In the NFL, there are games where offenses struggle because the defense surprises it by avoiding long-established tendencies.
The Chiefs’ 20-12 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday was not one of those games, however.
On the contrary, the Steelers actually avoided the recent formula teams have used to stifle the Chiefs, 8-7 and losers of four of their last five games.
Instead of playing press coverage on the outside and forcing quarterback Alex Smith to make throws to contested receivers, the Steelers instead played lots of off coverage, allowing Smith to throw short pass after pass to the left and right sides — a dream in the West Coast offense.
The result was a quintessential bend-but-don’t break effort by the Steelers. Smith and his receivers posted huge numbers but failed to punch the ball into the end zone even once.
“It felt like a lot of those quick throws were because they were overplaying something,” said Smith, who completed 31 of 45 passes for 311 yards in his second 300-yard passing game as a Chief. His other was 378 yards against the Colts in last season’s playoffs.
The fact the Steelers relied on off coverage isn’t a surprise. Their secondary has struggled all season, and without injured veterans Troy Polamalu and Ike Taylor, they certainly weren’t at full strength Sunday. They also relied on off coverage a week ago against Atlanta.
The Chiefs, however, certainly aren’t used to seeing that look.
“This is the first defense that actually played us like that,” receiver Dwayne Bowe said. “They pretty much gave cushion on my side. I wish we would have gotten that kind of coverage all year. I’ve never gotten played like that since I’ve got in the league. I didn’t get pressed one down.”
That’s why the Chiefs were to stretch the field horizontally with Bowe (six catches, 57 yards), all-purpose back De’Anthony Thomas (six catches, 47 yards), receiver Albert Wilson (five catches, 87 yards) and Jason Avant (four catches, 37 yards) via quick routes and screens.
“They were playing zone, Cover 4 and Cover 2 pretty far back, giving us what we wanted in front,” Bowe said. “We just needed to capitalize on some of the plays that were called in the red zone, and we would have been in good shape.”
The Chiefs also managed to get star running back Jamaal Charles involved in the same manner. He caught five passes for 48 yards.
However, all the chucking had two unfortunate side effects. For one, Smith was harassed in the pocket yet again — he was sacked six times and hit three more.
“We definitely let Alex get hit too much today,” left tackle Eric Fisher said.
Even more important, it led to the abandonment of the running game. The Chiefs threw the ball 46 times compared with only 14 rushing attempts.
“We couldn’t get the run game going the way we wanted to,” Fisher said. “We had a couple of decent ones there, but sometimes the game takes a different course and you’ve got to do whatever you’ve got to do to try to win the game.”
Charles, who is battling knee and ankle injuries and could be seen limping slightly at least once on the sideline, rushed only nine times for 29 yards.
“I just go out there and play,” Charles said. “Coach calls the plays, all I can do is whatever Coach calls.”
Instead of a lack of touches, Charles was actually more concerned after the game about one of his biggest mistakes, a lost fumble in Pittsburgh territory that came with the Chiefs trailing 10-6 in the third quarter and led to a Steelers touchdown.
“At the end of the day, I know I should not fumble the ball,” Charles said. “I made a mistake. I cost my team a turnover today. It kind of hurt because they scored on that drive.”
The Chiefs got the ball back trailing 17-6 with more than a quarter and a half left to play, but it might as well have been over then, given the offense’s inability to capitalize with a touchdown in four red-zone trips.
Reid said the Steelers did a good job switching up their scheme in the red zone.
“Initially, they showed us a little different look,” Reid said. “I thought we came back and adjusted decently for it.”
But not well enough.
“They were unbelievable,” Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said of the Steelers’ defense. “They played so good against an offense that shows a lot of different looks and schemes, screens, running the ball and throwing the ball. The way they played today, getting us a turnover, they didn’t let up a touchdown, that’s just awesome.”