasn't the mumps,'' Fleury said. ''Everybody goes through life with a cold here and there. It's no big deal. I felt good.''
Fleury, who recorded the 34th shutout of his career, was tested after missing Wednesday's practice with an illness, but the results came back negative and he was cleared for Thursday's game.
Crosby did have the mumps and the Penguins' captain returned Thursday after missing three games. The Penguins, who managed two wins and five of a possible six points without their captain, now have six wins in their last nine games.
''I think, as a hockey player, you crave that routine and competing,'' Crosby said. ''It's much better talking about hockey than that other stuff.''
Comeau's goal was his 11th of the season. He tapped his third game-winner of the year past goaltender Calvin Pickard after Evgeni Malkin deflected Rob Scuderi's shot from the point in front. Malkin has points in six straight games.
''There are going to be times when goals are tough to come by,'' Comeau said. ''(Malkin) did a good job of tipping (the shot), it popped out to me and I was at the right spot at the right time.''
Pickard stopped 47 shots for the Avalanche, who lost for the sixth time in seven games and have one win in December.
''He played a really strong game for us and allowed us to be in that game,'' Avalanche coach Patrick Roy said. ''Obviously, he was our star player.''
Both teams were scoreless through two periods and Pickard, a rookie recalled from Lake Erie earlier this month, kept it that way with Pittsburgh pressing for the go-ahead goal. Pickard started the last four games and seven of the last 10 with Semyon Varlamov nursing a groin injury.
''We got pucks to the crease and we had guys in the crease looking for second-shot opportunities,'' Penguins' coach Mike Johnston said. ''We scored the last one, but we probably had six or seven opportunities around the net where there was a loose puck in the crease and we just missed.''
The Penguins spent most of the third in the Colorado zone, registering 19 of the first 24 shots of the period.
Crosby returned to practice Wednesday, skating for the first time since his diagnosis. Though Crosby missed a practice last week because of illness, the Penguins believed their captain wasn't at risk for the mumps after he received a booster shot prior to traveling to Russia for the Winter Olympics in February.
But the Penguins announced Sunday that Crosby had contracted the mumps - two days after pronounced swelling in his face forced him to sit out last Friday's home game against Calgary.
''It took a period to get used to the speed, but once you're in the game you start feeling more comfortable,'' said Crosby, who logged 20:19 of ice time. ''I might be a little more tired than typically, but that's to be expected. You just kind of monitor it as you go along.''
Forward Beau Bennett also was diagnosed with mumps, which has affected at least five other NHL teams, while backup goaltender Thomas Greiss and defensemen Robert Bortuzzo and Olli Maatta - both sidelined because of injury -are all being tested.
NOTES: Penguins' D Christian Ehrhoff left after the first period with an undisclosed injury. Avalanche D Brad Stuart became the 293rd player in league history and 100th defenseman to appear in 1,000 career games.Penguins' D Scott Harrington made his NHL debut on Thursday. The Penguins, for the fifth time, wore their third jersey -- a throwback to the black and yellow-gold color scheme from when they won their first two Stanley Cups.Colorado continues a three-game road trip Saturday at Buffalo, while Pittsburgh hosts Florida.