Chiefs vs. Steelers: 10 Things for Steelers Fans to Watch for on Monday Night
The Pittsburgh Steelers enter Week 10's contest against the Kansas City Chiefs as heavy favorites, and the multitudinous factors that seem to predict a Black and Gold victory could easily breed overconfidence in the Steel City.
The Chiefs' last trip to Heinz Field resulted in a 45-7 thrashing, most memorable for Larry Johnson's tackle of Troy Polamalu by the safety's hair. Despite Troy's absence, the Steelers defense has recently begun to show the swagger and playmaking ability usually associated with a Dick LeBeau-coached unit.
Additionally, Romeo Crennel has never beaten the Steelers as a head coach, his team has spent no time with the lead this season, the defense has been suspect and the offense is turning the ball over at a feverish pace.
Needless to say, things aren't going lavishly in K.C.
Further considering that the Men of Steel are "Monday Night Maestros," having not lost a Monday Night Football home game in over two decades, it would seem all the cards are on the table for a lopsided affair.
The Chiefs hope to shock the pundits, but the Steelers can't afford to take Kansas City lightly. After all, the team has already been forced to rebound from unexpected early season losses at Oakland and Tennessee.
Here are 10 things for Pittsburgh fans to watch for as the team pursues its fourth straight victory.
The Chiefs haven't held an in-game lead on any opponent at any time this season.
Well, okay. Zero microseconds could be overstating things. Let's call their time in the lead as being a mere microsecond, considering that K.C.'s lone lead was a game-winning field goal in overtime at New Orleans.
However, statistically speaking, the Chiefs have spent no actual game time ahead of the opposition.
None. Nil. Nunca. Nada. Zip. Zippity. Zip-nemia (Zip plus anemia). A sheer Zip-plosion (Fittingly, this word is the merger of zip and implosion, not explosion).
To continue this amazing statistical feat (or in the case of the Chiefs, statsitical de-feat), Pittsburgh has to score first, stay ahead and, unlike last season's contest at Arrowhead Stadium, put the Chiefs away.
So, just how poorly are things going for the Sea of Red? The Chiefs' lack of any singular lead in regulation through eight games marks the first such occurrence since the 1929 Buffalo Bisons, a team that folded following (drumroll)...
...the 1929 season!
Life Without Antonio?
Antonio Brown is listed as doubtful, begging the question of how the offense will fare without him. Against the Giants, the offense temporarily sputtered in his absence but ultimately regained its footing for a great fourth quarter.
Having Brown on the field is always the best option. He is a great intermediate-level receiver and a true nightmare for defensive backfields, always finding a way to get open, turning short passes into long gains and picking up first downs of any distance.
He is the essence of a possession receiver and his blazing speed only makes his style of play all the more deadly. He fits perfectly into the Todd Haley mold, a great target on an offense that is clearly focused on getting the football into playmakers' arms quickly and efficiently.
Still, against a struggling Chiefs secondary, the Steelers sport more then their share of weapons to execute the offense and dominate in the passing game. They have playmakers who have proven themselves in the new offense, albeit in smaller roles. Emmanuel Sanders' fine touchdown catch was one of a slew of his underrated contributions this season, and the physical veteran Jericho Cotchery is an experienced, sure-handed, reliable option.
Likewise, the ground game has been superb, which has only further confused opposing defenses and allowed great offensive balance.
Lastly, Ben Roethlisberger has been an "equal opportunity" passer in 2012, distributing the ball to an unbelievable array of hard-working recipients, ranging from Mike Wallace to Will Johnson and Heath Miller to Leonard Pope. An overreliance on Brown (or any one target) has not been an issue for No. 7 in the new offense.
The Chiefs offense has struggled, failing with regard to ball protection, points scored, and discipline. Whether Matt Cassell or Brady Quinn, the unit has conjured up "boo birds" from the Sea of Red and mass exaltation in opposing stadiums.
If K.C.'s offense has any hope for even a modicum of success at Heinz Field, Jamaal Charles must be involved in the offense successfully. For the Chiefs, an absent ground game will be an absent offense.
Luckily for Kansas City, the Steelers front has been a bit more malleable in recent seasons than in the past, through they've shored things up a bit in recent weeks. Instead of a brick wall, the defensive front has been more like a pile of rocks: solid, but not without cracks or creases.
In my opinion, one solution to this issue would be the increased involvement in the game plan of Steve McLendon. He was a beast in camp, has performed well in limited action, and had profound impact against the Giants—pressuring Eli Manning on his interception throw.
While Casey Hampton may have some plays left in him, he isn't the same "steer" that came out of Texas in the early 2000s. And the result has been flashes of daylight for opposing backs.
The Chiefs offensive line isn't the class of the league; in fact, it's outright mediocre at best. However, Jamaal Charles is a balanced back who can create offense, and it will be an important task for the defensive front to dominate their individual matchups to both get into the backfield and/or congest running lanes.
Charles is averaging nearly five yards per carry, and he also ranks third on the team in receptions as a threat out of the backfield. If the Steelers can prevent the Chiefs' best offensive threat from having an impact, they will force K.C. to go to the passing game. And, that would be fatal for K.C.'s goals (next slide).
The Chiefs Would Love to Pass on Passing!
Faithful fans in Missouri, loyally following either the Rams or Chiefs, have had similar reactions to respective passing games this season:
Who doesn't love a sound effect in quotations?
Matt Cassel is the announced starter on Monday Night against a Steelers defense that has finally begun to show the ability to get some pressure on opposing passers and force mistakes in the passing game. Indeed, LeBeau's bunch is regaining some of its swagger, learning to play without leader Troy Polamalu.
Last week, the secondary was lights out in shutting down Eli Manning and his Pro Bowl-caliber receivers, particularly Keenan Lewis. Ryan Clark has made timely plays all season (even dating back to the secondary's supreme struggles in September/October), Ike Taylor is returning to his normal form and the complete breakdowns, missed tackles and poor fundamentals showcased in early weeks is being corrected.
Steelers fans hope that the defensive backs at Heinz Field on Monday are a reflection of those that played the Giants at MetLife Stadium. If they play with that level of confidence, they will have no problem stopping a passer whose rating is barely 68 and who has thrown nearly twice as many interceptions (11) as touchdowns (6).
Clearly, K.C. knows that its hope rests in the legs of Jamaal Charles. In the passing game, only Dwayne Bowe has been a consistent contributor (predictably), the lone member of the squad with more than 213 receiving yards or more than one touchdown (3).
The Confidence of Ben Roethlisberger
Big Ben is oozing with confidence, and his play shows it. Truthfully, if I were a fan of another franchise, there are few quarterbacks in the game right now that I'd be more fearful of playing.
Roethlisberger's aplomb in avoiding costly mistakes, uncanny knack for escapability in the backfield, timely and decisive passes and unbelievable accuracy on the run have made him an unstoppable force in most games in 2012.
When the Steelers offense has momentum, Big Ben's game is rolling downhill! Now, with the run game forcing defenses to be honest and honor the box, the Steelers' aerial assault will be all the more deadly.
No. 7 has 16 touchdowns against four interceptions, putting him on pace for a career high in scoring passes and a career low (aside from his 12-game 2010 campaign) in picks. He beat his most heralded draft peer last week despite a double-digit deficit in the fourth quarter, turning Eli Manning's own flair for the dramatic against him and reminding fans that he has a comeback crown of his own.
Yet, beyond his own accolades and achievements, perhaps nothing should have Big Ben more confident than the play of his offensive line, suddenly competent in its pass and run blocking. Additionally, Todd Haley's new offense is clearly beginning to gel, and Roethlisberger has begun to appear strikingly comfortable.
Before a rocking crowd, underneath the bright lights, Ben will surely look to send the Steel City into a frenzy with another solid performance.
Todd Haley Against His Old Team
Steelers offensive coordinator Todd Haley was unceremoniously fired by the Chiefs in the middle of last season, and his current quarterback believes he can see an added determination in his coach (via CBS Sports):
He wants to win every game, as we all do. But without him saying it, you can see it. Anytime you've got a guy on your team who used to play for another team, there's always a little incentive that you want to win for that guy.
After being terminated from his head coaching spot in K.C., many pointed the finger of blame for the team's lackluster performances exclusively on Haley, their focus not accounting for bad managerial decisions by Scott Pioli.
Many believe—or at least hope—that Haley will have his offense turn up the gas on his old team. Certainly, the battle couldn't have timed itself better. An offense once described by its own quarterback as being like "Rosetta Stone" in its infancy is now being engineered with a confidence that can only be labeled as expertise.
The unit has a purpose, an ebb and flow that must be accredited to Haley. The offensive line has begun to gel, the running game is reminiscent of the team's traditional power-running roots, the balance of playcalling has defenses on their heels and the passing game has been a mix of sharp, decisive throws and big plays. Further, everyone is contributing.
How many more times will both Will Johnson and Leonard Pope get into the end zone? Surprisingly, the answer to that question probably isn't zero.
For his use of personnel and utilization of talent, patience in a city that was a circus upon his arrival and series of savvy changes that can only be described as an improvement from the Arians regime, Steelers fans can't help but hope that Haley gets to rub his old team's nose in it.
After all, he ousted that lousy "bubble screen." For my purposes, that puts him on a pedestal, and I now wish I would have offered his name as a write-in on my presidential election ballot.
Can the Running Game Keep Rolling?
The Chiefs defense has given up 4.6 yards per run and over 125 yards per game. In other words, despite talents like Tamba Hali and Derrick Johnson (who leads the team with 55 tackles), Kansas City can be run on, and they'll be playing an offense that has run for nearly 350 combined yards in their last three contests.
The Steelers hope ground and pound again, marking a fourth straight game in which the rushing attack piles up massive yardage. The last three weeks have been like a return to glory days, with Isaac Redman and Jonathan Dwyer doing their best Jerome Bettis impression, and Willie Colon and Maurkice Pouncey serving as the uniting of Dermontti Dawson and Alan Faneca.
Though that ranks as a bit of sensationalism, nobody can doubt that the running game has been sensational.
Per guard Willie Colon, "Early in the year, we were doing a little too much maybe. We’re keeping it extremely simple and starting to be repetitive and really owning in to what we’ve got to do.”
Todd Haley may have slimmed down the running playbook, but the biggest reason for the sudden surge of the Steelers running attack is the offensive line. The unit is avoiding penalties and winning their trench battles.
Holes to daylight through the A-gap? Whodathunkit?!
In place of infractions and missed blocks, the offensive hogs are now winning their individual battles and even getting into the second level. Hopefully, they continue their success against the Chiefs.
Mike Wallace vs. Brandon Flowers
Entering last year's prime time affair against the Chiefs, most fans in the Steel City expected "Young Money" to light up the K.C. secondary, which had struggled in previous weeks despite talent.
This year, Antonio Brown is likely absent from the equation, fine corner Brandon Carr is now a Dallas Cowboy and the Chiefs secondary once again seems suspect. Actually, worse than suspect—they've been awful.
The backfield of Brandon Flowers, Stanford Routt, Abram Elam and Eric Berry have been atrocious statistically, allowing opposing passers to throw for 17 touchdowns (against six interceptions), averaging a gaudy 8.9 yards per throw (14.3 yards per completion). Those quarterbacks have a combined rating of 106.2.
That's nasty stuff, folks.
Nevertheless, Brandon Flowers is clearly pegged as a solid defensive back, the team's top corner and he will naturally be assigned to contain Mike Wallace. No. 17 put up 17 last year, as he struggled to produce against the Chiefs, snagging two passes for a mere 17 yards.
Once again, he will be pitted against Flowers, who has intercepted both Joe Flacco and Philip Rivers this season. The standalone cornerback would love nothing more than to infuse some energy into a struggling defense by adding Big Ben to that list.
At any given time, Mike Wallace can come through with a gamebreaking play, but don't be surprised if his numbers are pedestrian on Monday. His role will be as a decoy, allowing the tight ends and Emmanuel Sanders to shine in the passing game.
Differential Measurements: Turnovers and Quarterback Rating
This is a key to any game, that could be used as a universal checkpoint for every contest in NFL history and every showdown from now until" football-finity!" So, in a manner of speaking, showcasing this as a topic of interest heading into a game is ordinarily quite generic.
However, this week, the potential to blow the game wide open through turnover differential is too glaring to overlook.
The Chiefs offense has turned the ball over a league-high 29 times. Whereas the Eagles and Michael Vick are the ultimate red-zone blunderers, K.C. serves as the real deal at screwing up just about everywhere on the field. This should be great inspiration for a Steelers squad focused on improvement by forcing more turnovers.
Matt Cassel has 11 interceptions, while Big Ben Roethlisberger has been more safe with the football this season than at any other point of his career. The differential in skill and ability between this game's two passers marks a huge deficit for the Chiefs to overcome.
It will be up to the Pittsburgh defense to (in order) stop the run, fluster (and pressure) Cassel, force mistakes and thus make this gap between the two quarterbacks stand out. After all, like turnover differential, passer rating differential is a huge determinant for winning and losing.
Monday Night Mayhem
Question: In what season did the Men of Steel last lose a home game on Monday night, and to what team?
Answer: 1991, vs. New York Giants (20-23)
The Steelers haven't lost a home Monday Night Football game since Chuck Noll patrolled the sidelines. As Pittsburgh attempts to extend its winning streak on MNF to 15 games, let's take a look back at the team's incredible run of success. As everyone is surely aware, when the lights turn on in the Steel City, so do the Black and Gold!
1992, vs. Cincinnati Bengals (20-0)
1993, vs. Buffalo Bills (23-0)
1994, vs. Houston Oilers (30-14)
1994, vs. Buffalo Bills (23-10)
1995, vs. Cleveland Browns (20-3)
1996, vs. Buffalo Bills (24-6)
1998, vs. Green Bay Packers (27-0)
1999, vs. Atlanta Falcons (13-9)
2001, vs. Tennessee Titans (34-7)
2002, vs. Indianapolis Colts (28-10)
2005, vs. Baltimore Ravens (20-19)
2007, vs. Baltimore Ravens (38-7)
2007, vs. Miami Dolphins (3-0)
2008, vs. Baltimore Ravens (23-20) OT
The Steelers have surrendered 105 points in 14 games, an average of 7.5 points allowed on Monday Night Football in the Steel City since 1992. Therefore, if history is any indicator, Matt Cassel's struggles aren't about to end in Week 10, and it wouldn't be surprising at all if Kansas City extends its record length of time without a single in-game lead to nine stunningly anemic contests.