Week 16 of the 2014 NFL season finds the Pittsburgh Steelers facing an important crossroads. With 9 wins the Steelers already have a winning season for the first time since 2011 and victory vs. the Chiefs will secure their first playoff berth since that same year.
Past Struggles vs. Chiefs Signaled Trouble for Steelers
The Chiefs are a fitting opponent for the Steelers at this juncture, as match up vs. Kansas City served as milestones on the route to 8-8.
The Steelers and Chiefs played each other in 2011. And while Pittsburgh took an 8-3 record into Arrowhead and left with a 9-3 record, the Steelers left a lot to be desired. Todd Haley’s offense was down to its third quarterback, Tyler Plako for those keeping notes, and could only manage 3 Ryan Succop field goals.
Field goal kicking was in vogue that night. The Chiefs and Steelers kicked five field goals that night, and four of them were from 40 yards or longer. Steelers trivia buffs will note that it was in that game that Weslye Saunders scored his first and only (thus far) touchdown. Antonio Brown, Hines Ward, Emmanuel Sanders, and Mike Wallace combined for 144 yards, or the same amount that Brown alone had vs. Baltimore this year.
- The Steelers didn’t so much beat the Chiefs that night as escape from Arrowhead.
Yes, the Steelers would win four of their next five games, but they limped into the playoffs, where they promptly got Teebowed.
In 2012 it was Kansas City’s turn to travel as they brought their 1-8 record to Pittsburgh. Meanwhile, the Steelers had just knocked off the defending Super Bowl Champion New York Giants, and looked to be hitting their stride.
- Instead, the Kansas City game was the beginning of a second half stumble.
Ben Roethlisberger got injured during the game, and that injury impacted him and the Steelers for the rest of the season. But even taking that into account, the Steelers never should have struggled as they did against the Chiefs.
After racking up 147 yards against New York, Isaac Redman could only manage 21 that night
Jerricho Cotchery, Mike Wallace and Emmanuel Sanders combined yardage total was 66 yards
Jamaal Charles rushed for precisely 100 yards back when the Steelers didn’t allow 100 yard rushers – and worse yet, he slogged it out.
- The Steelers improved their record to 6-3 by beating the Chiefs in overtime, but by the next time Ben Roethlisberger played a complete game, they’d doubled their losses and only added 1 more win.
The Steelers and Chiefs didn’t play in the 2013 regular season, but they did in preseason. The Steelers had looked bad in losing their first two preseason games, managing just 13 points in each. Steelers Nation heard “Its only preseason” mantra but Kansas City brought preseason game number three, the game where the starters see the most time.
- The best that the Steelers starters could manage was a 10-10 tie.
Pittsburgh actually held a lead going into the 4th quarter, but the Chiefs tied it, and then scored a touchdown in overtime. (Steelers trivia buffs can note that Kion Wilson closed regulation by sacking Chase Daniel.)
Again “Its only preseason” was the word both that week and the loss that followed. Mike Tomlin shrugged off criticism saying he was going to cut most of the players responsible for the 0-4 preseason.
It sounded good, but he and Kevin Colbert betrayed their true thoughts with a raft of roster moves after the final cut down day as an 0-4 preseason signaled an 0-4 regular season. To top it all off, the 2013 Steelers playoff hopes came down to a missed field goal by the Chiefs Ryan Succop and a blown call on a fake punt…
Steelers vs. Chiefs = Gut Check Time for Tomlin’s Team
…But that was then. This is now.
Unlike the ’13 meaningless preseason contest or ’11 and ’12 where Kansas City was playing for pride, this Chiefs have a shot at the postseason and come to Pittsburgh prepared play for all of the marbles.
In both 2012 and 2013 the Steelers held onto playoff chances into late December, but in both years they were more playoff dreams rather than legitimate aspirations.
- This year, something is different. The Steelers not only control their own fate; they also are carrying themselves with a certain swagger.
The press seems to be picking up on this too, as indicated by Jim Wexell’s tweet:
Tomlin has me fired up. the way he has so many players fighting and working for playing time. Tremendous job building this team this year.
— James C Wexell (@jimwexell) December 16, 2014
The press tried to spin a similar story around the Steelers last Thanksgiving. Dejan Kovacevic, then with the Pittsburgh Tribune Review then, praised Tomlin as the “One voice [that] was heard after London” as the Steelers dug themselves out of an 0-4 hole to arrive in Baltimore with a shot at reaching .500 and a foothold in the AFC North race.
- After a valiant effort, the Steelers came up short vs. the Ravens.
But Jim Wexell’s right. Tomlin is doing something differently here. As Steel Curtain Rising noted before, the Saints game marked a “Get the band back together” moment for Ike Taylor, Brett Keisel, Troy Polamalu, and James Harrison. Of course that reunion was short lived.
- Keisel’s injury appears to have sparked a turning point for Tomlin.
James Harrison hasn’t played since. Ike Tayor didn’t last a full game. Either men could play vs. the Chiefs, but Tomlin’s clearly looking to the next generation. And he’s not handing anything to anyone. Just ask Ryan Shazier, Shamarko Thomas or even Marcus Gilbert.
- By my count, only 18 players remain from the 2011 playoff squad (I did see a count of 22 elsewhere.)
This is a new generation of Steelers seeking their own identity. And they can take their own step in foraging their own legacy by beating a formidable Chiefs team. They’d better be ready, because Andy Reid, Alex Smith, Jamaal Charles and Justin Houston have similar thoughts.