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Chiefs vs. Steelers: How the Chiefs defense beats Pittsburgh’s offense

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Where should the Chiefs be looking to try to stop the Steelers offense this week?

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at Kansas City Chiefs Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

It’s officially Week 2 of the NFL season, and that means it’s time to move on from the Kansas City Chiefs win over the Los Angeles Chargers and onto the next Chiefs opponent: the dreaded Pittsburgh Steelers.

The Steelers have had the Chiefs’ number on the past several matchups, with the Sunday night blowout of 2016, the “no-TD” game in the Wild Card round of that year’s playoffs and the “Phillip Gaines doink” game from last year’s regular season.

For whatever reason, the Chiefs haven’t been able to get over the hump against this Steelers team.

With a new-look offense that lit up the Chargers debuting this past weekend and a completely revamped defense that, well, could have been better, the Chiefs are bringing a completely new team into Pittsburgh this weekend.

But what about the Steelers?

This week, like every week, I’ll be heading down to the Laboratory to take a look at what the opposition’s offense looks like, some matchups and tendencies that they like to exploit and what the Chiefs defense can do to try to stop them this Sunday.

So without further ado, let’s take a look at the Steelers offense from this past week against the Cleveland Browns in a rainy, miserable tie ball game:

The Steelers offense

The Steelers have an embarrassment of riches at the skill positions on this side of the ball. Ben Roethlisberger is a big-armed quarterback who is seemingly impossible to sack at times. He’s not much of a runner as he’s gotten older, but he’ll escape the pocket and move the chains if needed.

At running back, second-year man James Conner had a fantastic Week 1 replacing Le’Veon Bell, rushing for 135 yards on 31 attempts and two touchdowns while tacking on five receptions for 57 yards. While Bell has given the Chiefs fits in the past with his patient running style, waiting for a hole to open, Conner is more of a “one cut and go” style runner, preferring to hit the hole at speed to try to break through the second level.

The Steelers boast one of the best wide receiver tandems in the league with arguably the best WR in the league in Antonio Brown, and a fantastic No. 2 in JuJu Smith-Schuster. Both have game-breaking ability at any level of the defense and will receive targets from Roethlisberger in bunches. Together, they combined for over 200 receiving yards and 14 catches on 24 targets in Week 1.

At tight end, Pittsburgh uses Jesse James and Vance McDonald liberally. James is more of the pass catcher, seeing five targets in Week 1 to McDonald’s zero, but both are solid blockers and were key to Conner’s big day on the ground.

The Steelers offensive line is full of athletic, nasty lineman that have used their power to bully the Chiefs front in recent years. Led by Maurkice Pouncey and David DeCastro on the interior as road graders, the Steelers have been able to run the ball at will against most of the NFL over the past few seasons.

They showed some cracks in their pass blocking last week, with the Browns able to get some good pressure on the quarterback.

How to defend

22 personnel and the run

As I mentioned on this week’s episode of the AP Laboratory podcast, the Steelers offense used 22 personnel (two tight ends, two running backs) last week to force the Browns into their base defense.

The Browns implemented similar tactics that Bob Sutton and the Chiefs have in recent history, flooding the secondary with defensive backs and leaving lighter boxes to run against. Reacting to 22 personnel, the Browns were forced to put those extra defensive backs on the sideline, giving more space for the Pittsburgh tight ends, running backs and the wideout to run through.

However, the Steelers did most of their damage from this formation on the ground.

The Browns reacted to 22 personnel by bringing a safety into the box in run support opposite a tight end. That safety’s responsibility is pass-first, meaning he has to key off of the tight end primarily before reacting to the playcall. If the tight end stays in, the safety can look, identify the run and attack. Because of this, it is paramount that the linebackers and defensive linemen follow their run fits, stack the gap or beat the blocker until the extra man in the box can arrive as help.

On this play, the field-side linebacker dips underneath the fullback’s block in the B-gap, allowing the fullback to block down to the interior of the offensive line and spring a big hole for Conner to hit opposite the box safety. If the linebacker targets the outside shoulder of the fullback, Conner is forced back into the teeth of the defense. By dipping inside, the linebacker has to make a play or Conner is into the third level, barely being touched.

With only one wide receiver to cover and a safety in the box, typically the extra cornerback can find himself unblocked on these plays. The Steelers run power and the linebacker does a good job stacking the pulling guard in the gap. A good edge set and the stacked pulling guard forces the run back inside, where former Chiefs CB Terrance Mitchell can come up and fill for a stop, unblocked.

Instead, Mitchell gets stuck in behind the linebacker and ends up lunging for the gap, where Conner is able to break through all the way to the end zone.

Both of the Chiefs base CBs need to be willing to stick their noses in the gap in run defense this week on these plays. Doing so may prevent three or four-yard runs from becoming 22-yard touchdowns.

This is exactly what the Chiefs need to do to stymie the run game this week. The Steelers run an inside zone, and the strongside 3-tech slants, coming across the guard, into the A-gap, where the fullback is trying to get through to the second level. This allows the linebackers to fill the interior gaps, and it causes Conner to have to stop and try to find the open gap. This delay gives the box safety plenty of time to come up in run support to make a big stop.

Good gap discipline and a willingness to get in and make a stop from the third level can help the Chiefs defense stop these runs against Pittsburgh’s big personnel.

RPOs

Ah yes, the buzzword of the 2018 NFL offseason.

Pittsburgh likes to use run-pass options with their 11 personnel, keying off of the linebacker opposite the running back. Week 1 was no different, with the Steelers offense reading the Browns front and making the call pre-snap, or with post-snap movement from the linebacker.

The Steelers will line up with a 3x1 alignment with the running back to the same side and wait to see if the outside linebacker shifts out wide as the Apex defender against the tight end. He does with the Browns showing a Cover 2 look, and now the Steelers can hand the ball off, leave the backside defender unblocked and have numbers with their offensive line to give the running back an easy route to the second or third level of the defense.

Here, the Steelers see a single-high safety, with the Browns moving a safety into the box opposite the tight end. As the Browns have advantageous numbers in the box, Roethlisberger has to hold on to the ball after the snap, diagnose where the weak-side linebacker is going, then hits the slot WR on a slant in a 1v1 matchup with the hole the linebacker has left behind. The CB has poor technique on this play, which leads to a massive gain for the Steelers offense on this RPO.

Disguising the looks from the defense is how Pittsburgh can be beaten from their RPOs. Since the Browns have a single-high safety and they are showing blitz from the weak-side LB, Roethlisberger thinks he’s got a 1v1 to that side of the field, with easy throwing lanes. He pulls the ball from the RB and by the time he’s thrown the ball, the LB has dropped into coverage, where he would have had an opportunity to intercept the ball. Instead, the defensive lineman does a good job getting his hands up and batting the pass.

As I pointed out in my defensive trends and tabulation article, Sutton put multiple looks on tape this week with linebackers showing blitz and dropping into shallow zones to take away quick passes. That’s a great way to help stop some of the Steelers RPOs, and is absolutely something that the Pittsburgh offense is having to account for and adjust to this week leading up to the game.

Mistakes

The Steelers offense makes mistakes. Roethlisberger, in particular, tends to get sloppy with the ball and throws some wildly inaccurate passes. Last week was no exception.

Here’s a look out of the aforementioned 22 personnel for the Steelers. The Browns have a single-high safety, and when the tight end motions, Roethlisberger identifies the coverage as zone. From the snap, Roethlisberger’s always looking deep and Brown targets the gap in the Cover 3 shell, over the top of the backside CB. However, it’s a horrible throw by the quarterback, and due to the deep safety having proper depth, locating the ball is easy for the interception.

The Chiefs struggled with their depth from the deep safety position last week, and a safety that has to chase the wide receiver with his back turned to the quarterback does not allow the location of the ball for an interception. Cleaning that up can lead to big opportunities to turn the tide and put the ball back in the hands of the offense.

On top of some poor throws, Roethlisberger found himself locking on to his safety blanket, Antonio Brown, too often. On this play, the Apex defender does an excellent job staying underneath Brown’s curl route out of the curl/flat combination in the stack. This allows the safety to come up and bracket Brown. Meanwhile, Roethlisberger feels pressure up the middle from the three-man rush and locks on to Brown. Brown moves to find space from out behind the Apex defender, and Roethlisberger rolls right to find him. The corner on the boundary sees this occurring, jumps the route, and there’s a red-zone turnover and points off the board.

Sound initial coverage allowed a three-man rush to panic Roethlisberger and force him to stop scanning the field for an open man, instead relying on an old favorite to get him out of trouble. This made for easy pickings in the secondary and a massive interception in a crucial moment.

The bottom line

The Steelers have excellent offensive weapons at their disposal, something that us Chiefs fans know all too well. Even with Bell out, the Steelers kept pounding the rock all game long with Conner, and that run game has definitely bit the Chiefs in years past.

However, if the Chiefs can keep the run defense active that we saw at the beginning of the Chargers game this past week, especially out of the base defense against 22 personnel, I think we’ll see a shift in philosophy through the game by the Steelers.

While throwing the ball doesn’t seem like the strategy that Sutton and the Chiefs would want to force against a potentially shaky secondary, it’s worth noting that all the looks Sutton brought last week have to be accounted for this week for the Steelers offense.

The unpredictability out of the Chiefs front in the first three quarters against the Chargers may have already limited some of the Steelers playbook this week when throwing the ball.

If the secondary group as a whole can do their jobs better than they did the last couple matchups against Pittsburgh (which, believe it or not, I think they can), Chris Jones can do some damage with his interior pass rush. Coupled with Dee Ford coming off the Chargers game white hot and propensity to play well against the Steelers, the Chiefs might find success getting to Roethlisberger this week.

Sutton will need to call a good game this week, drawing up a scheme to limit the RPOs and stay strong against the run in lighter boxes. Linebacker Anthony Hitchens will need to take good angles to limit yardage on passes caught out of the backfield this week, and the Chiefs cornerbacks, safeties, and linebackers will have to tackle better on crossing routes to prevent third-and-5 yardage from becoming first downs with the Steelers dynamic wide receiver corps.

It’s going to take a full team effort this week to get it done against the Steelers offense.

Let’s hope the defense is up to the task.