Kansas City Chiefs wide receiver Albert Wilson ran for a 40-yard gain after a second quarter pass catch past Pittsburgh Steelers inside linebacker Ryan Shazier on Sunday at Arrowhead Stadium. David Eulittdeulitt@kcstar.com
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Chiefs defensive lineman Jaye Howard could see Tamba Hali — the teammate he playfully calls “The Old Man” — closing in on Landry Jones, and before he knew it, the 31-year-old Hali had knocked the football loose.
Howard had never scored a defensive touchdown before, and ever so briefly, he thought about scooping it up and going for it during the Chiefs’ 23-13 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday.
Afterward, though, he couldn’t have been happier his instincts led him to play it safe.
“I said, ‘Aw man, Old Man (Tamba) got (a sack),’ and all I saw was the ball on the ground,” Howard said with a hearty laugh. “I knew Big Red (Andy Reid) would have probably been mad if I would have got it and fumbled, so I had to just fall on it. (Taking) no chances at all.”
No wonder. Given the manner in which the Chiefs, losers of five straight entering Sunday’s contest, had been losing games, it made sense to respect and fear Murphy’s Law, because far too often this season, what could go wrong, has gone wrong.
From Jamaal Charles’ demoralizing fourth-quarter fumble against Denver on Sept. 17, to Charles’ devastating ACL tear (andthe blown 14-point lead that followed ) against Chicago on Oct. 4, even to Charcandrick West’s mystifying fumble at Minnesota last Sunday, which was caused by teammate Donald Stephenson, the Chiefs had consistently found new ways to lose during their five-game losing skid.
But against a good Steelers team on Sunday, their bad fortune — and inability to stop shooting themselves in the foot — finally came to an end. The Chiefs’ Pro Bowl defenders finally made impact plays, the offense finally closed a team out, and the Chiefs finally got to celebrate a victory for the first time in over a month before a crowd of 76,365 at Arrowhead Stadium.
“I’m proud of our team for the job that they did today,” Reid said. “Being 1-5 isn’t an easy thing in the National Football League. You find out who your friends are, and you don’t have very many of them. These guys kept battling. They did it in practice, they did it today.”
Indeed, for a team with high aspirations entering the season, a 1-5 start certainly wasn’t what anybody had in mind. Some teams splinter under that pressure and quit, but the Chiefs have kept playing hard, and they finally got a reward for their hard work Sunday in the form of their second win.
“They made more dynamic plays than we did, particularly over the course of the last 30 minutes of the game,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. “They converted necessary third downs on offense and they made dynamic game-changing plays on defense. They got turnovers.”
After a first half in which the Chiefs led 9-3 — they only mustered three field goals in three red-zone opportunities — Jones, who was making his first NFL start in place of injured all-pro Ben Roethlisberger, tried to throw a short pass over the middle and slightly beyond inside linebacker Derrick Johnson, who dropped in coverage.
But Johnson, a three-time Pro Bowler who missed nearly all of 2014 with an Achilles’ injury, had seen that play one too many times before. He tipped the pass, which still landed in the grasp of star receiver Antonio Brown. But safety Ron Parker was right there to rip it out, and the ball fluttered to three-time Pro Bowl safety Eric Berry for his first interception since he returned this offseason after beating Hodgkin lymphoma.
The turnover led to the Chiefs’ first touchdown of the day, as quarterback Alex Smith quickly led a 9-play, 53-yard scoring drive that included big completions to young receivers Albert Wilson and Chris Conley, who stepped up with Jeremy Maclin sitting due to a concussion. The drive was capped by a 1-yard touchdown plunge by Charcandrick West,who inspired confidence by topping 100 yards for the first time in his career (he finished with 110 yards in 22 carries) and also scored his first career touchdown.
West said one thing he’s trying to learn is to run with more patience, something at which Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell — who rushed 17 times for 121 yards on Sunday — excels.
“I had to be him on the scout team (last year, and) it works,” West said, referring to the Chiefs’ 20-12 loss to the Steelers last December. “You wouldn’t think it works, but it works amazing.”
The Steelers, however, responded with a score of their own, as Jones found receiver Martavis Bryant for a 19-yard touchdown strike that cut the Chiefs’ lead to 16-10 in the third quarter.
And while another Steelers drive was soon thwarted by a third-down sack by Hali, who took advantage of the attention Justin Houston received from the Steelers all day, Chris Boswell’s ensuing 36-yard field goal cut the deficit to 16-13 with 10:17 left in the game. The Chiefs certainly appeared to be danger of blowing the game, much as they did against Denver, Chicago and to a lesser extent, Minnesota.
But this time, the Chiefs’ maligned offense came through. After Smith converted a third-and-4 with a gorgeous 26-yard pass over the middle to tight end Travis Kelce among three defenders, West broke off a hard-charging, 36-yard run that gave them the ball at the Steelers’ 16.
Four plays later, Smith found Conley on a quick out route for a 6-yard touchdown — the first of Conley’s career — that gave the Chiefs a 23-13 lead with 5:04 left.
“Great call by coach Reid, he knew exactly what the defense was doing,” Conley said. “Alex knew which side to work. We had soft coverage right there. It’s about beating the man to the point, beating the man to the spot. Alex threw the ball perfectly so I could turn upfield and we got the touchdown, so great job by them.”
The Steelers desperately needed a score, but the Chiefs’ defense again came up big, as Hali — the five-time Pro Bowler — recorded his second sack of the day and forced the fumble, which was recovered by Howard.
The Chiefs ran out the clock from there, as West ran the ball three straight times and eventually picked up a first down, to drop the Steelers to 4-3 and secure the Chiefs’ first win in over a month.
“We talked all week as a team (about) that feeling that’s in the locker room (now),” Smith said. “You guys are in there, you see it — it’s the high of highs right there.
“To put it all on the line — and you’re putting it out there for the guy next to you — to be accountable, to hold up your end and to come in together and to go do that together to get a win is great … it was nice to get rewarded.”
Especially when you consider the way they won. Consider the following factors:
▪ The offense, which ranked 27th in the league in red-zone efficiency entering the game, came up big in the red zone on two straight drives.
▪ The offensive line — the fourth different starting group of the year, now featuring Eric Fisher at left tackle and Jeff Allen at right tackle — allowed two sacks and seven quarterback hits but was more competent than it had been in past weeks.
▪ Three of the defense’s marquee players — Berry, Hali and Johnson (who also had a second-quarter interception) — made big, timely plays.
All of it added up to a victory that not only brought some happiness to a clearly-relieved locker room, but maybe even a measure of hope, too, about their chances of reviving their season.
Only four teams have ever rebounded from a 2-5 start to make the playoffs — and two came before the number of wild-card teams were reduced from three to two in 2002 — but the Chiefs have a winnable game coming up on Sunday, when they are “host” the struggling Detroit Lions, 1-6, in London.
“I hope we just build on this and get better,” Howard said, echoing the sentiments of several teammates. “The offense played great today, the offensive line blocked today. I think we’re starting to put it together, man. We can go far.”