The Chiefs’ inability to stop Pittsburgh running back Le’Veon Bell played a major role in their divisional-round home loss to the Steelers in January.
The Chiefs knew this, and one might’ve assumed that whatever happened in the rematch on Sunday at Arrowhead Stadium again, they would not let Bell again carve them up again.
And that, in addition to the Chiefs’ continued inability to consistently take advantage of offensive opportunities against the Steelers’ hard-hitting defense, led to a 19-13 Pittsburgh win that dealt the Chiefs their first loss of the season in front of an announced crowd of 76,994.
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“They say never take anything personal, but when they run the ball on you the way they did, you have to,” inside linebacker Derrick Johnson said. “They were the tougher team today. We knew the mindset before the game — they weren’t afraid of us. They beat us twice last year, regardless of what happened with them with the Jags (last week).”
That’s right. The same Pittsburgh team that was embarrassed 30-9 a week ago, at home, vs. Jacksonville, came into the house of the NFL’s lone undefeated team and took it to the Chiefs in a game reminscent of the 18-16 loss they dealt the Chiefs in the playoffs.
The most obvious resemblance to that loss was the way Bell, the Steelers’ 6-foot-2, 225-pound star, consistently bludgeoned the Chiefs. The torture started early, too.
After a pair of miscues led to each team’s first points — the Steelers took a 2-0 lead on an errant snap by Chiefs center Zach Fulton that went through the end zone for a safety, while the Chiefs’ notched a field goal after Pittsburgh failed to field the open kickoff, which was recovered by Jehu Chesson — the Steelers, who brutalized the Chiefs for 194 yards on 37 carries Sunday, got back to pounding the ball with Bell.
On the Steelers’ ensuing drive, which covered 75 yards in 12 plays, Bell got the ball seven times and rushed for 52 yards. The Chiefs’ front seven failed to get off blocks, maintain their gaps or wrap up adequately. By the time Bell plunged into the end zone from 8 yards out to put the Steelers ahead 9-3, it was clear another massive rushing day for Pittsburgh was looming.
“I mean, their game plan was very simple — go punch the Chiefs in the mouth, see what they can do,” Johnson said. “We didn’t respond well enough early.”
At least the defense put up a fight. They basically kept the Chiefs in the game during a first half in which the offense — which tallied just 28 rushing yards all day — managed 6 measly yards and one first down. By then, the Steelers had added a field goal to take a 12-3 lead into the break.
“Pretty brutal ... tough to put into words,” Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith said of the first-half performance. “Couldn’t get in rhythm.”
Chiefs coach Andy Reid agreed.
“I don’t think you ever expect to have that, but things happen in this league and that’s why teams don’t go undefeated very often,” Reid said.
The third quarter was largely uneventful, with the Chiefs’ defense carrying the offense by snuffing two Pittsburgh drives. The Chiefs’ offense did come alive late in the quarter, thanks to a couple of nice gains from Smith to running back Kareem Hunt, but Reid opted to go for it on fourth and 2 at the Steelers’ 4, and Smith’s desparation heave over the middle to Demetrius Harris was ruled incomplete. The turnover on downs occurred with 13 minutes left in the fourth quarter.
The Steelers used their running game to drain five more minutes off the clock, but when the defense ultimately forced a stop, the Chiefs’ offense finally got it going. Facing second and 10 at the Chiefs’ 43, Smith — who finished 19 of 34 for 246 yards — drifted away from pressure and fired a missile downfield to De’Anthony Thomas, who hauled in the pass, danced near the sideline, and sprinted away from the Steelers for a 57-yard touchdown that cut the Steelers’ lead to 12-10 with 6 minutes left.
The Steelers knew who to give the ball to, though. Bell carried it on three of the Steelers’ next four plays, gaining 13 yards before — facing third and 2 at their own 49 — they finally put the Chiefs away via the pass. Roethlisberger hung in the pocket amidst a pass rush that could only muster a sack and two quarterback hits all afternoon and fired a missile down the left sideline to Brown. The pass went through the hands of Chiefs cornerback Phillip Gaines and deflected off his face mask, right into the waiting hands of Brown, who sprinted to the end zone for a 51-yard touchdown that put the Steelers ahead 19-10 with a little over 3 minutes left.
“I thought he had a chance to make that catch,” Reid said of Gaines. “He’ll make most of those. Didn’t happen this time.”
The Chiefs kept battling, mounting another drive that ended in a field goal to cut the deficit to six points, 19-13. And after a defensive stop, they got the ball back with a little under 2 minutes left and a chance to take the lead.
An already shorthanded receiver corps took a notable shot, however, when Tyreek Hill was knocked out of the game after absorbing a massive hit on the preceding punt return. The Chiefs could have used him on the ensuing drive, when a crucial sack on third and 10 short-circuited the comeback. The Chiefs eventually turned the ball over on downs to the Steelers, 4-2.
With the loss, the Chiefs — who were the NFL’s last undefeated team — fell to 5-1. They have little time to lick their wounds, however, as they head to Oakland, 2-4, for a showdown on Thursday night.
“Does this count more than one loss? Not at all,” Johnson said. “Should it light another fire? It will. We’ll respond the right way.”