When running back Spencer Ware fumbled 6 minutes into the Chiefs’ embarrassing 43-14 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday night, it hardly seemed like a harbinger of things to come.
When Pittsburgh receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey caught a 31-yard touchdown pass a few plays later — he was so open due to a blown assignment that he basically could have fair-caught it — it seemed like an eye opener.
When Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith’s pass was deflected at the line of scrimmage on the next series and intercepted by Jarvis Jones — an outside linebacker with two career picks entering the game, including college — concern set in.
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And when Ben Roethlisberger hooked up with his favorite target, Antonio Brown, on a crossing route across the middle on the very next play, it officially became a bad start.
Again. For the third time in four weeks.
Unfortunately for the sleepwalking Chiefs, it would not get better for them, at any point, during a gloomy, wet night at Heinz Field. The combination of their own sloppiness — they committed two turnovers and seven penalties — and a ticked-off Pittsburgh team that was coming off an embarrassing loss of its own — a 34-3 defeat to the Philadelphia Eagles — was way too much to overcome during a nationally-televised road test.
“You can ask me a million questions here — it’s going to be the same answer for you,” said Chiefs coach Andy Reid, who took full responsibility for the loss, as he is wont to do after bad ones. “I’ve got to make sure I get my guys ready to play. We obviously weren’t there tonight. And being the head coach, I have to make sure that takes place.”
Especially against a team so motivated to win after its 31-point loss to the Eagles that it apparently nicknamed the game against the Chiefs “Redemption Sunday.”
“We got beat — they kicked our butts,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin told NBC before the game, referring to the Eagles loss “That’s usually the case when you have an outcome that’s similar to (last week). It was a perfect storm from that perspective.”
But on Sunday, the Steelers made the Chiefs feel their pain. Ten minutes into the first quarter, the Chiefs trailed by 14 and had already committed two turnovers.
“I really feel like the turnovers changed the game,” said Smith, who completed 30 of 50 passes for 287 yards, two touchdowns and an interception. “It is a different game. You’re just down. It’s not a tight game. You’re not balanced. You do get one-dimensional. You’re trying to play catch up as best you can.”
The Chiefs managed to avoid a turnover on their next offensive possession, but the drive still stalled. And Dustin Colquitt, the Chiefs’ ultra-reliable punter, proceeded to shank a punt that wobbled a mere 23 yards.
The Steelers, needing only 40 yards for a touchdown, covered most of that distance two plays later, when Roethlisberger — who compiled a near-perfect 152.5 passer rating by completing 22 of 27 passes for 300 yards, five touchdowns and zero interceptions — spotted Brown running a post route in single coverage down the middle of the field.
That went about as well as you’d expect — Brown is only the league’s best receiver, someone who should never be allowed to run unencumbered anywhere — and he proceeded to haul in the jump ball over Steven Nelson for a touchdown that put the Steelers ahead 22-0.
Brown was whistled for unsportsmanlike conduct after the play, but it didn’t matter. The Steelers were forced to kick off from their own 20 instead of the 35, but the Chiefs only returned it to the 28-yard line — 3 yards more than they would have gotten for a touchback. Three plays later, that drive was over, too, and Pittsburgh took a 22-point lead into the second quarter.
The Chiefs, though, were not done shooting themselves in the foot. Not even close, as they magically found a way to keep turn positives into negatives.
For instance …
Tyreek Hill continues to be a blur, someone who is proving to be quite difficult to tackle. The Steelers found this out early in the second quarter, when he beat a swarm of black jerseys to the edge and returned a punt 78 yards for a touchdown. Of course, it was quickly waved off, thanks to a block-in-the-back penalty on tight end Demetrius Harris.
On a night like this, it was the closest the Chiefs were going to come to a touchdown during the first half. The offense, which has now scored three touchdowns in its last 12 quarters, trudged back onto the field and mounted an 11-play drive that stalled just past midfield.
The Steelers, meanwhile, just kept humming. Roethlisberger promptly guided his men on a 10-play scoring drive capped by a 9-yard touchdown pass to tight end Jesse James, who appeared to beat safety Daniel Sorensen in coverage. The score put the Steelers ahead 29-0 with 44 seconds left in the half.
The Chiefs went no-huddle — the only way they’ve been able to consistently generate offense through four games — and advanced the ball to the Steelers’ 31 before the end of the half, which set up a 49-yard field goal attempt by kicker Cairo Santos. But after a botched snap, the ball wobbled through the rain and bounced off the right upright … and Santos even slipped on the follow-through.
It was fitting end to a miserable half that set the stage for a miserable result. The Chiefs’ offense scored two meaningless touchdowns in the second half, against the Steelers, who led by as many as 36 points at one point.
In the end, it was an embarrassing result, one that — as Roethlisberger and the Steelers showed, following their Philadelphia debacle — a good team is capable of bouncing back from.
“You can’t go off what you saw on film last week, because they’re a Super Bowl-caliber team,” safety Eric Berry said of the Steelers’ performance. “Roethlisberger is a Super Bowl quarterback, so you have to take that into consideration, that he’s going to bounce back and bring his ‘A’ game along with the team. So we’ve got to do the same.”
In the meantime, however, the Chiefs – who dropped to 2-2 – will certainly have plenty to stew on entering their upcoming bye week, an assertion nobody was backing away from.
“You own this right now — you wear it, it stinks, it’s not fun,” Smith said. “You’ve got to look at this, you at ourselves in the mirror and move on. You can’t let it linger. You can’t let this hang over us.
“It’s a long season, it’s early. We’ve got the bye ahead of us here. We’ve got to find a way to build off this somehow.”