Coming off of their bye week, the Pittsburgh Steelers know that there is a lot at stake over their final six games of the season.
“We’ve got to win out,” said Brett Keisel. “We have to take it one game at a time and win each game if we want to be in the postseason.”
While the Steelers may not have to win out to make the playoffs, they do want to build momentum as the season enters the final stretch.
“It’s our mindset this time of year you always want to be playing good ball,” said Heath Miller. “We want to be a hot team. There are a lot of teams in the hunt. We have no choice but to win all of our games and hopefully make it in to the playoffs. At this point you think about winning each game one at a time.”
It all starts on Sunday night against the Kansas City Chiefs, who will be starting backup quarterback Tyler Palko for the second consecutive week.
On paper this appears to be an easy win, but as the Steelers found out in 2009, there is no easy win in the NFL.
That year they went into Kansas City as a favorite and came out an overtime loser.
They cannot afford to slip up this year as they remain in the hunt for the top seed in the AFC.
Here are 5 keys for the Steelers to earn a victory against the Chiefs.
Pittsburgh is heading into a potentially hostile environment in Kansas City and they will be ready for it.
“Going on the road to Kansas City, it’s a tough place to play,” said Hines Ward. “It’s going to be a challenge for us. That crowd really gets into it. Being on prime time that crowd is going to be geared up for it. It’s going to be a playoff-like atmosphere game.”
For this reason, the Steelers cannot sleepwalk through this game. If history repeats itself, the Steelers should be just fine coming off of the bye.
Under Mike Tomlin, Pittsburgh is 3-1 after the bye week, winning three in a row. They have won those follow-up games by an average of 21.3 points.
This week should be no exception.
They have had time to get their veterans plenty of rest and one of their young receivers, Emmanuel Sanders, healthy.
Pittsburgh needs to hit the ground running coming off of their bye and prove that they are still an AFC heavyweight.
After playing quite well since Max Starks returned to the team, Pittsburgh’s offensive line slipped up a little bit last week, allowing Ben Roethlisberger to get sacked five times.
There should not be a repeat performance this week against Kansas City. They have a league-low 12 sacks, including three last week against Tom Brady.
Tamba Hali had one of those sacks and leads the Chiefs with seven on the season. However, he has been held without a sack in four of the past six games.
Chances are if the Steelers can contain Hali, the rest of the Chiefs will be unable to pressure Roethlisberger.
Keeping pressure away from Roethlisberger will be important considering he has a fractured thumb on his throwing hand. The less contact the better.
As we see on a weekly basis, pressure from pass rushers can change the course of a game. Pittsburgh does not want to allow Roethlisberger to be pressured from one of the better ones in the league.
Chris Kemoeatu has been sent to the bench in favor of Doug Legursky.
Though Kemoeatu is a much bigger-—and arguably more talented—guard, he has struggled this year in pass protection and has taken way too many dumb penalties.
Legursky can be overpowered by larger defensive linemen, but knows the offense very well and plays smart.
The coaches are banking on his intelligence to upgrade the interior of the offensive line. Last week’s performance by Kemoeatu must have been the breaking point for Tomlin and his offensive staff.
“I feel like I've had some bad games. I didn't think they were bad enough to probably get demoted, but it is what it is,” said Kemoeatu .
Kemoeatu is a competitor and certainly would not admit that he has been the weakest link on the offensive line recently.
The past four games the Steelers have started the same offensive line after having a mix-and-match line over the first seven games due to injuries and ineffective play.
Legursky returns to the lineup after starting the season with the first team. He inexplicably won a starting job despite being outplayed by both Ramon Foster and Tony Hills.
Pittsburgh will be looking for improved pass protection from Legursky as their offense has depended upon an aerial attack almost exclusively.
Rashard Mendenhall has a chance to get back on track after rushing for only 173 yards over the last four games. Pittsburgh may lean more on him with Roethlisberger suffering from a fractured thumb.
Kansas City is a great matchup for the Steelers to get their ground game rolling as they rank 28th in the league, allowing 136.3 rushing yards per game. Over the past four games, that number has increased to 153.0 yards per game.
However, Mendenhall may not necessarily get a lot of carries despite the injury to Roethlisberger. Kemoeatu is a solid run-blocker and the move to Legursky further solidifies the Steelers' shift to a high-octane passing attack.
Mendenhall will need to make the most of his opportunities if he wants to get more than 20 carries. If he does have a good average, expect the Steelers to run him often.
If they do he could have one of his biggest games of the season.
While Kansas City’s rush defense is a weakness, their rush offense is a strength.
They rank ninth in the league with an average of 124.5 rushing yards per game. Kansas City will test the Steelers' rush defense, which has shown some cracks this season.
Casey Hampton will be a big factor in trying to slow the Chiefs down. He will need to make his presence felt in the middle as the Chiefs have a number of solid options to run the ball.
The Steelers have been susceptible to the cutback runners and if Hampton he can disrupt the center of the line, they should be able to avoid some of those issues this week.
With Tyler Palko under center, the Steelers can also commit more defenders to completely shutting down the run.
Pittsburgh leads the all-time regular-season series 17-9.
The Steelers' last meeting against the Chiefs was a 27-24 overtime loss on November 22, 2009.
Pittsburgh last won in Kansas City on October 14, 2001 by a score of 20-17.
Ben Roethlisberger is 20-8 in regular season prime-time games, including 8-5 in Sunday night games (2-1 this season). He has won 10 of these games on the road.
Hines Ward is 30 yards away from 12,000 for his career.
Heath Miller needs five receptions to tie Elbie Nickel (329) for most receptions by a tight end in franchise history.
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