Chiefs special-teams coordinator Dave Toub planned a cinematic surprise for his players at the team hotel Saturday night.
Toub dug deep into the franchise’s film vault and opened the special-teams meeting by showing footage from a game between the Chiefs and Pittsburgh Steelers played exactly 28 years ago Sunday at old Three Rivers Stadium.
The circumstances and consequences for the Chiefs on that day were strikingly similar to the noon game today at Heinz Field. The Chiefs had to beat Pittsburgh in the Dec. 21, 1986, regular-season finale to make the playoffs.
And that’s exactly what they did in one of the most remarkable performances in franchise history. The Chiefs scored all three touchdowns on special teams for a 24-19 win that clinched the franchise’s first playoff appearance in 15 years.
The anniversary of that game, and what’s at stake today, inspired Toub. He wanted to reinforce the message of how special teams can make an impact, the way rookie De’Anthony Thomas’ 81-yard punt return for a touchdown jump-started last week’s win over Oakland.
“That’s the way we look at our special teams,” Toub said. “It’s something that’s going to spark our team, and scoring three times (in 1986 ) … it would be hard to lose that game.”
Last week, the Chiefs, 8-6, snapped a three-game losing streak with a victory over the Raiders. They need to beat Pittsburgh today and San Diego next week at home to be guaranteed of reaching the playoffs for a second straight season.
A loss today coupled with a Baltimore win at Houston would eliminate the Chiefs from postseason contention. The Steelers, 9-5, can clinch a playoff spot by beating the Chiefs.
The Steelers lead the NFL in offense, and the Chiefs have yielded the fourth-fewest points in the league, so the difference in this game could come down to the Chiefs’ superior special teams.
The Chiefs lead the NFL in kickoff-return average, 28.9, including a 99-yard return by Knile Davis, and they’re No. 4 in punt-return average, including Thomas’ 81-yard return against the Raiders.
The Steelers rank 28th in kickoff returns, at 21.2 yards, and 18th in punt returns, 7.9. The Steelers haven’t come close to returning a kick for a touchdown, and have allowed an 108-yard kickoff return by Baltimore’s Jacoby Jones.
“At any time, De’Anthony Thomas can take it to the house, and they’re going to need something like that, or a big return, to flip the field position and to win this game,” said former Chiefs safety Deron Cherry, one of the heroes of 1986 game — the last time the Chiefs won in Pittsburgh.
In 1986, the Chiefs had lost three straight and slipped to 7-6, just as this year’s team did, before beating Denver at home and the Raiders in Los Angeles. That set up the win-and-they’re-in scenario at Pittsburgh.
“We weren’t going to be denied,” said former nose tackle Bill Maas. “We didn’t even know we weren’t very good. Offensively, we couldn’t move the ball …”
But they didn’t need much offense on a cloudy day against a Pittsburgh team that had won five of its last eight, but would finish a disappointing 6-10.
The Chiefs won despite:
▪ Picking up a season-low eight first downs.
▪ Gaining only 171 yards of total offense.
▪ Not advancing past the Pittsburgh 29 in 11 possessions, and crossing midfield just four times.
▪ Allowing a season-most 515 yards.
And the Chiefs won because:
▪ Albert Lewis blocked a punt that was recovered in the back of the end zone by Cherry for the game’s first touchdown.
▪ Boyce Green returned a kickoff 97 yards for the second touchdown.
▪ Maas blocked a field-goal attempt, and the ball was retrieved and returned 78 yards by Lloyd Burruss for the third touchdown.
▪ Nick Lowery made a 47-yard field goal.
▪ And Lewis Colbert’s precise punting twice pinned the Steelers inside the 10.
“If someone had told me before the game that we’d have 515 yards total offense and hold them to 171, I’d say we had a shoo-in,” Steelers Hall of Fame coach Chuck Noll said after the game. “It shows the importance of getting the job done on special teams … that did us in.”
Going into the game, Chiefs special-teams guru Frank Gansz was confident his unit could block some kicks. They already had blocked five punts that season and saw on film how Seattle and New England had blocked punts by Pittsburgh’s Harry Newsome.
Sure enough, Lewis came around the edge, picked the right spot and blocked Newsome’s punt. It was Lewis’ fourth blocked punt of the season.
“Not only did he have the speed to come off the corner,” Cherry said of Lewis, “but he had the length. Albert had long arms, and he could get those arms outstretched, and they made a big difference in executing those blocked punts.”
The Chiefs led 10-3 in the second quarter when their scouting of the Steelers’ special teams paid off again. The Steelers had been burned for a 93-yard kickoff return the week before by the Jets, so as Green and Jeff Smith took their positions to field Gary Anderson’s kickoff, Green had a premonition.
“I told Jeff, if it was coming to me, I’m going all the way,” Green said afterward.
Sure enough, Green caught Anderson’s knuckleball kick at the 3, began to his right, cut to the middle, bounced off a tackle at the 25 and streaked to his first career kickoff return for a touchdown and the first by the Chiefs since Bobby Bell brought back an onside kick 53 yards in 1969.
As Green blew into the open field, Chiefs players, coaches and other personnel ran down the sideline with him. They sensed something special was happening.
“You are what you emphasize,” Maas said. “At that time, that’s all Frank Gansz emphasized. Those special-teams meetings, nobody wanted to miss ’em. It was like you never knew what was being dialed up next. And he gave you the belief that we can do this any time we want. That was really fun.”
The game turned in the second quarter when the Steelers, trailing 17-6, faced fourth and goal at the Chiefs’ 2. The crowd of 47,150 implored Noll to go for it, but he sent in Anderson to try a 19-yard field goal instead.
That’s when Maas stuck up his big paw and blocked the field-goal attempt. Burruss, running alongside Kevin Ross, scooped up the ball in stride and went 78 yards, giving the Chiefs what turned out to be an insurmountable 24-6 lead.
It was the first blocked field goal returned for a touchdown against Pittsburgh in 33 years. But it was no accident.
“We really studied keys,” Maas said. “Sometimes, (in) field-goal protection or punt protection — guys’ body language — sometimes they get lackadaisical. We would study timing of the snap. … We would look for a key, when the holder put his hand out, or when he set his finger in the ground and when he looked up at the kicker and when he looked back at the center ...
“Whatever it was, it was timing. That’s where you got the jump. We worked on that a lot.”
Since head coach Andy Reid and Toub joined the Chiefs in 2013, no team has had better special-teams units than Kansas City.
A year ago, the Chiefs averaged an NFL-record 29.9 yards per kickoff return; they’ve returned a league-best six kicks for touchdowns — three kickoffs, three punts — in that time, and they have not allowed a kickoff or punt return for a touchdown.
But … the Chiefs haven’t blocked a punt since 2012, and they have not blocked a field goal since 2007.
It’s by design.
“You’re either a block team or you’re a return team,” Toub said, “and we’re a return team. Our biggest danger to opposing teams is our return game. We emphasize that. Punters are getting the ball off so quick now, it’s not even worth going to the block.
“It’s really changed … if you look back in the past how long it took guys to get the ball off, you’d go after it all the time. Now, it’s so scientific. The get-off of a punt as well as a field goal … it’s a lot tougher.”
The Chiefs came close to blocking a punt against the Raiders last week, when linebackers Josh Martin and James-Michael Johnson crashed in on Oakland’s Marquette King.
“It caught them off-guard because we’re usually returning,” Toub said. “We came clean and still couldn’t get it. I want to block kicks.”
Perhaps his players will pick up a tip from watching how the Chiefs did it in ’86. Linebacker Frank Zombo, who has played a key role as a blocker in the Chiefs’ kick-return game, was impressed with how the ’86 team beat Pittsburgh with three special-teams touchdowns.
“Whether we don’t score, as long as we give our team good field position and prevent them from having good field position, that’s important,” said Zombo. “Every one of our special-teamers has started at one time or another on offense or defense, and we’re well-coached.
“There’s no reason why we can’t make those things happen.”