The Pittsburgh Steelers walked in to Kansas City’s Arrowhead Stadium following a humiliating home defeat at the hands of the Jacksonville Jaguars, that opened questions about who they are and what they’re legitimately able to accomplish this season.
- Their opponent, the Kansas City Chiefs, was playing at home with an 5-0 record and a claim to “best team so far.”
In short, things weren’t expected to get any easier for the Steelers. And they didn’t get any easier. But the Steelers walked out of Kansas City with a 19-13 win and Steelers Nation can count this as one victory where the means to a “W” are just as important as the win itself.
Steelers Define Identity Part I: Defense
By any measure, the Kansas City Chiefs figured to offer the Steelers defense a stiff test. Arrowhead Stadium is one of the NFL’s toughest venues to play. Their quarterback Alex Smith would win the NFL’s MVP award in a landslide were the voting head prior to today and their running back Kareem Hunt was leading the NFL in rushing yards.
In contrast, commentators both inside and outside of Pittsburgh had suggested that the Steelers defense was set to broach elite status, only to see Keith Butler‘s boys get gouged on the ground in Chicago and again against Jacksonville.
The Chiefs gift wrapped 2 points to the Steelers with an errant snap that flew through the end zone, but Pittsburgh gift wrapped them right back by muffing the ensuing punt. If the script from the previous four games was to be followed, instead of starting the game 9, or even 10 to zero, the Steelers would instead start it 7-2.
- But this Steelers defense took the field intent on writing its own script.
The Steelers defense yielded only a handful of yards, forcing the Chiefs to settle for a field goal. Instead staring at 7-2, the Steelers got the ball back only looking at a 1 point deficit. And that was the story of the first three and a half quarters. The Steelers defense went into the home of the NFL’s most potent offense and proceeded to:
- Hold the Chiefs to under 250 yards, which includes their late game surge
- Not allow a first down until the tail end of the first half
- Neuter Kareem Hunt, holding him to 21 yards
- Rip a would be touchdown on 4th and goal out of the receiver’s hands
- Unleash James Harrison to sack Alex Smith on the second to last play of the game
What stands out when looking at the stats is that the Steelers did this without forcing a turnover, and by only sacking the quarterback twice prior to the final drive. While Artie Burns had some smart pass breakups and Mike Hilton was devastating behind the line of scrimmage, the Steelers defense shut down the NFL’s number one offense without a lot of “Splash plays.”
The Steelers defense was far from perfect. Kansas City’s lone touchdown drive came much too easily, with missed tackles galore. Comparisons to the ’85 Bears remain a ways off. But against the Chiefs, the Steelers defense proved it can close tight games on the road against a high-octane octane offense playing in one of the NFL’s loudest stadiums.
That ladies and gentleman, represents a significant step forward for this young Steelers defense.
Steelers Define Identity Part II: Offense
It is no secret that something has been missing from the Steelers offense thus far in 2017. Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown, Le’Veon Bell and Martavis Bryant were supposed to give the NFL its most fearsome offensive quartet this side of Terry Bradshaw, Lynn Swann, Franco Harris and John Stallworth.
- 30 points a game was supposed to be a floor, not a ceiling.
The Steelers victory over the Chiefs didn’t come close to transforming that 30 point margin from a pipedream into a reality. But the Steelers offense nonetheless found something important with their win over the Chiefs:
- They reestablished the run, and they did it with Le’Veon Bell looking like he did a year ago.
While Ben Roethlisberger has born the brunt of the criticism for the Steelers offensive woes thus far, number 7 was far from the only player who was under performing. Thus far this year, Le’Veon Bell has looked average at times, good at others, but he hasn’t flashed anything like the Hall of Fame talent that was so evident just one season ago.
- That changed against the Chiefs, and changed to the tune of 179 yards on 32 carries.
Indeed, going into the half, Bell had more yards than the entire Kansas City offense. Bell’s wasn’t the only running back to shine. James Conner got two carries, and looked sharp running the ball, and Terrell Watson converted a third and short.
- The Steelers also reestablished the run without falling into the trap of being one-dimensional.
Ben Roethlisberger’s 26 yard pass to Vance McDonald while standing in his own end zone might have been the most important completion of the afternoon. With that said, balance still eludes the Steelers offense. While he did manage to hit Martavis Bryant and JuJu Smith-Schuster, the success of the Steelers passing game largely hinged on Ben Roethlisberger’s ability to connect with Antonio Brown.
- Roethlisberger did that often enough and, quite frankly, can thank his lucky stars that he has someone as talented as Number 84 to catch his passes.
By and large the beauty of the day came in the fact that the Kansas City Chiefs knew that Le’Veon Bell was going to get the ball and get it often. More often than not, they failed because the Steelers imposed their will.
Time for Steelers to Take Step Forward Not Back
The Steelers responded to an ugly loss to the Bears with a convincing win over the Ravens. Two weeks later they responded to an uglier loss to the Jaguars with a hard fought win against the Chiefs. Perhaps what was most important was the way the Steelers responded:
- By reestablishing their identity as a physical team on both sides of the ball.
That amounts to a step forward for Mike Tomlin’s team, but it is a step forward that the Steelers must sustain. A win next week over the Cincinnati Bengals will go a long way defining whether the 2017 Steelers are a team that mumbles in mediocrity or one that asserts its will.