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. 

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