Wild-card playoff preview: What the Steelers must do to beat the Chiefs

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·6 min read
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  • Kansas City Chiefs
    Kansas City Chiefs
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  • Pittsburgh Steelers
    Pittsburgh Steelers
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  • Ben Roethlisberger
    Ben Roethlisberger
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  • Travis Kelce
    Travis Kelce
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  • Patrick Mahomes
    Patrick Mahomes
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Like the other AFC wild-card games, the Sunday night affair between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Kansas City Chiefs is a rematch of a game from earlier in the season. Back in Week 16, the Chiefs throttled the Steelers by a final score of 36-10. The loss continued extended a seven-game winning streak for Kansas City to eight, while putting a dent in Pittsburgh’s playoff hopes.

But, thanks to an overtime win on the final weekend of the season — and an overtime win by the Las Vegas Raiders in the final game of the season — the Steelers are in and the rematch is set.

In the buildup to this game, the bouquets are flowing back and forth. This week, Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger commented that the Steelers were “probably 20 point underdogs,” while Chiefs head coach Andy Reid declared that Pittsburgh “was like a one seed.”

So who wins the final AFC game of the weekend? How can the Steelers pull off the upset? Here is what the Steelers must do to beat the Chiefs.

Connect on the boundary

(Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports)

Over the past two seasons, much has been made of the state of Ben Roethlisberger’s arm. Looking at his play on the field, and studying the data after each game, it is clear that Roethlisberger is not the quarterback he once was. Velocity has dipped precipitously, it is getting tougher challenging smaller throwing windows, and the margin for error in the passing game, particularly downfield, is almost non-existent.

In the companion piece to this article, looking at what the Chiefs must do to win this game, the argument was made that Kansas City needs to force Roethlisberger to hit on the “scholarship throws.” Passes downfield into tight windows, the kinds of throws he has struggled connecting on this season. Looking at charting data from Pro Football Focus, you find that on throws of 20 yards or more downfield, Roethlisberger has an Adjusted Completion Percentage of just 36.5% this season, ranking him 22nd out of the 27 quarterbacks who have attempted 50% of their team’s deep throws.

His passing spray charts also tell a similar tale, like this one from Pittsburgh’s season finale:

When you combine these factors with the potential that Kansas City will bring a safety down into the box on the majority of plays, looking to stop the run, a path for success in the passing game emerges.

Connect on the vertical routes against single coverage.

Take this connection with Chase Claypool against the Cincinnati Bengals:

On this play against the Baltimore Ravens, Roethlisberger takes the snap and after carrying out a quick run fake, he snaps his feet back to the right side and throws quickly to Diontae Johnson on a vertical release. The throw is to the back shoulder, and Johnson is able to shake the would-be tackler and turn this short throw into a 25-yard gain.

If the Chiefs look to stop Najee Harris and the run game by bringing one of their safeties down into the box, that will create some one-on-one matchups outside for Claypool and Johnson. Roethlisberger is going to have to hit on some of these, whether deep downfield or quicker in the down, to give the Steelers a chance.

Slow down Travis Kelce

(Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports)

Here is a scary fact for Pittsburgh fans to consider. The Week 16 loss to the Chiefs? Kansas City was without Travis Kelce, who was sidelined due to COVID-19 protocols.

The tight end is back this week, and he brings an extra component to the Chiefs offense that the Steelers defense must consider.

The Steelers have not faced Kelce since the 2018 season, when the tight end exploded for seven receptions, 109 receiving yards and a pair of touchdowns. In that Week 2 contest, which is when the football world started to realize how dangerous the Chiefs could be with Patrick Mahomes, Kelce found space attacking between the safeties in two-deep coverages such as this one:

Another aspect to trying to slow Kelce down is denying him a free release. Take a look at this play against the Cincinnati Bengals, as the Chiefs are in a Y-Iso alignment with Kelce lined up as the single receiver on the right side:

On this 3rd and 9 play, the Bengals walk pass rusher Sam Hubbard outside of the tackle box, putting him in a wide alignment. At the snap, he gets a jam on Kelce, before turning his attention to rushing the passer. That delays Kelce from getting into his route, making cornerback Tre Flowers’ job a tiny bit easier.

If the Steelers can contain Kelce in the middle of the field from these two-high looks, and deny him free releases as much as possible, they’ll have a shot at slowing down this passing game somewhat. Will it be enough? Well, they might need one more thing to come true to pull off the upset.

Create the huge turnover

T.J. Watt
T.J. Watt

(Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports)

Sometimes, figuring out how a team can pull off an upset comes down to this:

Can they force the huge turnover? The kind that swings the game in an instant?

Now, needing a turnover — and actually finding a way to create one — are two completely different things. What first comes to mind? Generating pressure on the opposing quarterback.

Slight problem with that. Despite all the hand-wringing about the Kansas City offense this season, Mahomes has been quite good when pressured this year. Pro Football Focus has charted Mahomes with an Adjusted Completion Percentage of 78.3% when under duress this season, second only to Joe Burrow. Mahomes has throws for 37 touchdowns, against 13 interceptions, and studying those 13 interceptions when pressured you see a bit of bad luck on some of those.

Still, maybe some pressure on Mahomes can generate one of those bad-luck interceptions — after all, style points matter not — and with potential Defensive Player of the Year T.J. Watt coming off the edge, the Steelers could manufacture some pressure on Mahomes Sunday night.

The Steelers might also try throwing a few unexpected wrinkles at the Chiefs. Some different defensive looks that force Mahomes to adjust on the fly. Again, there is a chance that he can still make plays when you do this. Take this completion to Blake Bell from Week 16:

Heyward gets pressure on this quick Stick concept, forcing Baker Mayfield to make a quick throw under duress. Jarvis Landry makes the catch, but the Steelers deny him any additional yardage after the interception. Force quick throws due to interior pressure, limit the damage, and hope you can generate the mistake.

Or, here is another way you might generate the big play, as explained to my by my colleague Doug Farrar: “Basically, clone Cam Heyward five times and have one of the Cam Heywards play running back, have another of the Cam Heywards play tight end, and the rest help rush the passer.”

Is there time to do that before Sunday?

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