Sam Mellinger

Thirteen thoughts ahead of the Chiefs’ Sunday Night game in Pittsburgh

Chiefs linebacker Derrick Johnson returned a fourth-quarter interception 55 yards for a touchdown Sunday against the Jets.
Chiefs linebacker Derrick Johnson returned a fourth-quarter interception 55 yards for a touchdown Sunday against the Jets. deulitt@kcstar.com

If a person is allowed to think the Steelers were overrated before the season and that they are not nearly as bad as they looked in Sunday’s blowout loss to the Eagles, then that is exactly how I feel.

The Steelers gave up some big plays, missed on a few of their own, and let it get out of hand in the second half. Le’Veon Bell will be back, Pittsburgh is a tough place to play, primetime game, all of that. If anything, the Steelers getting slapped like that may be a bad thing for the Chiefs. Unless they’re just done, the Steelers will have too much pride not to bounce back.

And I don’t think they’re done.

Twelve more thoughts headed into the Chiefs’ game in Pittsburgh (7:30 p.m. Sunday on NBC), after watching both teams’ most recent games with the benefit of the coaches’ film.

▪ Derrick Johnson was even better than I thought. Terez did a great job describing DJ’s day in the game story — the stuff about the pick-six was particularly good — but it really pops out watching the game again. Aside from the touchdown, DJ caused Eric Berry’s interception in the end zone by reading the play and deflecting the pass in the air. Two other tackles in the run game stick out, and for your viewing pleasure, some visual aids:

Matt Forte has the handoff, and look at that enormous hole there between the left tackle and left guard. Running backs dream of holes like this.

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OK, now take one more look at the frame above. See that red helmet, five yards deep, on the other side of the mass of bodies at the line of scrimmage? That’s DJ, but with Forte — a veteran, savvy running back — already making his cut to the hole, surely DJ can’t get around the scrum in time.

Except, then, well, this happened:

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My favorite part is No. 77, guard James Carpenter — a really good player, by the way — sort of waving to DJ as he goes by for the tackle. That would’ve been a 25-yard gain if DJ didn’t read it, and if he didn’t have the ability to get to the spot so quickly.

One more from DJ. Here’s another handoff to Forte, and this time Carpenter has a free shot at DJ, head-to-head. If he gets this block down, then Forte has acres around the left end.

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No lie, this frame is about one second later:

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DJ beat Carpenter with a quick step to the right, going around the big man and making the tackle for no gain. Also, what doesn’t show up in these frames is DJ reading the play before the snap, and leaning into Chris Jones’ ear to (presumably) tell him to take his man inside so DJ could work the edge.

I should probably wait a few weeks, at least, before writing another love letter to DJ. This will have to suffice.

▪ Phil Gaines had a bad day against the Jets. He was beat in man coverage a few different times, including two pass interference penalties where he just never turned around to find the ball. A deep ball to Brandon Marshall was underthrown, or it could’ve been a bigger gain. Once, Ryan Anderson beat Gaines in press coverage with a simple juke to the inside. Gaines did have nice coverage on Marshall in the end zone, on a fade route, but those plays always suck and deserve to never score.

▪ Obligatory Alex Smith mention. He was obviously better than the previous week in Houston, though that’s a really low bar. He had what could be called the ultimate Alex Smith game — he was efficient, didn’t make risky throws, did enough to make those of us who believe he’s at least OK nod our heads and missed a few plays to make those of you who believe he stinks and should be mocked in front of his family nod your head.

His worst throw may have been a ball in the second half that was thrown WAY over Chris Conley’s head. Here’s the moment the ball was released. Look how open Conley is.

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The ball went, like, five yards over Conley’s head. It was third down. The Chiefs punt.

Smith also had a really bad throw to Jeremy Maclin, but I thought his worst play ended the Chiefs’ first drive. It was third and 9 from the Jets’ 30, and Smith broke the pocket a beat too early. If he stayed in just a half-second longer, he would’ve seen Charcandrick West breaking open over the middle for what would’ve been a big gain.

But that’s not the biggest problem with the play. Smith felt pressure from the backside, and with the field position knew a sack would’ve put them outside field-goal range. So he moves to his right, and look what he sees:

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I just don’t understand why he doesn’t throw to Albert Wilson, breaking toward the sideline at the 27, the defender at his back. It’s right there. If you complete the pass, it’s a short gain, and an easier field goal, but even if you throw it at his feet you’ve got three points. Instead, Smith freezes, and takes the sack.

The play does help illustrate another point, though. Smith has just 14 yards rushing this year, his worst three-game stretch since 2014. His ability to break the pocket, pick up yards and keep drives going when nothing was open was among the biggest reasons the Chiefs won 11 straight games.

That just hasn’t been there much this season, and Darron Lee’s sack on this play is an example of what’s happening. Lee was a spy, waiting behind the line of scrimmage for Smith to break the pocket. When that happened, he zoomed in and made the tackle. Smith was never going to be able to run for that first down, the way he may have a year ago. But he still could’ve gotten rid of the ball, and kept the Chiefs in field goal range.

▪ Marcus Peters’ first interception was just a stellar play. Here he is, when the ball is released by Ryan Fitzpatrick:

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He’s five yards off the receiver, who hasn’t even made his break yet. But Peters knows the Chiefs are blitzing, and that Fitzpatrick has a tendency to throw off his back foot against pressure. He breaks at precisely the right moment, and uses his strength and what football people call ball skills to high-point the interception in front of Jalin Marshall.

So, so good.

▪ Darrelle Revis lined up over Chris Conley in press coverage, and typically you wouldn’t expect the Chiefs’ No. 2 receiver to be a factor in a play like that. But Conley pushed Revis back a few yards, got him on his heels, and broke inside for an 11-yard gain and a first down. He’s taken a significant step from a year ago.

▪ Fitzpatrick was terrible on his own, and the Chiefs had something to do with that, but the Jets’ receivers also didn’t help. Brandon Marshall dropped one near the goal line, and another that would’ve been a substantial gain.

▪ Spencer Ware’s non-touchdown included a great one-step move around linebacker David Harris to get to the edge. It was a heck of a move. You know, before the fumble.

And now some Steelers notes...

▪ They missed a lot of tackles against the Eagles. Their defense is generally disciplined and smart and in the right spots, but they gave up a lot of yards by simply missing tackles. Spencer Ware, in particular, might be able to take advantage here.

▪ The Steelers miss Martavius Bryant’s speed, but Sammie Coates is talented enough to take advantage if there’s no safety help. Antonio Bryant is good enough that the Chiefs will probably want to roll coverage to his side, especially because they probably won’t move Marcus Peters around, but Coates can keep them honest.

▪ Markus Wheaton dropped a touchdown early that ended up costing the Steelers seven points, because the field goal was blocked. Had at least one other drop, too.

▪ The Eagles did a lot of their damage on screens, and a 70-yard touchdown to Darren Sproles on improvisation. Those are all things the Chiefs are capable of, too, getting guys out in space and letting them go. Assuming the Steelers use a spy on Smith, there should be more opportunities downfield.

▪ Ben Roethlisberger got away with at least three passes that could’ve been picked. He’ll hang in the pocket and take some chances. Peters has to believe he can get one.

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