The Pittsburgh Steelers (5-3) will take on the Kansas City Chiefs (1-7) in Monday Night Football action this week. The Steelers will look to build on their three-game winning streak as they head toward a three-week stretch of division contests. The Chiefs will look to turn things around as their season continues to badly spiral.
Here's a look at 10 keys to victory for Pittsburgh in this game.
The Chiefs have a secondary that is, to be kind, a giant mess. For Kansas City to defeat a receiving corps that includes Mike Wallace and Emmanuel Sanders as well as possession guy Jerricho Cotchery, they will have to play their best game ever.
Add in Heath Miller and things get dicey for the Chiefs.
With or without star receiver Antonio Brown, Pittsburgh should be able to move the ball largely at will through the air. Pittsburgh likes to use short passes that allow their speedy receivers to run after the catch. The Chiefs likely will have trouble containing that.
If the Steelers can spread out the Chiefs, they can neutralize the pass rush as well and also open up some holes for the rushing attack to barge through. I just don't see the Chiefs being able to contain Pittsburgh's offense with any consistency.
It's bad enough for Kansas City that they cannot force turnovers with any regularity. It gets worse when you consider that their offense leads the league in turnovers of its own. That's bad news against a Pittsburgh defense that suddenly seems to have found its ability to be stingy with yardage and creative at forcing mistakes.
Regardless of whether or not Brady Quinn starts over Matt Cassel at quarterback or vice versa, the Steelers should be using their pass rush to get in on the quarterbacks and strip the ball. The Chiefs fumble more than any team I've seen in years.
This would also be a good game for Dick LeBeau to use his beloved zone schemes in the secondary to lull the Chiefs into thinking they have space to throw. Then LeBeau can have his defensive backs crash down and intercept the passes.
The Chiefs' best weapon is probably running back Jamaal Charles, who seems to be fully recovered from a nasty injury last season. Charles doesn't get the ball as much as he should given the team's passing woes, but when he does he's dangerous.
The Steelers are the league's top team against the pass, but they have been a lot more pliable against the run than in previous years. Part of that is some age up the middle of the defense. Another factor is the injury to Troy Polamalu, who is usually good at sealing some extra running lanes.
The Steelers need to keep the Chiefs from getting their ground game on track this week. They have to keep Charles and his mates bottled up. That will allow them to keep time of possession heavily in their favor and also force the Chiefs to pass, which we've already covered as being deadly to their chances of beating Pittsburgh.
The best way to do this is to insert Steve McLendon often on early downs and allow his superior athleticism and quickness to cover the gaps. The Chiefs don't have a great line, so shutting them down shouldn't be difficult if the effort is there.
The Steelers will likely continue to be without Troy Polamalu. You can add Antonio Brown to the likely list of people missing this game. Those are both big injuries, but they can be overcome against a team that struggles to put up points or prevent them.
The Steelers have been overcoming Polamalu’s injury all season. They’ve slowly but surely become effective with Will Allen and Ryan Mundy manning the strong safety spot. There aren’t any big plays coming out of there now, but those two have steadied the ship.
Brown’s injury is a little more troubling given that the Steelers use him on so many different tasks, but you can’t really be concerned after the way Emmanuel Sanders stepped seamlessly into his spot. The depth is concerning, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the Steelers activated Derek Moye, a former Penn State standout, from the practice squad to fill the fourth spot.
The Steelers should be able to run the ball on Kansas City. The Chiefs are allowing 126 rushing yards per game. While the passing numbers (347.5 yards per game) are even worse, the rushing attack has become a focal point for the Steelers as they try to establish it after some early struggles.
The Steelers should get Jonathan Dwyer back this week and will be able to pair him with Isaac Redman, who is coming off of that 147-yard performance against the Giants.
I think both backs deserve a ton of carries in the game. The Steelers have enjoyed a tremendous advantage in time of possession this year. That’s been mostly due to the short passing game that has been perfected by Ben Roethlisberger. This week, they should start supplementing that with a staunch run game that wears down the already weak Chiefs.
Last year, the Steelers were nearly beaten in Kansas City when the Chiefs, with backup quarterback Tyler Palko, nearly pulled off the upset as the Steelers seemed to be in some kind of mental funk. Pittsburgh pulled out the victory, but this game smells of being a potential trap.
The Steelers are riding a three-game winning streak and have gone 4-1 since their bye. They trail the Baltimore Ravens by one game and will face them next week. This is not the time to pull another disappearing act as they did against the lowly Oakland Raiders and Tennessee Titans.
For the Steelers to claim victory, the key here is to show up and play like the team they are, not play down to competition as they historically have done at times. If they do that, this game will get far too interesting.
The last thing you want is a bad team smelling blood in prime time.
The Steelers will face the Baltimore Ravens in a match of AFC North heavyweights next week and then two weeks after that with the Cleveland Browns sandwiched in between. While that schedule is a big concern, it isn't a reason for Mike Tomlin and his team to look ahead.
Looking past an NFL team is usually a nail in the coffin. Struggling teams love nothing more than knocking off the big guys.
As I just discussed, the Steelers don't want to take a stab at repeating their ugly recent history against Kansas City. They also don't want to make the mistake of writing them off and looking ahead to the Ravens.
In the NFL, there's a stigma attached to running up the score. Bill Belichick is one of only a few coaches that is willing to break that pattern.
The Steelers need to win this game convincingly. There's no reason to play close with a bad team. Look what happened against the Raiders when the Steelers gave up the momentum. This is a time where if you get an early lead, exploit it until the clock runs out.
The incentive here is that it takes the heat off of the team's defense. The Pittsburgh defense has played better lately, but they're coming off of a very spirited, difficult effort against the defending champions. The offense has plenty of ability to turn this game into a blowout.
And there really isn't anything wrong with that.
This week, my key coach is going to be Haley, the former head coach of the Kansas City Chiefs. The circumstances surrounding his ouster were a bit ugly and I'm sure he will bring his best plans to defeat his old team.
He's also the key because his offense will dictate the pace of this game. If he can slow it down with several trademark long drives, the Steelers can dominate time of possession and keep the Chiefs from having many opportunities to score.
The Steelers offense can also dictate to the Chiefs about their game plan. A big early lead will put the Chiefs in a panic mode and make them leave their plan. They aren't good when throwing a lot. That would be a great way to give the defense a feeding frenzy.
Given Mike Wallace's recent case of the drops and Antonio Brown's injury, Emmanuel Sanders may be the key to the success of this game. The Steelers will lean on him to take over some of Brown's unique responsibilities.
Sanders excelled last week in the return game and on offense. While he may have earned a more regular role on special teams, he has already carved out a successful part in the team's offense. That will expand while Brown recovers.
The benefit of having a player like Sanders is that he's intelligent and has taken the time to learn every route in the offense. He can line up anywhere and do anything. His blocking isn't bad on the edge. That could be important if the Steelers try to line up for some outside runs to abuse the Chiefs secondary.