Saturday, October 21, 2017

Pittsburgh Steelers, Cincinnati Bengals on similar defensive rises

October 19, 2017
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Ryan Shazier tackles Giovani Bernard in their 2016 playoff game. (USA Today Sports)
The results are different. Many players are different. But as the film of the Pittsburgh Steelers defense rolls inside the meeting rooms at Paul Brown Stadium this week, make no mistake, this group ranked third in yards and fourth in points allowed hasn’t changed.
This is prototypical Steelers defense. The reputation built over generations of leading the league has returned. As for what that looks like, just take tape of recent relatively subpar seasons and hit x16 on the DVR.
“They are fast as hell,” tight end C.J. Uzomah said.
The past three years the Steelers attempted to rebuild a group that spent much of the early portion of this century lofted atop the defensive rankings. The process has taken time to mold. Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell replaced the defense as the calling card of Pittsburgh football.
In fact, after back-to-back years leading the league in points allowed from 2010-11, they gradually regressed outside of the top 10, until ranking 10th again last year.
Struggles in the secondary and pass rush often were to blame.
No more. Now with seven of the 11 starters 24 years old or younger and new pieces scattered across all three levels, the zone schemes that built the reputation are matched by the ability to execute. In a hurry.
In 2015, they ranked 30th in passing yards allowed. They currently lead the NFL.
“The scheme doesn’t change,” said Marvin Lewis. “The zone blitz started in 1993, and they continue to plug guys in while everybody else stays in their spots. So that helps you play well. As they plug in new pieces, they’re able to use their abilities as best they can within the game plan.”
The new pieces are providing depth and versatility. The development should ring familiar for Bengals fans. The exact same dynamic is happening in stripes. You’ll have a hard time finding two defenses with brighter futures than the two sharing Heinz Field on Sunday.
While the Bengals point to pass rusher Carl Lawson, the Steelers match with first-round pick OLB T.J. Watt. The Bengals proudly boast rising 2016 draft picks Nick Vigil and William Jackson III, the Steelers do the same watching 2016 picks CB Artie Burns (first round), DT Javon Hargrave (third round) and S Sean Davis (second round) excel as starters.
Fresh faces are as much a part of the NFL story as sacks and interceptions, but new players don’t always mean new results. In the parallel paths of the Bengals and Steelers, they have.
“Some of our young players are not new to us, they are getting into the prime of their careers — mid-20s — it’s a natural maturation that has taken place for a number of individuals,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. “It’s showing for us collectively. There is an appearance they are playing faster because they have more experience and understanding of how what they are doing fits into the big picture. That allows you to hustle and play free.”
Nobody plays freer than Ryan Shazier, not new to the Bengals or the nightmares of running back Giovani Bernard, who took one of the nastiest hits in PBS history in the January 2016 playoff game.
“I feel like it starts with him,” Uzomah said of Shazier.
He’s ascended to be one of the premier linebackers in football and for a defense impressing with their speed, anticipation and tracking of tight ends and running backs jumps off the page. He ranks fifth in the NFL in tackles, already forced two fumbles, picked off two passes and broke up six more.
Couple his range with the addition of former Browns cornerback Joe Haden along with instant success from Burns, selected one pick after Jackson III last year, and the stiff pass defense makes perfect sense.
“The two corners, you can go complete quarters of a game watching and hardly notice them, and that’s a compliment,” Bengals receivers coach James Urban said. “The ball isn’t pushed out that way because they are playing the scheme so well. That is the whole thing. The linebacker-level players get in the lanes and make you make throws you shouldn’t make or take away throws you think you can make because of how they leverage the ball.”
Different, but the same.
“They're younger,” said A.J. Green, who caught only two passes for 38 yards in his lone game against the Steelers last year. “But they still play the same way, they play sound defense. They make you play the sticks, they drive the ball, no big plays.”
The days where Green would terrorize an overwhelmed Steelers secondary with 11 receptions for 224 yards as he did in 2014 or 17 catches for 250 yards as he did in the two combined 2015 regular season meetings are probably a thing of the past.
Still, even through relatively lean defensive years for the Steelers, the Bengals haven’t scored more than 21 points against Pittsburgh since September of 2009.
The blur of new speed only accentuates the Bengals’ issues in this series. The job for Andy Dalton and company only grows more challenging. 
“Every time we have played them they have played us tough no matter what their defense is ranked in the league that year,” guard Clint Boling said. “There are some different pieces, but it’s a familiar game.” 

Friday, October 20, 2017

Crosby’s craft keeps him at the top of his game

By Mark Madden
October 19, 2017
Sidney Crosby #87 of the Pittsburgh Penguins celebrates his game tying goal at 19:04 of the third period against the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden on October 17, 2017 in New York City. The Penguins defeated the Rangers 5-4 in overtime. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
Edmonton’s Connor McDavid is the NHL’s reigning scoring champion and MVP. Calling him hockey’s best player is more than reasonable.
But it should create debate, thanks to Sidney Crosby of this parish.
Crosby has stockpiled a few accomplishments recently, namely the last three championships he competed for and being named MVP in each of those competitions.
But Crosby’s biggest edge on McDavid is the craft his game has.
McDavid may get there. Smart money says he will. But Crosby is a lot closer to McDavid’s speed and raw power than McDavid is to Crosby’s craft.
Exhibit A: The Penguins trail the New York Rangers 4-3 in the final minute at Madison Square Garden Tuesday. The puck is gloved down by the Penguins’ Patric Hornqvist and bounces near Crosby behind the goal line.
Crosby patiently waits for the Rangers’ Kevin Shattenkirk to touch the puck, negating a hand pass. But Crosby also shields Shattenkirk off the puck, making his touch ineffectual. The puck stays near Crosby.
Crosby collects the disc and flicks a no-look backhand off goalie Henrik Lundqvist and into the net for a game-tying, bank-shot goal.
Crosby made a myriad of decisions in the blink of an eye, and they were all correct. With the clock ticking down, touching up the hand pass to conserve time (but sacrificing a face-off outside the zone) was a viable option, and what many players would have done.
But Crosby saw more.
Crosby took something that started out so innocuous and made it into a moment of genius that led to a 5-4 overtime triumph.
Crosby’s game has craft.
The Penguins are off to a 4-2-1 start. Not terrible, and it beats the bejesus out of Edmonton’s 1-4 mark.
But the Penguins have played the “right way” perhaps twice so far this season: A 4-0 home win over Nashville on Oct. 7 and a 3-2 victory at Washington Oct. 11.
The Penguins’ level of play has been otherwise sporadic. They lead the NHL in times shorthanded (35). Twenty-five Penguins penalties have been stick fouls.
Part of that is because the NHL is cracking down on slashing. Mike Rupp of the NHL Network, an ex-Penguin, calls it “two minutes for tapping.”
But stick fouls often indicate a team isn’t skating hard enough on defense.
The Penguins want to play with speed. They do, when they have the puck. But when they don’t have the puck, that speed isn’t always prevalent. Nor is structure.
That’s evidenced by 29 goals allowed, most in the NHL – a figure admittedly distorted badly by a 10-1 loss at Chicago Oct. 5.
It’s nothing to fret about, let alone rant and rave.
It’s a bit of a Stanley Cup hangover, exacerbated by a brutal schedule that sees the Penguins play games on back-to-back nights for the third time this young season when they visit Florida Friday and Tampa Bay Saturday.
That will happen 16 more times before the campaign ends.
When you see Coach Mike Sullivan speak after a game like Tuesday’s OT win at New York, you can tell he’s biting his tongue. Sullivan sees the shortcomings.
But you can’t be too critical of a team that played 213 games over the previous two seasons on the way to two championships. If any team knows how to play right and when to start doing it, it’s the Penguins.
The roster figures to change greatly between now and the playoffs, an inevitability that also tempers Sullivan’s ire.
GM Jim Rutherford will trade for a third-line center and will likely make another deal or two besides. Prospect wingers Zach Aston-Reese and Daniel Sprong may also figure in.
Greg McKegg can be a third-line center, albeit a below-average one. But McKegg can’t move up the depth chart temporarily if Crosby or Evgeni Malkin gets hurt. Nick Bonino and Matt Cullen could. McKegg can’t.
Hence the need for a better third center, and hence other teams asking a lot in return.
Mark Madden hosts a radio show 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WXDX-FM (105.9).

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Can Bengals stay the course in Pittsburgh?

{How the other side sees things - jtf}

October 18, 2017
Image result for mike mitchell alex smith
Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith didn’t shy away from his criticism of the Pittsburgh Steelers’ Mike Mitchell, who face-masked Smith and rolled into the back of his legs on the same play. (David Eulitt/The Kansas City Star)

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Mike Mitchell said to look at the play, so I did. The play wasn’t quite as Mitchell described. Mitchell, the Pittsburgh Steelers safety, said he was “pushed’’ into Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith last Sunday. If by pushing, he meant a teammate laid a feather-hand on his shoulder and he lunged forward, then OK, Mitchell was pushed.
“I felt myself tripping. I felt myself losing balance,” Mitchell said. “If you watch the tape, I'm even trying to turn my body while I’m falling. Alex is backpedaling into me.’’
This is all true, but it doesn’t exactly exonerate Mitchell. Smith does appear to throw off his back foot. Mitchell is losing his balance. After the fact, when Smith starts to berate Mitchell, the Steelers safety doesn’t respond in kind. He throws up his arms as if to say, “I didn’t mean it.’’
But Mitchell is late to the show. The ball is long gone. That’s the problem.
The rule says, “No defensive player who has an unrestricted path to the quarterback may hit him flagrantly in the area of the knee(s) or below when approaching in any direction.”
Mitchell’s path was unrestricted. Mitchell didn’t hit Smith in the knee “area’’. He hit him flush on the back of the knee.
All of which is a roundabout way of saying, this is who the Steelers are. This is what they do. If you’re a Steeler, it’s a point of pride. It’s why Marvin Lewis has reminded a couple generations of Bengals players that playing Pittsburgh is a “two-chinstrap’’ endeavor.
It’s why Willie Anderson famously referred to Bengals-Steelers as a “manhood game.’’
Pittsburgh wants to take it to you physically, so you fall apart mentally. That can happen a few ways: Either you go into the game intimidated, or you become that way as the game progresses. (See: Lost Decade Bengals.) Or you lose your cool and with it, the game. (See: 2005 and 2015 playoff Bengals.)
Teams will beat the Steelers. They will not beat them up. There is no point in trying. No point in playing their game. I was talking to former Bengals wideout Tim McGee about something else Tuesday, when he offered this:
“The Bengals have a habit of getting out of character. Stay in the game. Don’t get penalized or suspended. The Bengals are built more from a glamor standpoint. If they have to play smash-mouth football, that’s not their game. Stay within character.’’
Marvin Lewis said the same thing, differently. “We just gotta stay within,’’ he said. “I think staying within it throughout the football game is important. Stay the course. They’re 60-minute games. We gotta stay in the ebb and flow. The outcome is what matters.’’
The Bengals locker room was mostly empty Wednesday during the 45 minutes the heathen media were allowed in. Dre Kirkpatrick, Tyler Kroft, Vinny Rey, a few offensive linemen, George Iloka, AJ McCarron. No one wanted to say the wrong thing. Presumably, all were coached to say nothing, as politely as possible
Kirkpatrick offered, “We’re gonna keep it classy (and) professional. Just because it’s Pittsburgh don’t mean you’ve got to go out there and break anything. Don’t do nothin’ different.’’
Easier said. The rivalry has a way of getting beneath the Bengals two chinstraps and into their heads. Sometimes the hardest thing for a football team to understand is, the manliest move it can put on the Steelers is to win the game.
The Bengals need to play their way. Other than Vontaze Burfict – for whom Pittsburgh would build a statue if he were a career Steeler – the Bengals don’t play the intimidation game. Never have. Still, they’ve managed to win at Pittsburgh six of 14 tries since Lewis became coach. Six-and-eight ain’t bad versus ‘Burgh at ‘Burgh.
To do that, the Bengals have played pretty good defense, without losing their minds. Pittsburgh wants opponents to lose their minds. That’s why the Steelers sent Joey Porter onto the field to rattle Pacman Jones in the ’15 debacle. It worked.
In their past two games, the Bengals have played smart, efficient football. Bill Lazor has the quick-hitting pass game up and humming, to fit Dalton’s style and skills. The rotating cast of thousands on defense is flexing its youth and depth. Geno Atkins has been unblockable.
This is the NFL, land of no sure things. A week ago, the Pittsburgh papers were full of headlines such as, “Is this the end for Ben?’’ and “Panic time for Steelers?’’ Then the Steelers went to KC and beat the unbeaten Chiefs.
Winning at Heinz Field is as probable as not for the Bengals, who are healthy and confident and as I said in August, as talented as any Bengals team I’ve covered since I got here in ’88. Play your game, Bengals. History shows you won’t win playing theirs.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Steelers' James Harrison defies time, delivers sack

By Kevin Gorman
October 15, 2017
Steelers linebacker James Harrison beats the Chiefs' Eric Fisher on the way to sacking Alex Smith late in the fourth quarter Sunday, Oct. 15, 2017 at Arrowhead Stadium.
James Harrison beats Eric Fisher en route to sacking Alex Smith late in the fourth quarter of yesterday's game (Chaz Palla/Tribune-Review)

In what has been anything but a storybook season for the Steelers, they got a fairytale finish from a man who continues to defy his age.
Father Time is supposedly undefeated, but so were the Kansas City Chiefs before James Harrison and the Steelers visited Arrowhead Stadium on Sunday.
Late in the fourth quarter, with the game on the line, the Steelers turned to the 39-year-old Harrison to rush Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith from the right side.
And Harrison did to former No. 1 overall pick Eric Fisher what he has done to so many NFL left tackles, which is repeatedly overpower him on his way to the passer.
Harrison hit Smith on second down, forcing an incomplete pass, then sacked him for an 8-yard loss to help the Steelers seal a 19-13 victory.
It's what we have come to expect from Harrison, a five-time Pro Bowl pick and the 2008 NFL Defensive Player of the Year.
“Just for him to get that sack in a critical moment of the game,” Steelers inside linebacker Ryan Shazier said, “that's why he's been playing for so long.”
Not a bad moment for a 15-year NFL veteran who spent the past two games wearing shorts on the Steelers sideline, making the adjustment to being a healthy inactive on game day.
“It's a good feeling any time you get out there and play,” Harrison said. “That's what I do. I like to compete. Anytime I'm on the sideline, of course I'm not happy with that. I want to go out there and compete. I'm not playing this game because I want to stand on the sideline.”
How Harrison hooked his left arm under Fisher's and powered past him was reminiscent of the play that drew a holding penalty on the Chiefs' 2-point conversion attempt in the AFC divisional playoff here in January.
It's no coincidence, as Harrison professes to pray harder than he prepares. If you've seen his workout regimen on social media, you know that Harrison prepares harder than players almost half his age.
“I had a plan before I went there what I was going to do, so it happened to work,” said Harrison, who finished with three tackles. “I'm 39 years old, and I'm still playing a young man's game. I'm extremely blessed and highly favored. This is all God's doing. I'm just sitting back, riding the bus.”
Harrison might sound humble, but Fisher had him ready to rumble after throwing him down by the helmet on one pass rush. Harrison had some harsh words with his counterpart, whom he has now registered 3 12 sacks against in the past five meetings.
Not that Harrison keeps count.
“I don't know why you guys keep saying I have his number,” Harrison said. “I think I've played well against some other tackles, too.”
But Steelers coach Mike Tomlin wasn't shy about saying how much they like that matchup.
“I told you guys we were going to play him, and you see why: He delivered a significant play in a significant moment,” Tomlin said. “That is why we value him, not only in terms of what he does in the stadium, though.”
Don't underestimate the power of Harrison's leadership on these Steelers. His insertion into the starting lineup last season coincided with the start of a nine-game winning streak, and Harrison is as respected as any player in their locker room.
Listen to receiver Antonio Brown, known for his work ethic: “I don't know another guy who works as hard as him.” He called Harrison a “true professional who leads by example.”
Listen to left tackle Alejandro Villanueva: “He's mastered a skill. That's exactly why James Harrison was a defensive MVP. That's why he's still playing football, because he's so valuable and works so hard and is doing his job on the field.”
For Harrison, the most satisfying part was getting the win. That made all of his work worth the while and his performance worth the wait.
Get used to it, Father Time.
Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at or via Twitter @KGorman_Trib.

Le'Veon Bell runs wild, Ben Roethlisberger back on track as Steelers top Chiefs

Jeremy FowlerESPN Staff Writer 15, 2017
Le'Veon Bell rushed for 179 yards and a touchdown in Sunday's win in Kansas City (
KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- And all is normal with the Pittsburgh Steelers, thanks to another heady Antonio Brown play.
Brown's wild, game-clinching touchdown bounced off Kansas City Chiefs cornerback Phillip Gaines' hands and head and into Browns' arms, who did the rest for a sideline-streaking, 51-yard score with 3 minutes, 24 seconds left. Brown's description of how he got the ball was as miraculous as the play itself.
"Called God and asked him," he said.
After weeks of anthem drama, Gatorade-cooler drama and does-the-QB-still-have-it drama, the Steelers put it all to sleep by defeating the Chiefs 19-13, and looking like themselves again behind Le'Veon Bell's staggering 179 yards and a late-game sack by James Harrison.
The Chiefs' 5-0 start didn't faze the Steelers, who liked this matchup to start the week. They felt their offensive line could win up front on Kansas City's 20th-ranked rushing defense and let Bell exhaust the defense. Roethlisberger had won five straight against Kansas City and getting a sixth would calm the storylines about his poor play.
"I guess this old cowboy's got a little bit left in him," Roethlisberger said when asked if he had a told-you-so response coming off his five-interception performance in Week 5 against Jacksonville.
But the Steelers didn't need vintage Big Ben -- at least not Sunday. They needed steady Roethlisberger, which they got. The Steelers had a stingy defense that allowed one first down in the first half. And they had Bell, who was right when he said last week that dedicating to the run is "a formula for winning."
That's how this team won last year, and that's mostly how it'll win this year.
Need evidence that Bell is all the way back? Five of Bell's first 19 carries went for 10 yards or more. The Steelers utilized pulling guards and two-tight end sets to spring Bell open on the perimeter, giving him the chance to work the outside or cut back inside.
“He was in the hole all night,” guard David DeCastro of Bell. “He was making those cuts and running like the Le’Veon we know.”
The defense looked inspired after Leonard Fournette rushed for 181 yards on it last week. In response, the Steelers held the league's leading rusher, Kareem Hunt, to 21 yards.
Defensive end Stephon Tuitt was getting consistent pressure up front, linebacker Vince Williams was an effective blitzer and linebacker Ryan Shazierand Artie Burns each recorded key pass breakups.
The Steelers' defensive players barely got any sleep this week thinking about their poor showing vs. Jacksonville, Tuitt said.
"We just wanted to show the world what we really are," he said.
Roethlisberger (17-of-25, 252 yards, one touchdown, one interception) made his share of impressive throws. Touch passes to Brown and Vance McDonald over the middle created crucial first downs. Roethlisberger's only interception came on a miscommunication with Brown, who ran a hitch instead of a slant for an easy first down.
But the uninspired Chiefs were all but asking the Steelers to put them away early in the second half. The Steelers couldn't quite do it, opting for a punt on the Chiefs' 35-yard line on fourth-and-2 with a $12 million running back with 124 yards at that point. Coach Mike Tomlin likely didn't want to give the Chiefs any momentum, but the game felt like Pittsburgh was up by 25, even though it never was.
The Steelers had two touchdown chances in the second quarter but messed around in the red zone, which has become an odd habit. An ugly defensive sequence on third-and-8 didn't help: Safety Mike Mitchell missed on a sack, then drew a penalty for going low on Alex Smith after the pass, gift-wrapping the Chiefs into the red zone.
That's when the Steelers punctuated a dominant defensive day. The Steelers' defense faced fourth-and-2 from their own 4-yard line, up 12-3 early in the fourth. The Chiefs decided to go for it, threatening the Steelers’ near-shutout of one of the NFL’s best offenses. Smith dropped back, rolled to his left and targeted Demetrius Harris over the middle. Safety Sean Davis made a clutch, body-contorting play to knock the ball out as Harris was landing. He nearly had an interception, but no matter: The stop punctuated a dominant day for the Steelers.
Now, at 4-2, the Steelers remain atop the AFC North with the Cincinnati Bengals coming to town Sunday.
"We are excited about being in the thick of it," coach Mike Tomlin said.

The Chiefs stunk against the Steelers but are still a very good team (honest!)

By Sam Mellinger
October 15, 2017
Antonio Brown scores on a 51-yard reception late in the fourth quarter on Sunday's 19-13 win. (
For any Chiefs fan under the age of 50, every bit of positivity they have felt about their favorite football team has been the lead-up to disappointment. No exceptions.
Over and over and over again, with 13-3 team after 13-3 team, from Grbac over Gannon to Matt Cassel’s Pro Bowl season to the 28-point lead in Indianapolis, each and every party has been followed by a crushing hangover.
And so you’ll have to forgive any Chiefs fan who watches the franchise’s best team in at least 20 years — still true, and more on that in a minute — lose for the first time in six games and wonders what in the name of The Kicker Who Shall Not Be Named is about to go wrong with their team.
And, you’ll also have to forgive that fan for seeing all the familiar symptoms in the Chiefs’ 19-13 loss to the Steelers at Arrowhead Stadium on Sunday.
And, you’ll also have to forgive that fan for seeing all the familiar symptoms in the Chiefs’ 19-13 loss to the Steelers at Arrowhead Stadium on Sunday.
Porous run defense. A bad decision by the head coach. Missed throws by the quarterback. Terribly timed injuries. A laughably awful break on a key touchdown.
Really, they were a few missed kicks away from Chiefs Heartbreak Bingo.
“Seems a little bleak right here at this minute,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid said. “But that’s not how I feel.”
You should not believe anyone who says the Chiefs did not stink, or that they weren’t as bad as it’s being made out. Because stink is a generous adjective, and whoever’s making it out to be bad is probably not making it out to be bad enough.
They were not blown out, and even had a chance to win at the end, so wrap yourself in that blanket of lies if you want. But the truth is the Chiefs just lost at home to a team that basically did one thing — and one thing only — well.
The Steelers ran the ball.
In fact, they ran the ball almost exactly as well as they did last January when they won a playoff game here without the decency of even scoring a touchdown — Le’Veon Bell went for 170 yards in 30 carries that night, and 179 yards in 32 carries on Sunday.
Bell is terrific, perhaps the best back in the world, and certainly one of the NFL’s best players. But, come on. Some of this was embarrassing.
“Their game plan was very simple,” linebacker Derrick Johnson said. “Go punch the Chiefs in the mouth, and see what they can do.”
Beyond the obvious, that’s concerning for at least two reasons. First, the run defense is perhaps the Chiefs’ likeliest fatal flaw. It’s what ended their 2016 season, and it’s what could end their 2017 season if they face a team that can run the ball. Like, um, well, like the Steelers.
Because this is not just a Bell problem. The Chiefs’ run defense stunk most of last season, and this week’s games began with just five teams giving up more yards per rush attempt.
But, also, it’s concerning because the Steelers were otherwise ordinary. Ben Roethlisberger threw one interception, and should’ve had another, except the ball bounced off Chiefs cornerback Phillip Gaines’ hands and directly to Antonio Brown, who ran for a touchdown.
The Steelers also gifted the Chiefs a possession in the first quarter, when Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster miscommunicated and let a free kick drop. The ball was live, and recovered by the Chiefs’ Jehu Chesson.
The Steelers’ defense was not nearly good enough to shut down the Chiefs, either. Alex Smith missed open receivers, Travis Kelce had at least one key drop, and Reid and offensive coordinator Matt Nagy coached like they were unaware that Kareem Hunt is both awesome and on their roster.
The Chiefs were terribly inept at creating pressure on Roethlisberger, but made up for it by being terribly inept at protecting Smith. Some of this may’ve been injuries piling up, particularly on the interior of the offensive line.
“All phases can be better,” Reid said. “Coaches included, head coach included.”
So, that’s all really bad. And now the reward is a flight across the country for a road game against a division rival four days later.
Again, you should listen to nobody who tells you this wasn’t bad.
But the Chiefs are a very good team. Still. Probably the franchise’s best in at least 20 years. Still.
Some of this is because even great teams get beat. Last year, the Super Bowl champs lost by gagging a fourth-quarter lead at home. Two years ago, the Super Bowl champs lost consecutive games twice, including a rather embarrassing afternoon at home when they benched their quarterback. Three years ago, the Super Bowl champs lost by 27 points to a team that didn’t even make the playoffs.
You get the idea (and probably know the last two references were losses to the Chiefs).
But everything that was true after the 5-0 start is still true today. The Chiefs have dynamic playmakers at every level, and on both sides of the ball. They have a quarterback playing the best season of his professional life. They have a wicked mix of youth and experience, with a very good head coach who’s been building toward this roster for five years.
All of that is still true.
Losing to the Steelers now doesn’t doom the Chiefs in January any more than beating them now would’ve guaranteed a Super Bowl.
“We ain’t worried about the playoffs,” linebacker Justin Houston said. “We worried about that ring.”
If you’re looking for reasons to worry, you can have at least two. The first is the injury report. The interior of the offensive line needs to be healthy, and fast. Tyreek Hill was in concussion protocol. Houston missed some practice last week with a calf injury, and did not move around like himself on Sunday.
The second is Smith. At least on the first look, he was bad. Missed open receivers, made bad decisions, didn’t see at least a few guys break open. He had essentially been flawless the first five games. He was never going to keep the same pace, but a departure like this is concerning.
That, as much as anything, is the divide for Chiefs fans.
If you believe what you’ve seen this season, then you believe Smith is having the best season of any quarterback in the league and leading a team that is dynamic and fluid and tough and still hasn’t lost a division game in more than two years.
But if you believe what you’ve seen over the years, then you see Smith as a pumpkin and have a hard time believing in a team that can’t block the interior and can’t stop the run and hasn’t been even two wins away from a Super Bowl championship in more than 20 years.
In other words, this is still a really good team. Probably the best in the league.
But if you are a Chiefs fan and reading all of this with skepticism, with the feeling that last week was the best it’ll get and this week was a preview of your playoff disappointment, well, you come by that honestly.

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Friday, October 13, 2017

Steelers vulnerable? Ben Roethlisberger shaky? Never, say the wary Chiefs

October 12, 2017
Pittsburgh Steelers running back Le'Veon Bell (26) runs up field during the second half of an NFL divisional playoff football game against the Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday, Jan. 15, 2017, in Kansas City, Mo. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)
Pittsburgh Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell (26) runs up field during the second half of an NFL divisional playoff football game against the Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday, Jan. 15, 2017, in Kansas City, Mo. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)
The Chiefs’ praise of their next opponent, the Pittsburgh Steelers and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, would seem to be classic coach- and player-speak, false admiration for team coming off a three-touchdown loss and quarterback who tossed a career-high five interceptions.
But the Chiefs have bruises, to ego and otherwise, to prove they’re not blowing smoke.
Including playoffs, the Chiefs are 28-6 since the second month of the 2015 season and the only team to beat them twice is the Steelers, who visit Arrowhead Stadium on Sunday. Kickoff is 3:25 p.m.
So, while Roethlisberger was firing back at critics in Pittsburgh this week — “They can question me, I don’t question myself … no offense to any of you guys, but it doesn’t matter to me how you guys question me” — the Chiefs were wondering how to stop the team and quarterback that handed them their two lowest moments last season.
“The last two times they beat us pretty good,” linebacker Derrick Johnson said.
The Chiefs’ last regular-season loss to the Steelers, 43-14 at Pittsburgh last year, was the most lopsided of the Andy Reid era in Kansas City.
The postseason defeat hurt even more. In their first home playoff game under Reid, the Chiefs fell to the Steelers 18-16 in the divisional round.
If anybody isn’t buying the Steelers as a vulnerable team …
“They’ll be riled up, ready to go,” Johnson said.
Maybe because of last week’s debacle. Two of Roethlisberger’s interceptions were returned for touchdowns in a 30-9 home loss to Jacksonville that dropped the Steelers to 3-2.
“He’s got to roll up his sleeves and get back to work,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said this week. “You get to do what he’s done for the length of time he’s done it because you’re capable of bouncing back from negative performances.”
Take 2016 for instance. The Steelers had just been crushed by the Eagles and faced the Chiefs the following week. Roethlisberger threw five touchdown passes, matching the most ever against the Chiefs, in a blowout.
The Chiefs always seem to bring out the best in the Steelers and Roethlisberger. No AFC opponent owns a better all-time winning percentage (.677) against the Chiefs than Pittsburgh.
And Roethlisberger’s 5-1 record as a starter vs. KC is tied for the second best career winning percentage against the Chiefs, behind only Peyton Manning.
Chiefs defensive coordinator Bob Sutton has been has been scheming defenses against Roethlisberger for more than a decade, and the challenges haven’t changed.
“He can do things very few other quarterbacks can do,” Sutton said. “His ability to extend the play … he has great vision down field, when he’s moving and scrambling. He’s very difficult to get on the ground. It puts tremendous stress on the defense.”
In last season’s playoff loss, Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell was the Chiefs’ biggest issue, controlling the game by rushing 30 times for 170 yards as the Steelers booted six field goals. Wide receiver Antonio Brown tops the NFL in receiving yards and has surpassed 100 yards in receptions in two of his last three games against the Chiefs.
Against those historical trends, the Chiefs enter Sunday’s game as the NFL’s lone undefeated team, and are coming off a 42-34 victory at Houston. They have the NFL’s top-rated passer in Alex Smith and leading rusher in Kareem Hunt.
“They’re a group that’s rolling right now,” Tomlin said. “There’s a lot of positive things going on for them.”
No coach-speak there, either.

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