While the red in Kansas City is symbolic of their current bleeding, the play of the Pittsburgh Steelers has transitioned from the blackness of early season to a gold standard in recent weeks. Heading to Arrowhead Stadium, the Men of Steel will look to continue both trends in an attempt to keep pace with the division leading Ravens.
In Chiefs territory, like many locales, there is a large contingent of Steelers fans and an official K.C. Steelers Fan Club. However, the most obvious local flavor in Missouri this Sunday night will be Tyler Palko. The former Pitt Panthers quarterback will be making only his second NFL start after a lackluster effort against the New England Patriots.
With their backs against the wall and their quarterback out indefinitely, Todd Haley's defending AFC West Champions will have their hands full, needing an upset win to stay within striking distance of their division rivals.
While most expect a commanding Pittsburgh victory, any trip to the "Red Sea" poses its own challenge against a raucous crowd and five-star atmosphere. The Steelers will look to get off to a fast start and prove the disproportionate state of the two teams, both on paper and on the field of play.
Certainly, the Steelers have reason to be motivated. Any "trap game" could spell disaster for Pittsburgh's hopes in the AFC North, and memories of a troubling 27-24 overtime loss at Arrowhead in 2009 are still a fresh wound to most of the Black and Gold roster.
Hoping for a more successful outcome in Arrowhead, here are 10 things that Steelers fans can pay attention for against the Chiefs.
The status of the Kansas City Chiefs heading into 2011 was debated among self-proclaimed experts, with those labeling the squad's previous success as legitimate or an aberration nearly an even split.
One dynamic element of the Chiefs roster that wasn't up for debate was the potential for greatness in the secondary.
The pride of the unit is rising star Brandon Flowers, who alongside peer Brandon Carr and capable safeties would represent one of the most daunting secondaries for opposing quarterback-receiver combinations to face.
Like the whole of the Chiefs, defensive backs have seen a campaign of great highs and ignominious lows.
At the height of their 2011 season, the K.C. pass defense hit its prime along with the rest of the team. Rising from the ashes of a horrid start, including a 41-7 opening day loss to the Bills during a great start for Ryan Fitzpatrick, the Chiefs rose to 4-3. They beat the Raiders and Chargers, and those victories saw seven interceptions, most notably during a six-pick effort against Oakland quarterbacks Kyle Boller (remember him?) and Carson Palmer (or him?).
Like the rest of the squad, the secondary saw hard times when the Dolphins came to town. Matt Moore had great success, leading Miami to its first win and completing 17 of 23 passes with three touchdowns.
One week later, Tim Tebow threw only eight passes and completed merely two—but one went for a deep scoring strike that was the difference in the game.
Last week, Patriots quarterback Tom Brady overcame a slow start, eventually catching fire and hooking up with tight end Rob Gronkowski. The Chiefs secondary continued to be riddled.
This week, the Steelers come to Arrowhead possessing arguably the scariest slate of receivers in the game.
Santonio Holmes...err, Antonio Brown...has been a primary target for Ben Roethlisberger, possibly the best receiver in the last month.
Mike Wallace is able to hit the football equivalent of a home run at any given time, but he is also able to move the chains along with his peers.
Jericho Cotchery has begun to fill the void left by an injury-plagued Hines Ward, making key catches from the lower part of the depth chart.
Oh, and Hines Ward is certainly no spring chicken to the game of football, and Chiefs fans will remember the tomahawk chop celebration he put on display in 2009.
The Chiefs secondary will have its hands full. Who will win the key battle on Sunday Night Football?
For those jumping to assumptions, Q.B.R.D. doesn't stand for "Quality Brand of Round Doughnuts." I know that's what you were thinking...
Instead, it is an acronym for quarterback rating differential, a measurement of the difference in performance between two passers based on the oft-ridiculed calculation that attempts to quantify their outcome.
More simply, it marks how much better one quarterback did than another. Dissect and combat the quarterback rating formula as much as you desire, but the reality is this: Quarterback rating differential is among the greatest measures that correlates directly to wins, according to many sources. A simple Google search bears this out instantly.
As such, fans in Black and Gold are surely salivating for Sunday night. Against one of the worst pass defenses, Tyler Palko had a 49.9 passer rating in New England. Tom Brady, his opposing passer, did what he does, finishing with a rating of 109 against the recently struggling secondary.
So, with another elite quarterback across the field in Big Ben, who has just begun to fully demonstrate chemistry with his wide array of receiving targets, an encore seems to be the logical outcome based on the numbers.
Still, numbers never put on pads. Paper stats mean nothing. On the field, however, Q.B.R.D. Or, quarterback rating does. This area represents the largest margin between the two clubs and the biggest obstacle for Kansas City.
"Get in his (the quarterback's) face!"
"Disguise the defense!"
These are frequent words of wisdom from Steelers fans to the defense, and it is an especially vocal request when the team is facing inexperienced quarterbacks.
On the offensive line, Ryan Lilja is out for the Chiefs, while Lamarr Woodley is also a scratch for the Steelers. The Pittsburgh linebacker crew is still dynamic, and if the defensive front can handle the K.C. offensive line and create lanes for Harrison, Farrior, and crew, it could be a long night for Tyler Palko.
It will also be important that an effort to get to the former Pitt Panthers quarterback doesn't compromise the intermediate and short areas of the field. The linebackers will have an additional job in covering dual threat Dexter McCluster, who is an all-purpose yards earner doing the job on the ground and through the air.
Surely, LeBeau and the defense will be looking to conjure up unique looks and loads of "personal backfield meetings." Dick LeBeau is considered a master of his craft, while Tyler Palko looked awful against one of the league's worst defenses, specifically against the pass.
If any element of the upcoming game has Steelers fans overconfident, this is likely the source.
Still, this won't have nearly the desired effect if the Steelers don't take care of another important business item (next slide).
For the Chiefs to win, they must run the ball effectively. This will force Pittsburgh to honor the rushing attack and open up play action opportunities for Palko.
Without this deterrent, Palko may be Pal-K.O.'ed without knowing it before he even takes a snap.
After losing their star runner, the Chiefs can't run, right? Wrong.
With the loss of Jamaal Charles, others have had to pick up the slack. Jackie Battle has seen the most work, and Dexter McCluster—a great dual threat as a runner and pass catcher—has also carried some of the load. Together, they have averaged over 4.6 yard per attempt, so any notion that the K.C. running attack is dead with Charles is sheer exaggeration.
The Steelers defensive front struggled to stop runners in the early season, but they have reclaimed their swagger in recent weeks. With Casey Hampton returning to form after some early struggles and both ends doing yeoman's work, backs have been unable to find the rushing lanes that were available against the Steelers during Weeks 1-4.
While Thomas Jones has had attempts sprinkled into the mix, his paltry average and lack of explosion assures Battle and McCluster to see most of the work once again. Battle's best effort came in Indianapolis, when the Chiefs rallied for a comeback win. He carried 19 times for 119 yards and two touchdowns.
It was the same Colts defensive front that harassed Big Ben and stuffed the Pittsburgh ground game. Rashard Mendenhall had 18 carries for 37 yards. In other words, the Chiefs still have a potential strength with their running attack that Pittsburgh lacks.
As an absolute necessity for a K.C. victory, it will be interesting to see if the Steelers defensive front maintains its usual (and recent) form...or if the Chiefs will be able to make things interesting by being productive on the ground.
Bringing in a perceived savior at quarterback (something about Orton and savior does not equate), many fans are chomping at the bit to have the new signal-caller taking snaps.
By playing Palko, the Chiefs are making the right decision. As it stands, he is their best shot at a win. Why? He knows the system, an attribute that cannot be said for Kyle Orton.
The Chiefs, if anybody, should know this best. After all, they were in attendance for a live demonstration just a few weeks ago!
If anything was learned from the Carson Palmer acquisition in Oakland, it is three words: not so fast! Literally. As it concerns new quarterbacks in new systems, those six extra days are the difference between complete illiteracy and...well, a wee bit of literacy or better.
Palmer came off the bench to replace Kyle Boller, and the former Bengals star was rudely invited back to action by none other than the Chiefs! The Raiders decision to pull Boller made sense, but Palmer did show that a few days simply isn't enough.
His three interceptions tied Boller's turnover total for the game, and premature judgments flew all over cyberspace. While he was attempting to come from behind, he led the Raiders to exactly ZERO points and made bad reads.
One week later, Palmer did a much better job, though he lost to Tebow and the Broncos. He threw three more picks, but his three touchdowns were the only six-pointers for Oakland that day. Afterwards, he won his next two starts, propelling the "Silver n' Black" to the AFC West lead.
Simply, it takes some time. Those questioning why Tyler Palko is starting this game after his struggles last week need to look no further than the Carson Palmer situation.
However, like Palmer's scenario, the situation does promise a VERY short leash. With their season on the line and realistically nothing to lose by replacing him, a disastrous night for the former Pitt Panther could open the door for an early entrance by the booted Bronco.
Tyler Palko may have a tall order during prime time, but he does have the benefit of the "Killer B's."
Bagwell, Berkman, Biggio?
Dwayne Bowe and Steve Breaston are the top two receiving targets in Kansas City, but let's be honest, Dwayne is the threat that lifts fans from their seats, eliciting awes and dropped jaws.
Dwayne Bowe has been a dominant force in recent seasons; as a fantasy football dream, his numbers are great, but they don't account for the amazing grabs and artistic touchdowns he has produced. He has 48 catches for 750 yards and four touchdowns. This is a great decline from last season, when the outstanding Bowe caught 15 touchdowns!
For those defenses concentrating on Bowe, Steve Breaston has been a fine second option for the Chiefs passing game. Recently, he caught seven passes for 115 yards in a losing effort against the Dolphins.
The matchup must will focus on is Bowe vs. Ike Taylor, pitting one of the best cover corners in the game against a highlight reel receiver who is capable of making a game-changing play at any time.
While the Chiefs surely hope to avoid putting the game in the hands of Tyler Palko, the young passer will surely have tunnel vision when Bowe is the hot read. When he is targeted, fans in PA and MO will have a very interesting battle to observe!
In a sequence of days, if not hours, Steelers fans learned of Big Ben's thumb injury and the long-term absence of Jay Cutler due to...what else? He broke his thumb.
It doesn't take a rocket scientist to draw a parallel and determine why a Steelers fan could be freaked out. The towel twirling Steelers fan is many things: tough, loyal, and even a bit spoiled. Also, Steelers fans are wise.
As such, they know that the 2011 season goes as Ben Roethlisberger goes. Spending many years losing playoff games with great teams led by below average to good quarterbacks, fans understand that there is no substitute for greatness.
Ben's hand cannot take direct blows on Sunday, heightening the importance of protecting the franchise quarterback in the coming weeks.
With that consideration, the Steelers may be fortunate to play the Chiefs on Week 12; Kansas City has a total of 12 quarterback sacks this season.
As expected, Tamba Hali has led his team with seven quarterback takedowns. Can Pittsburgh continue to keep Chiefs defenders off of opposing passers, keeping Ben upright and protecting the most important thumb in the Steel City?
The Chiefs have allowed opposing tight ends to have some great games this season.
Likewise, Heath Miller has been a common target of Ben Roethlisberger in recent weeks, most notably in New England when the tight end had a multitude of catches before Tom Brady ever saw the football once.
The Steelers offense always runs more smoothly when one or more of three things is true:
1) Ben has time to survey the field and/or is making some quick, accurate decisions.
2) The team is utilizing the no-huddle.
3) Heath Miller is catching passes.
I suppose the fourth element could be an effective running game, but I've given up on that notion this season.
With the Chiefs defensive pressure being nearly non-existent in 2011 and option two only happening periodically, fans should relish the notion of option three. In fact, options one and three tend to go hand-in-hand, and Miller should have a big game against Kansas City.
With time to find open targets, an obvious supporting trend, and receivers that demand critical levels of attention, circumstances are ideal for a big game from the Steelers' under-appreciated tight end.
Last week, another sure-handed tight end had an enormous game against Kansas City, making four receptions for just under 100 yards and two touchdowns.
The strength of the K.C. secondary is at the cornerback potion, despite their inconsistency of late, so forcing the defense to account for other targets aside from the two gamebreaking receivers (Wallace and Brown) will only help the Pittsburgh offense later in the game by spreading out the defensive backfield.
Considering the trend, Big Ben should find Heath open early and often.
For his role in helping the team win and the milestones within reach, Hines Ward could have pulled a "T.O." when he spent more time watching than working in recent games.
With great receivers blossoming, most notably Antonio Brown, and other returning to health, Ward's role on the team is in question. From his current place down the depth chart, he hasn't lashed out or made a public statement.
Simply, he's been the essence of class. His words exude dignity and professionalism:
I'm healthy. I never made excuses for injuries or anything. It's bigger than me. It's really about the team. I'm going to continue being positive.
They don't owe me anything. It is what it is. Whatever my role is, go out there and do the best job I possibly can.
Mike Tomlin indicated that recent outings are not an indication of the intention to limit Ward's play in future games, but one can't deny that his career is coming toward its ending.
Many Ward-related questions are on the minds of fans heading into Arrowhead. Here are a few:
Will Ward or Cotchery (perhaps Sanders) see more time as the No. 3 receiver?
Regardless of his ranking, how many snaps will Hines see with the starting offense?
Is it possible that Hines could not retire as a Pittsburgh Steeler?
How will this affect his ability to achieve career milestones that would help secure his place into the Hall of Fame?
Regarding those milestones, Hines Ward is merely 19 catches away from 1,000 career receptions. Likewise, one good snag could launch him into another meaningful class of players: the "12K Club." Ward is only 30 yards shy of 12,000 career receiving yards.
Any Steelers fan looks forward to Hines Ward accomplishing these goals in 2011 and is hoping for the best for the ever-smiling receiver.
Don't let Miami's 31-3 win in Kansas City lull you into apathy about the challenge facing Pittsburgh on Sunday.
Arrowhead Stadium is one of the most raucous and hostile environments in the NFL. Even in seasons when the Chiefs have struggled, the team has put in heroic efforts at home. Kansas City is (or, should I say, can be) a different animal in the "Red Sea." Home has certainly been rough to the Chiefs in 2011.
The Steelers hope to add to this frustration, but they cannot take this for granted.
Pittsburgh will be hoping to take the crowd out of the game early with a fast start. If they are successful in this goal, the term "no mercy" comes to mind.
Feeling bad for a team starting Tyler Palko, having lost three straight games, and without their starting runner is an emotion that cannot be afforded. The Steelers need to have killer instinct, something that has lacked when they've owned big leads or had chances to end games to-date this season.
Keeping the pedal down is a must. "Leaving teams hang around" is an NFL adage used to describe the phenomenon of underdogs pulling out wins when they're within striking distance late in contests. It's a truism.
Beyond the challenge of winning on the road, Pittsburgh has little room for error, possibly none.
THE STEELERS MUST WIN.
With their recent successes over the last six days, the Ravens put immense pressure on their Black and Gold rivals. Already needing the Ravens to lose a game in order to win the division, the Steelers would still need to win out to take the AFC North. Asking Baltimore to lose two of their final five games, considering they have yet to play the Browns, is a tall order.
Forget that road teams have won Super Bowls in recent seasons; the Steelers of the Mike Tomlin era have gone to two Super Bowls through Pittsburgh. The home field curse of the Cowher era is no longer in effect.
Beyond efforts to win the AFC North, losing to teams that they should beat is a surefire recipe to send the Steelers spiraling backward into the murky wildcard mix, a circumstance best avoided.