Chiefs vs. Steelers Game Preview: Scheme Spotlight, Matchups to Watch, and More
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The Kansas City Chiefs (10-4) and Pittsburgh Steelers (7-6-1) meet at Arrowhead Stadium on Sunday with a 3:25 pm CST kickoff in the final regular season game at home for the Chiefs.
Here’s what you need to know:
The Pittsburgh Steelers offense hasn’t been one that the rest of the NFL has feared much of the 2021 season but they still can present some level of threat. Ben Roethlisberger sits with the lowest time to throw of any quarterback in the NFL, meaning he is getting the football out quickly and consistently.
That’s not where the danger lies with the Steelers offense. The Chiefs would be wise to let the Steelers try to execute short, quick passes for an entire drive and an entire game to score points. No, it’s the shot plays that the Steelers call up that present the most dangerous challenge for the Chiefs’ defense.
Defending the Shot Plays
Every team runs different variations of shot plays. Some teams will include heavy play-action, some teams will combine multiple vertical routes, some attack vertically, and others prefer to attack diagonally across the field. The Steelers choose the most rudimentary option here and simply rely on one-on-one Go routes on the outside.
The speed and tracking ability of James Washington and the speed and size of Chase Claypool make two really good vertical threats on the outside. The Steelers like to lob up deep shots on these Nine or Fade routes when they get that isolated coverage on the outside.
These still aren’t long lasting plays as the ball is often out in under 2.5 seconds. Roethlisberger is taking the pre-snap look he likes, getting a quick check post-snap to make sure nothing changes, and the ball is coming out as soon as he hits his drop no matter what the receiver-corner matchup is looking like. So the question is how do the Chiefs stop it?
The first and most obvious answer is to simply play well at outside cornerback, surprising I know. Getting Charvarius Ward and Mike Hughes to win at the line of scrimmage and disrupt routes even a little bit will make a huge impact on these types of plays. It doesn’t have to be a massive jam or blanket coverage, just make the wide receiver a half-second late or a couple yards off their preferred track. When they get to the catch point, they have to be very detailed in playing the football because the Steelers are often looking to draw defensive pass interference on these plays.
From a scheme standpoint the other option is offering up some natural bracket coverage over the top. The Chiefs have been a significant 2-high safety team over recent weeks but this is a week that going single high and adding players to the box count can help. The trick is still keeping help on the back-end vs these outside vertical shots and the answer could lie in some Quarter-Quarter-Half coverage.
The Chiefs offense has seen a ton of this QQH coverage - one deep defender playing a team half on one side of the field while the opposite safety and corner play a deep fourth - and it allows a team to comfortably keep help over the top to one side. Since the ‘Quarter’ safety isn’t playing deep half coverage, he is more ready to pick up a shallow receiver in man coverage, assist vs the run, or help on anything breaking intermediate over the middle of the field.
Regardless of how the Chiefs plan to stop the Steelers, one big key is going to not give up explosive plays to an offense that is desperate for them. The Steelers will swing for lower-percentage plays and it’s up to the defense to be prepared.
Chiefs Face Must Win Game Despite COVID Protocols
It remains to be seen exactly who will be on the field for the Chiefs when they play the Steelers on Sunday afternoon. Thursday Night Football’s results guarantee that whoever suits up in Kansas City will be playing in a must win game.
The hope for the Chiefs was that the Titans would lose to the Niners last night. That would be one of two teams that needs to get another loss on the ledger for them to have some padding in their pursuit of the one seed in the AFC.
If the Titans and Patriots lose a game at any point the rest of the regular season, the Chiefs can lose one of their final three games. That security blanket sure would be nice to have considering the Chiefs’ top two pass catchers — Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce — currently are in COVID protocol.
The dilemma the Chiefs face this week is exactly why fans should hope for increased margin for error. They do not hold the tie breaker for the one seed against either the Titans or Patriots.
The good news for the Chiefs is that it looks like most if not all of the defense will be in tact for Sunday’s game. The unit has done the heavy lifting during this seven game winning streak. The offense they will line up against is nothing special.
Offensively, the hope is that they’re able to do enough to support their strong defense. That can certainly be easier said than done if Hill and Kelce don’t play.
The difficult climb out of the hole the Chiefs dug themselves with their 3-4 start is complete — now they sit back in the driver’s seat and need to maintain as the hunted for three more games. Unless, of course, they get a little help.
Matchup to Watch: Cameron Heyward vs. Chiefs IOL
The focus this week will likely (and should) be on T.J. Watt against the Chiefs offensive tackles. Watt has been outstanding this season and has beaten the best of the best throughout the year. He’s one of the few defensive players in the NFL that can be classified as a “game-wrecker” and deserves the extra attention given to him by the opposition’s blocking scheme. Unfortunately for the offense, when that extra attention is granted to Watt, that gives more opportunities to another one of the Steelers’ elite defenders: Cameron Heyward.
Heyward is a massive presence on the inside that has the power to crush the pocket and re-set the line of scrimmage, as well as the speed to knife into the backfield. The Steelers’ 3-4 scheme and sub package rotations mean that Heyward will line up anywhere from five-technique to the head-up with the center, meaning he’ll get matchups all over the Chiefs offensive line.
However, the best matchups for Heyward will likely come against the interior of the Chiefs offensive line. Joe Thuney, Creed Humphrey, and Trey Smith should all have their hands full with the blend of speed and power that Heyward brings. While Thuney is well versed in dealing with this combination, the two rookies could have specific issues with Heyward’s strengths.
Humphrey has largely handled strong interior rushers well this year, but his biggest struggles have come from the sort of relentless power that Heyward brings for the entire 60 minutes. Humphrey has had reps where he was walked back into the pocket a bit too easily against some power rushers. Conversely, Smith has handled power well this season, but has struggled to keep his hips in front of quicker defenders, leading to easy penetration, free rushers, or holding calls.
The Steelers will likely attempt to target the Chiefs rookie defenders with Heyward in the hopes that he can crush the pocket and make Mahomes uncomfortable. It will be up to the rookies to stand up to the challenge and keep their quarterback at ease. If they can’t, it could be a long day of Mahomes trying to escape with an elite EDGE rusher lurking out the back of the pocket.