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5 things to watch as the Chiefs host the Steelers

In the Chiefs’ most COVID-impacted game of the season, they’ll face a desperate AFC-playoff contender.

Kansas City Chiefs v Pittsburgh Steelers Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

For most of the 2021 season, the Kansas City Chiefs (10-4) were on the good side of “COVID luck” — but it couldn’t last forever.

In Week 16, they will be missing many key players for their home matchup with the Pittsburgh Steelers (7-6-1); with those absences accounted for, the Chiefs are 8.5-point favorites, according to DraftKings Sportsbook. Here is the latest reserve/COVID-19 news, as of Friday afternoon.

I will preview the game as if these Chiefs won’t take the field — which could make this a dogfight.

1. Who to throw to in a shorthanded offense

NFL: OCT 06 Colts at Chiefs Photo by Scott Winters/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

(UPDATE, December 25: Tyreek Hill has cleared COVID-19 protocols and is expected to play vs. Steelers. More information here.)

For the first time since quarterback Patrick Mahomes’ first-career start in the last week of 2017, he is set to potentially play a game without Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce.

Even with the extended time to prepare for such absences, not having the players he throws 48% of his passes to and that take up 55% of his yardage production will be a great challenge to overcome. They will surely emphasize the run game more, but it can’t be every play — and that’s where reserve pass-catchers will have to step up.

At wide receiver, it should be the best time for Mahomes to force the issue with getting Josh Gordon involved. It wasn’t necessary to focus on high-volume efforts for Gordon with the way the team was winning before — but in this game, there’s no reason not to try: none of the receivers around him have proven they can step up with their play this season.

With both Kelce set to miss, a lot will be put on the shoulders of rookie fifth-round pick Noah Gray at tight end. He was gradually getting more involved in the offense as the season progressed, but that workload will be doubled or tripled here. It wouldn’t be surprising to see Gray play close to the most snaps of all skill-position players on Sunday.

2. Blitzing Ben Roethlisberger

NFL: Tennessee Titans at Pittsburgh Steelers Tennessean-USA TODAY Sports

Pittsburgh has done an excellent job scheming around their deficiencies on offense to get to a winning record. One way they make up for quarterback Ben Roethlisberger’s immobility and inexperienced pass protection is to run the quick-passing game — but that can’t be used in every situation.

When the Steelers get into third downs with more than five or so yards to go, it can get ugly with the extended time Roethlisberger has to drop back. Teams have found success blitzing against them, mainly because of the overall pass protection’s inexperience outside of Roethlisberger. The offensive line is young, and rookie running back Najee Harris has looked lost in picking up pressure at times.

As long as he knows where he’s going with the ball, Roethlisberger can beat the blitz — but when he lets the pressure get to him, it becomes disastrous. According to PFF, he has thrown 12 turnover-worthy plays when under pressure this season — the most in the NFL.

With the confusion that defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo creates at the line of scrimmage with his pass-rush packages, they could overwhelm a unit that really struggles to counter in those situations.

3. A more-necessary emphasis to run the ball

NFL: Las Vegas Raiders at Kansas City Chiefs Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

With the passing game severely impacted by COVID absences, this game would be as good a time as ever to truly lean on a ground game designed to create big plays itself, rather than being a time filler between explosive pass plays.

The Steelers certainly have the defense to allow it to happen: for the season, Pittsburgh has allowed the highest rate of yards per carry in the NFL (4.9) and the second-most total rushing yards as well. Over the last two weeks, Pittsburgh has allowed 443 rushing yards even as they’ve gotten players back from injury and the Reserve/COVID list.

However, linebacker Devin Bush was placed on that list this week — which could expose the middle of their defense even further.

All that said, the Chiefs’ rushing attack wasn’t able to do anything against a similarly soft run defense against the Los Angeles Chargers a week ago. It will be even more challenging without Kelce and Hill owning the attention of the Steelers’ game plan; plus, starting right tackle Lucas Niang is currently slated to miss this game — which hurts the run blocking’s effectiveness.

4. Importance of Chiefs’ linebacker performance

NFL: Denver Broncos at Kansas City Chiefs Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

After missing Willie Gay Jr. last week, the Chiefs’ linebacker group got him back — just to have rookie Nick Bolton replace him on the Reserve/COVID list.

This particular game would be nice to have all three guys ready to go. Not only do the Steelers attack with quick throws to the outside, but the offense will also target tight ends and running back Najee Harris over the middle of the field or on quick throws to the flat. That’s where the sideline-to-sideline range of Gay will come in handy.

At the same time, the Steelers will still push to establish a run game with Harris — which hasn’t been effective this season. That’s not at the fault of Harris, though, and that’s why it’s still important the linebackers tackle soundly and clean up run stops after the defensive line does its job, or Harris will make them pay — especially if Bolton isn’t there to help.

5. Featuring the running backs as pass catchers

NFL: Kansas City Chiefs at Los Angeles Chargers Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Even with Kelce and Hill on the field, we’ve seen running backs Clyde Edwards-Helaire and Darrel Williams receive an uptick in their usage as pass-catchers. Over the last four games, Clyde has the third-most targets on the team — while Williams has the fourth-most catches and yards.

That part of both players’ games will be needed even more in this matchup. The Steelers aren’t going to allow much time for Mahomes to throw from the pocket — especially with Niang’s absence leading to a matchup between Andrew Wylie and Steelers’ edge rusher T.J. Watt. Even when he does, he won’t have his most trusted targets getting open for him.

That will likely lead to many quick targets to the running back group, which could also take advantage of the weakest position on Pittsburgh’s defense: the linebackers.

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