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Chiefs game plan: Scouting the Pittsburgh Steelers (2-1)

Chiefs game plan: Terez Paylor previews Chiefs at Steelers

Kansas City Star Chiefs beat reporter Terez Paylor analyzes the Chiefs' keys to success Sunday night in Pittsburgh during a prime-time game against the Steelers (7:30 p.m. on NBC), plus Terez's prediction for the game.
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Kansas City Star Chiefs beat reporter Terez Paylor analyzes the Chiefs' keys to success Sunday night in Pittsburgh during a prime-time game against the Steelers (7:30 p.m. on NBC), plus Terez's prediction for the game.

A detailed look at the key players and matchups for the Chiefs-Steelers game at 7:30 p.m. Sunday at Heinz Field. The game will air on NBC (Ch. 41 in Kansas City).

[ Listen to our Chiefs-Steelers NFL matchup podcast and subscribe to SportsBeat KC on iTunes for more sports podcasts ]

Scheme

Coach: Mike Tomlin (94-53) is in his 10th year on the job. Tomlin, 44, took over in 2007 for Pittsburgh legend Bill Cowher and has since won the Super Bowl (2008), appeared in another one (2010) and compiled the fourth-highest winning percentage among active coaches. Tomlin built his resume as a receivers and defensive backs coach at the college and pro levels before becoming Minnesota’s defensive coordinator in 2006.

Offense: Todd Haley, 49, the Chiefs’ coach during 2009-11, is in his fifth year as Tomlin’s offensive coordinator, helping turn the traditionally ground-oriented Steelers into a passing machine. Pittsburgh threw the ball on 61.7 percent of snaps in 2015, 13th highest in the league, and finished third in passing yards. The Steelers are in the middle of the pack this year in passing and rushing, and are primarily an “11” personnel (three-wide) team with some “12” (one back, two tight ends) mixed in. Haley is an aggressive playcaller who used a ton of shotgun last Sunday against the Eagles; the Steelers ran approximately 80 percent of their 61 plays out of the gun. Expect to see lots of screens, deep balls and drags.

Defense: Keith Butler, 60, replaced legendary blitz-master Dick LeBeau last season. In his first year, Butler helped the Steelers increase their sack total from 33 to 48 (third in the NFL) and turnovers created from 21 to 30. The Steelers prefer a 3-4 scheme and tend to play more zone coverage. They also like to mix in fire-zone blitzes.

Special teams: Danny Smith, 62, is in his fourth year. Washington fans had a love-hate relationship with him during his nine-year tenure but he’s respected by players and coaches. Antonio Brown and Eli Rogers (5-10, 187) form a nice punt-return combo, but Rogers might not play. Linebacker Vince Williams (6-1, 233) is a good coverage man. The interior of the Steelers’ field-goal unit seemed a bit susceptible to penetration against the Bengals in Week 2 and had a kick blocked last week against the Eagles. Kicker Chris Boswell is accurate: He made nearly 91 percent of his field goals in 2015.

Four keys to a Chiefs victory

1. Be ready for the blitz

Pittsburgh — home of the famed “Blitzburgh” defense — has just one sack through three games. That’s surprising because their opponents are averaging nearly 43 passing attempts per game. It appears Butler has dialed back blitzing, but an embarrassing 34-3 loss to Philadelphia might force him to dial up the pressure Sunday. If so, the Chiefs — who have started three different offensive lines the first three weeks — need to communicate and pick up whatever games the Steelers try to run to generate pressure. Otherwise, it could be a repeat of their 2014 loss at Heinz Field, when quarterback Alex Smith was sacked six times and hit 10. The Chiefs, for the record, are expecting a nasty, physical team. “They’re going to come at us,” co-offensive coordinator Matt Nagy said. “They’re going to hit you, they’re going to tackle you.”

2. Screen ’em up

The Steelers’ defense was ripped for 426 yards against the Eagles, much of that on short passes, as rookie quarterback Carson Wentz — who threw for 301 yards — repeatedly found running backs and let them do the hard work. Philadelphia’s Darren Sproles and Ryan Mathews combined to catch eight passes for 142 yards and two touchdowns, which should make the Chiefs’ eyes light up, as all three of their top backs — Spencer Ware, Charcandrick West and Jamaal Charles — are plus receivers. The Steelers have invested a ton of capital in their front seven via high draft picks, but the defense missed too many tackles, looked a tad slow and could be exploited by the Chiefs’ speedy, pass-adept backs, provided Andy Reid can find a way to get them the ball. “I felt like a good amount of that game was useful,” Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith said of the Steelers-Eagles game tape.

3. Bracket Brown

Stud receiver Antonio Brown is the league’s best receiver for a reason. He’s tied for the league lead in receptions with 24 and a year ago he caught six passes for 124 yards against the Chiefs. And that was without star quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who missed the game because of an injury. Brown is in peak form now — he caught 12 passes for 140 yards against the Eagles and was targeted a ridiculous 18 times — but Cincinnati had some success bracketing him on every play in Week 2, when he caught only four passes for 39 yards. Roethlisberger will throw at Brown in single coverage, even if covered, so the best way to take him out of the game is to double him — especially if the Steelers’ other receivers continue to struggle making teams pay consistently. Brown also does a lot of his damage on screens and quick passes, so the Chiefs’ need to be ready to defeat blocks and wrap up.

4. Stay disciplined against the run

Le’Veon Bell will be back in the mix this week after a three-game suspension, and while DeAngelo Williams (5-9, 207) has looked good in his stead, Bell should be ready to assume a heavy workload. That’s bad news for the Chiefs, who allowed him to rush for 121 yards on 17 carries — an average of 7.1 yards — last year. With Roethlisberger back and Brown posing a constant threat, the Chiefs won’t be able to regularly slide another defender into or around the box to help with the run, as they’ve done at times the last few weeks. That means the front three of Dontari Poe, Jaye Howard and Allen Baileythe “Three Amigos,” as they like to be called — needs to dominate up front, which is easier said than done against a solid O-line. That also means the linebackers, particularly edge rusher Dee Ford and inside linebacker Justin March-Lillard, better be on point with their run fits and physicality.

Four Steelers to watch

No. 7, QB Ben Roethlisberger, 34 years old, 6-5, 240, 13th season

Ranked No. 21 on the NFL’s Top 100 for 2016. Reportedly 15 pounds lighter in an effort to play a full season for the first time since 2014. Brave in the pocket, repeatedly takes big shots but somehow keeps his eyes downfield. Nimble in the pocket; no one extends the play better. Competitive and tough; is exceptionally strong and difficult to bring down for a quarterback; loves to hang in the pocket to the last possible moment and can make something out of nothing. Occasionally gets a little sloppy with the ball; will make errant throws and trust his arm too much. Elite quarterback who loves to throw touch passes and repeatedly demonstrates the ability to throw receivers open. Has the arm strength to make the tough throws. Future Hall of Famer who can bring his team back in the clutch. Will stress defenses vertically with his arm and creativity.

No. 26, RB Le’Veon Bell, 24 years old, 6-1, 225, 4th season

Ranked No. 41 on the NFL’s Top 100 for 2016. True workhorse who can beat you carrying or catching the ball. Since 2013, no running back — even Jamaal Charles — has averaged more yards from scrimmage per game (119.0 compared to Charles’ 109.9). More nifty than fast, but Bell possesses good footwork, vision and elusiveness. Is very, very patient; will let blocks develop in front of him before exploding upfield. “Bell is a special player — very unique style of running,” Chiefs defensive coordinator Bob Sutton said. “He’s very patient before he makes that final cut and does a great job.” Runs with good power and can deliver a blow. Also a very good receiver; has reliable hands, runs good routes and is a threat after the catch.

No. 84, WR Antonio Brown, 28 years old, 5-10, 181, 7th season

Ranked No. 4 on the NFL’s Top 100 for 2016. Former sixth-round pick who has worked himself into the league’s best receiver despite his slight build and lack of height. Has caught at least one pass in 92 straight games. Lines up everywhere. Is particularly dangerous on back-shoulder throws. Is crafty with his hands; will push off slyly to create separation. Doesn’t need to do that much though because his route-running is excellent and so is his burst out of his cuts. Can also track the ball in the air and make contested catches. Is very dangerous after the catch; showcases terrific burst and vision and defensive backs better wrap up. He’s also scored on four punt returns in his career.

No. 97, DE Cameron Heyward, 27 years old, 6-5, 295, 6th season

The son of former Pro Bowl running back Craig “Ironhead” Heyward ranked No. 88 on the NFL’s Top 100 for 2016 and has nine tackles and two pass deflections. Is playing through a high-ankle sprain but has been a consistent run-pass threat since 2013. Last year, he registered a 39-tackle, seven-sack season. Often lines up over or shaded on the left guard. Powerful lineman who can be tough to reach block in the running game. Features a very strong bull rush; can overpower weaker guards or those with poor technique. He’s played in 47 consecutive regular-season games. “He’s going to give you an honest down; he’s going to come after you and he plays almost every play,” Reid said.

Additional notes

▪ Receiver Sammie Coates (6-1, 212) is a classic height-weight-speed guy (4.43-second 40-yard dash), which allows him to stretch defenses vertically. That’s why he leads the NFL in yards per catch (29.0) on seven catches and has caught at least one pass over 40 yards in each game this year. Still, he struggles to catch the ball consistently because he does not have natural hands.

▪ Fellow receiver Markus Wheaton (5-11, 189) dropped three of his five targets against the Eagles.

▪ Bell is expected to share the field with Williams, a quick, elusive back who looks great and is playing very well right now.

▪ With projected starting tight end Ladarius Green on the PUP list, second-year pro Jesse James (6-7, 261) has some big shoes to fill after the retirement of reliable tight end Heath Miller. James has some pass catching skills but needs to improve as a run blocker.

▪ The Steelers’ offensive line is solid, their performance against the Eagles notwithstanding. One player who can be tested a bit is left tackle Alejandro Villanueva (6-9, 320), a 28-year-old Army veteran who plays hard but is still honing his technique in pass protection. He was beat for a strip-sack by Tamba Hali when the two teams met last October.

▪ For as bad as the Steelers have been on defense, they’ve been pretty good on third down. They’ve held opponents to a 30.6 percent conversion rate (11 of 36), which is the fourth-best mark in the NFL.

▪ You have to be careful repeatedly throwing at cornerback William Gay (5-10, 187). When he intercepts a pass, he typically returns it for a score — he set an NFL record a year ago with his fifth consecutive pick-six for a touchdown.

▪ Teams have picked on cornerback Ross Cockrell (6-0, 191) in the past, but the physical 25-year old played very well in Week 2 against the Bengals, as he followed A.J. Green around the field and limited him to two catches for 38 yards.

Prediction: Steelers 23-20

This marks the third straight year the Chiefs have faced the Steelers, and the home team has taken each of the matchups (Pittsburgh in 2014 and the Chiefs a year ago). This is a winnable game for the Chiefs — this entire report laid out the reasons why they could win — but the Eagles didn’t do them any favors last week, as their 31-point beatdown might wake up Tomlin’s team. Good teams almost always find a way to bounce back, and with the nation watching — this is Sunday Night Football, remember — the Steelers’ offense should score some points, and the guess here is a more aggressive Pittsburgh defense will make enough plays to win.

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