All week long, the big back with the quick feet and good vision stood out on film.
So while containing Pittsburgh’s 6-foot-1, 244-pound star Le’Veon Bell wouldn’t be the Chiefs’ only concern Sunday, they did know that if they wanted to prevent him from going off against their 28th-ranked run defense, they had better step up to the challenge.
Funny thing is, they did, holding Bell — who has touched the ball 348 times for 2,043 yards and 10 touchdowns this season — to a meager 72 yards on 21 touches. And it still wasn’t enough to come away with the victory.
“Our whole job was to make sure he’s not running the ball, and I think we did an OK job,” linebacker Tamba Hali said. “We’ve had guys that come in and run for 150 yards (on us), but when we get the win, it is a whole a different (feeling afterward).”
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Indeed. Sunday’s loss also dealt the Chiefs’ playoff hopes a significant blow, so as you might imagine, defenders weren’t exactly thumping their chest for finally stopping the run — even though they had been gashed for an average of 157 rushing yards in their previous six games — especially when there was more they could have done to help their team win.
For instance, while the Chiefs did a nice job containing Bell — and defending the Steelers’ assortment of power runs and counters — quarterback Ben Roethlisberger still completed 18 of 25 passes for 220 yards and a touchdown.
And while those numbers are well below his typical standard — he’s thrown for over 300 yards eight times this season — the Steelers also showed a knack for the timely play, as they converted five of 10 third downs.
“I think where we fell short was putting ourselves in third-and-3, third-and-2, it’s hard to get off the field in those situations,” Hali said.
“The thing was, we didn’t get off on third down,” cornerback Jamell Fleming added. “I gave up a couple, we gave up a couple. That was our biggest thing; if we would have gotten off (the field) in third down, it would have been a different outcome.”
Cornerback Chris Owens also cited the fact the Chiefs, who ranked 30th in the NFL in takeaways entering the game, again failed to come away with a turnover.
“We’ve got to get the ball back to our offense somehow and get them more touches, more opportunities to score,” Owens said.
The Chiefs often went to a “Bear” front — featuring four linemen and four linebackers — to counter the Steelers’ assortment of power plays.
“We got some favorable looks, especially with some weak-side runs that we wanted to attack,” Pittsburgh tight end Heath Miller said. “We were … really close on a couple runs to being good plays, but they were able to get us down.”
However, Miller said the Steelers were able to exploit the front in other ways.
“We knew they were going to play that a lot,” Miller said. “And when they play that front, we’re going to get man coverage. We have to find ways to get open.”
Miller had no problem doing so, as he repeatedly beat man coverage and found soft spots in zone coverage to catch seven passes for 68 yards.
He was also a nuisance on third down, converting two of his own on a critical fourth-quarter drive that led to a field goal that upped the Steelers’ lead to 20-9.
“I thought that was a good job by our coaching staff as a whole,” Roethlisberger said of Miller’s big day. “They saw there was going to be opportunities to get Heath the ball. Heath Miller is a playmaker. Get him the ball and he does the rest.”
In the end, however, Miller’s presence was just one aspect that led to the Chiefs’ loss — albeit a small one. In a vacuum, the defense probably played well enough to win the game.
But Hali noted that when teams lose, players can’t help but ponder what they could have, or should have, done better, and the defense is no different.
“Most of these games we lose it is not because another team is whipping us,” Hali said. “We shoot ourselves in the foot sometimes and do not know how to bounce back from it.
“When we play as a team and put all three units together, it is hard to play against us. Sometimes we don’t and that comes back to bite us.”