Sunday is a playoff game for the Kansas City Chiefs and Pittsburgh Steelers. The Chiefs need to win to keep their playoff hopes alive while the Steelers can clinch a playoff spot by beating Kansas City. So this is more or less a playoff game.
To prepare for such a big game, I talked with the great Neal Coolong over at Behind The Steel Curtain. They do a great job covering the Steelers if you haven't visited their site yet. I asked Neal five questions about the game on Sunday, which he was kind enough to answer. We haven't talked about former Chiefs coach and Steelers offensive coordinator Todd Haley at all this week so get your fix in the first question here. I answered a few of his questions which you can see here.
Here's our Q&A.
1. Le'Veon Bell is good. The Chiefs can't stop the run. This seems like a problem. Is there anyway Todd Haley is going to botch the game plan and throw 50 times instead of running it?
There's always that possibility. To some degree, I'm not sure if a heavy version of either the run or the pass is really a key against this Chiefs defense. Atlanta did a great job of containing Bell in the running game, and minus a few splash plays, I thought the Falcons' defense did a great job in that game. Looking back over the season, Baltimore did a good job containing Bell as well. Kansas City has that kind of defensive ability. Haley sticks to his game plan come hell or high water, and if he feels they have better match-up advantages in the passing game, he'll go with it. I don't think that's necessarily a bad plan; the Steelers have an excellent quarterback with an outstanding receiving corps. In the end, It's tough to score on the Chiefs, so it seems like this is the kind of game where the Steelers will have to figure out a way to win it with 21-24 points.
2. Antonio Brown is a beast. Is he usually stretching the field deep or more intermediate routes? With 115 catches maybe the answer is everywhere.
Brown is, in my mostly useless opinion, the best receiver in the NFL. I'd have to study his 115 catches more in-depth to provide a more educated answer but I'd say he's more an intermediate option. The z receiver position is used at all depths, so he's not running any one route exclusively. He has the ability to go deep, and he combines that with the threat of short stuff. The Steelers have utilized a built-in option to be called at the line of scrimmage to get the ball to Brown on a quick screen if the numbers favor that. He lines up on the strong side mostly, and if they have an advantage in terms of numbers (two players in the wide area of the field) they can call a bubble screen and release the tight end to get a block, leaving Brown 1-on-1 with a defensive back. He's quick enough to make guys miss, and the result is usually three or four yards. Not a bad gain for a player who can also get past that first defender and pick up 15-20.
While most in today's NFL see a player on pace to catch 130 passes assume he's playing in the slot exclusively and he's just catching four yard routes, Brown is averaging over 13 yards a catch. Wes Welker caught 118 passes or more three times. He never averaged 13 yards a catch, and twice averaged under 12.
What's really been impressive about Brown this year is his ability to catch passes in traffic. He has good hands, and a knack for coming down with the ball despite being one of the few receivers in the game who put up big numbers despite not having a size advantage. This has led to the unfortunate perception he's somehow not deserving to be considered the best receiver in the game (somehow we've learned to equate quality wide receivers with guys standing 6'3 and taller). I read somewhere someone ask Brown if he wasn't a football player, what sport would he play? He said tennis. It makes perfect sense. He's the fastest receiver in the NFL moving horizontally and his routes and cuts are as sharp and clean as anyone in the game today. But that separation speed combined with a quarterback who seemingly is running the route in concert with him is the reason he's caught at least five passes for at least 70 yards in an NFL-record 16 consecutive games.
3. The Chiefs will want to establish Jamaal Charles. How have the Steelers done against other top backs?
I'm not sure the Steelers are at the point they need to be any more concerned with the best backs that they should be against any back. Jamaal Charles is an excellent running back, and other outstanding backs have done well from a statistical standpoint (Justin Forsett in Week 2, Arian Foster in Week 7, etc.). The Steelers have the league's 11th ranked run defense but I don't think anyone feels they will have no problem shutting Charles down - or the Chiefs running game in general. The defense is still full of "new" guys. While that can't be an excuse in Week 16 anymore than it could be an excuse in Week 1, the reality is they give up big plays due to poor alignment and smart quarterbacks have picked that up. I would expect Charles to have a statistically positive game. It's what he does.
One issue is the Steelers' defense is built to take away one aspect of an opponents' game. If that opponent wants to run the ball all game, they will find ways to stop it if the threat of a pass isn't there. What I'd be more concerned about from the Steelers' perspective is filling gaps against the run and forcing Kansas City to move the ball the hard way down the field. Charles and their ground game is capable of churning out yards, but the Steelers have to like their chances in a lower scoring game because of the explosive playmakers they have on offense. Mainly, though, what I'm concerned with is Kansas City's lack of giveaways in the passing game. The Steelers win games in which they get takeaways. They're around .500 when they don't or they turn it over two or more times themselves.
4. The Chiefs need to win this game to stay alive. How is the Steelers home field advantage? What do you expect the atmosphere to be like?
The team is issuing "come out and be loud" kinds of stories this week, so I think it speaks both to the fact they are treating it like a playoff game (as they should) and they're aware of the lack of volume at home games recently. To be fair, the lack of noise is usually due to the feeling the .500 level Steelers will soon return. This team hasn't won four games in a row since 2012 - the fourth game of that streak, as you may recall, is the one Ben Roethlisberger was crunched by Justin Houston and Tamba Hali simultaneously, all but ending his season and the Steelers' playoffs made streak. They had to win four in a row starting in Week 14 to win the division (most likely), and they've got two of those four now. I think the Chiefs are a very difficult opponent to face if you want the crowd to be a factor. A methodical and productive offense, and big-play defense, any one of those traits coming out early in a game will take the crowd out of it.
However, I would challenge any and all Steelers fans planning to attend the game to stay in it. This team possesses nothing else if not the ability to remain competitive for four quarters. Ability and execution are different things, but even if the defense sags a bit, the offense is capable of getting the team back in the game.
5. What's your prediction for the game?
Ya gotta do this to me, huh? I hate making predictions. I've been burned in the past by this team in games I've forewarned fans this team has match-up advantages (namely the Jets and the Buccaneers). The Chiefs defense is active and it's athletic. If there's a risk in any game of Brown's 5-and-70 streak ending, it's this one. I'm just not sure the Steelers' defense will be able to prevent the few big plays the Chiefs offense needs, and in that, I'm not sure they'll be able to hold firm over four quarters. They'll need a takeaway, I'm not sure this is the team from whom they'll get one. Gut says Chiefs something like 24-17, but it's been a while since the Steelers have been in a game that's ended on a field goal, while just back in 2012, they had seven of them - including their overtime win over the Chiefs. If it's within 4-7 points in the fourth quarter, I like the Steelers' chances in the end. If Kansas City can jump ahead two scores early, I think they'll sustain it the rest of the way.
Maybe I'll just say whomever scores first wins the game.