If this was “Redemption Sunday” for the Pittsburgh Steelers, as coach Mike Tomlin had touted it, it was one of shame for the Chiefs – a 43-14 drubbing at Heinz Field before a national television audience that seemed less like “one of those nights” than par for the distressing course they’ve been on.
For all their nonsense on both sides of the ball and on special teams, the signature of the game once again was the inept offense that has produced just seven touchdowns all season.
Until a token Chiefs TD with 4 seconds left, the Steelers offense had scored as many in one night (six) as the Chiefs offense has produced in four games.
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Much like two weeks ago at Houston, the offense simply wasn’t in any way ready to play – in this case against an opponent seething from a 34-3 humiliation by Philadelphia that suggested the Chiefs best be braced.
“We obviously weren’t there tonight,” coach Andy Reid said.
He was speaking of the team overall, but how much have they been there at all this season offensively.
And when, and how, might we expect them to show up?
In the backdrop of this fiasco was the long-anticipated and anticlimactic return of star running back Jamaal Charles, who hadn’t played since he abruptly crumpled to the turf at Arrowhead Stadium last October with what proved to be a torn ACL.
But Charles had just two carries for seven yards and was targeted for one pass that fortunately was errant because he was set up to get clobbered.
Even if he was still limited but playing because Charcandrick West was out with an ankle injury, it was hard to understand how the Chiefs used him: When he got only one carry in the first half as they fell behind 29-0, it seemed to make sense to keep him on the sideline in the rain. But he had another carry late in the fourth quarter. Reid spoke only briefly afterwards and did not address the matter.
And that was pretty much that for the player who looms as absolutely pivotal to what the Chiefs will be able to do this season – at least on the offensive side of the ball.
If that sounds obvious now, it didn’t seem that way for a while after the initial shock of his injury last October against Chicago.
In the moment, of course, his teammates were so deflated and distracted that they hastily surrendered a 17-3 lead to lose 18-17 and fall to 1-4 on the way to what surely would be a ruined season.
Only it didn’t play out that way.
Because the Chiefs found within themselves plucky previously unknown backs Spencer Ware and West and the imagination to contour their offense to the new personnel reality and, ultimately, the resolve to win 11 games in a row (including their first playoff victory in 22 years) before falling to New England in the divisional round.
So by the end of the season, Charles seemed to some more of a luxury than a necessity: It would be great to get him back, but, hey, no problem without him for an offense that should only get better with more experience on the line.
Even when offensive coordinator Doug Pederson left to become head coach of the Eagles after the season, most logic held that the transition would be seamless.
After all, Reid in many ways was and is the offensive coordinator, and he’s worked a long time with the two men he named to take over for Pederson: Brad Childress and Matt Nagy.
But if there was any lingering doubt that something is grinding now instead of meshing, if there is any question that there is some serious mojo and intensity lacking, the Chiefs guzzled some serious truth serum Sunday when they not only couldn’t score until the game was out of hand but set up two Steelers touchdowns with soft turnovers.
Pittsburgh inflicted that on the Chiefs, and maybe it helped the Steelers that not only were they trying to atone for their loss to Philly but also that their preparation likely was streamlined by having prepared for the Eagles only a week earlier.
“They kind of play the same offense … so they kind of knew what they were coming into this time,” linebacker Tamba Hali said. “If you look at the first half, everything we did, it’s almost like they knew we were doing it. …
“It's like they did their homework. They lost badly to that team, and they did their homework, came out in this game, and they knew. They just knew.”
And, sure, things just happen like this sometimes in the NFL, where momentum can avalanche.
Trouble is, as much as the defense enabled this mess, too, this was no aberration for the Chiefs offense.
In fact, what appears to be the aberration is a 22 minute, 54 second window in the opener against San Diego when the Chiefs erupted for four touchdowns.
You can point to a lot of different reasons why all this is happening, from uninspired schemes and inconsistent line play to Alex Smith’s ups and downs to Ware’s newfound fumble-itis to the inability or unwillingness to get the ball more to playmakers like Travis Kelce.
So at least a bye week arrives at a terrific time for the Chiefs, who have to not merely self-scout but ask themselves just what they’re setting out to do on offense.
It also comes at a terrific time for hopes of the true return of Charles, who in 2012 came back from an ACL injury and ran for 1,509 yards.
Even after missing 14 straight regular-season games, the multi-faceted Charles entered Sunday night with the most touchdowns in the NFL (38) since 2013.
A couple weeks ago, Smith smiled when asked what it would mean to have Charles back.
“Whenever he comes back, we’ll be happy and lucky to have him back,” he said. “With that being said, and the way our running backs are playing, it’s nice not to have that pressure where we need to hurry Jamaal back before he’s ready.”
Naturally, no one wants him back before he’s ready. And at 29, his ability to recover may not be the same.
But if he indeed is close to the best version of himself, Charles still is the best hope for the revitalization of a rudderless offense.
Because right now, it’s going nowhere at all.