It’s finally playoff time, and the Chiefs will start what they hope to be an extended stretch of postseason play with a Wild Card Weekend matchup with the Pittsburgh Steelers.
The Steelers finished second in the AFC North with a 9-7-1 record. Pittsburgh’s 2021 point differential is -55 — which is the league’s 10th-lowest mark. Incredibly, it isn’t the lowest of playoff teams: the Las Vegas Raiders finished at -65.
On offense, they lean on the passing game — because they possess one of football’s least-efficient rushing attacks. Running back Najee Harris had the NFL’s second-most carries this season, yet ranked 37th in yards per carry among qualified players. The team’s top pass catcher was wide receiver Diontae Johnson, who led the team in all receiving categories.
Defensively, edge rusher T.J. Watt totaled 22.5 sacks this season — tying New York Giants legend Michael Strahan for the NFL single-season record. Defensive linemen Cameron Heyward finished with 10 sacks and a team-leading nine passes defended. The biggest playmaker in the back seven is safety Minkah Fitzpatrick. He led the team in tackles — while also forcing three turnovers and breaking up seven pass attempts.
As you’ll remember from the Week 16 matchup, the Steelers’ passing offense depends on getting the ball out of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger’s hands as quickly as possible — which is backed up by Pro Football Focus measuring his time-to-throw as the league’s shortest. This is required because of the team’s shaky offensive line; longer-developing plays are consistently blown up because Pittsburgh offensive linemen cannot hold back pass rushers for very long.
The Steelers have been able to get this far because of players like Diontae Johnson, who excels at gaining yards after the catch. He had the sixth-most YAC this season — while also forcing the seventh-most missed tackles among wide receivers. Those skills have turned him into Roethlisberger’s most-relied-upon target.
If I'm the Steelers, I'm getting the ball to my best play makers in space as much as possible— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) January 13, 2022
Diontae Johnson is great at creating separation on quick passes, and one of their favorites is what I call a whip route#Chiefs outside CBs' change of direction skills will be tested pic.twitter.com/3FScLidHuJ
Johnson can catch a deep pass — like this one over Kansas City cornerback Mike Hughes in Week 16 — but the limits of Roethlisberger’s arm force 64% of Johnson’s targets to come within nine yards of the line of scrimmage. That means the back end of the Chiefs’ secondary will have to rally quickly and make strong tackles — which is something they struggled to during the final two games of the regular season.
The other play maker they need to spam in the pass game is Najee Harris. I say pass game cause it's no secret that traditional handoffs haven't been efficient for them— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) January 13, 2022
Any way to get Harris in space 1v1 with a #Chiefs LB or even S is a good plan for Pittsburgh pic.twitter.com/Oh25S97sUz
Harris also needs the ball in his hands quickly — but not in the traditional way running backs get the ball. Handing it off has been extremely inefficient for Pittsburgh — and frankly, throwing the ball to Harris has also been inefficient. Yet getting him in open space is the team’s best bet to get big plays that lead to points.
Pittsburgh’s game plan should feature throwing the ball to Harris on any play where they can identify that he’ll be in man coverage against linebackers like Anthony Hitchens or Ben Niemann — and with the volume of blitzes the Chiefs are likely to run, this should happen naturally.
In Week 16, Pittsburgh’s pass-rushing unit failed to make a significant impact on the game; it was a huge reason the Chiefs’ offense operated so comfortably. But on Sunday, Kansas City can’t expect the same.
The last time around, edge defender T.J. Watt was dealing with a rib injury — one that sidelined him for nearly half of the defensive snaps. Usually, Watt is playing nearly 90% of the snaps — and likely will be in this game. His increased impact can only help players like Heyward and edge rusher Alex Highsmith — who gave Chiefs’ left tackle Orlando Brown Jr. trouble during the last matchup.
In Week 16, the Steelers could only get pressure on eight of quarterback Patrick Mahomes’ 32 dropbacks — but Mahomes completed none of his six passes in those plays; the other two dropbacks turned into sacks. If the Steelers’ pass rushers can simply win their matchups more often, it would naturally make things more difficult for the Chiefs’ offense.
In the last game, Pittsburgh’s defense was also shorthanded at linebacker, where COVID forced Devin Bush — who had been playing nearly 90% of each game’s snaps — to miss the game. He’s a much more reliable tackler than the other Steelers linebackers — and has broken up four passes.
In the back end, the Steelers have a nice trio of playmakers: Fitzpatrick and cornerbacks Cameron Sutton and Ahkello Witherspoon — who has allowed a passer rating of 28.5 as a starter since he returned from injury in Week 11.
Over the last month — outside of the Chiefs game — the Pittsburgh defense has found a recipe for success. In the other three games, it hasn’t allowed over 14 points.
The bottom line
The Steelers can’t bank on winning exclusively with their defense; to an extent, they have to be able to score — and their best chance of doing so is getting the ball into the hands of their best two open-space playmakers: Johnson and Harris. They both have the talent to win individual matchups.
The defense will have to limit the Chiefs — and the best way of doing so is for the pass rush to consistently win on the line of scrimmage. If Mahomes can be pressured, the Steelers’ secondary has the players to take advantage — but those same players absolutely can (and will) be exploited if the pass rush can’t get home.