For all the Pittsburgh Steelers’ superlative offensive talent, the unlikely hero of their divisional-round win over the Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday was placekicker Chris Boswell. His perfect six-for-six outing on a rain-slicked Arrowhead Stadium field helped the Steelers become just the sixth NFL team to win a playoff game without scoring a touchdown, per Pro Football Reference.
The win obscured some troubling issues for the Steelers: Why couldn’t they get in the end zone against the Chiefs, a team the Steelers put 43 points on in October? And if they couldn’t score against the Chiefs, how are they going to against the New England Patriots, the league’s stoutest scoring defense?
The Steelers’ inability to finish drives has been a minor issue all season long. Despite finishing seventh in yards gained, they ranked 10th in points scored. . Their red-zone touchdown rate (55.4 percent) ranked just 14th in the NFL. It didn’t help that red-zone protection has been a specialty of the Chiefs’ defense; Kansas City allowed touchdowns from inside their 20-yard line at the fourth-lowest rate in the NFL.
Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers’ four other offensive Pro Bowlers crossed the Chiefs’ 30-yard line five times and were denied on every one of those drives. Not only did they fail to make big plays in the red zone, they nearly failed to make any plays at all: From inside the Chiefs’ 30, Roethlisberger completed six of 15 passes for just nine yards, converted zero first downs through the air, committed his only turnover and surrendered his only sack.
To understand the Steelers’ red-zone struggles, let’s look at their first drive, when they advanced from their own 30-yard line to the Chiefs’ 4. Three strong runs by tailback Le’Veon Bell set up 2nd-and-2 from the Chiefs’ five-yard line. Watch as pass-rusher Justin Houston (No. 50) stands up at the snap and shadows Bell out of the backfield:
Roethlisberger goes through his reads, pump-fakes to Bell, looks back over the middle of the field, gets flushed out of the pocket and ultimately throws it out of bounds toward a well-covered Bell. Roethlisberger recognized immediately that Bell was covered, but the Chiefs’ aggressive man coverage took all other options away.
By any standard, Bell had a monster day. His 170 rushing yards broke his own franchise playoff record. But Bell’s usually a monster as a receiver out of the backfield, too, and the Chiefs held him to just two catches for a net loss of 4 yards on five targets. After the first play of the game, all four of Bell’s other receiving targets came within the Chiefs’ 30-yard line — it’s clear the Chiefs expected this Steelers red-zone staple.
Now the Steelers are about to face the Patriots in the AFC championship game — and the Pats defense does what the Chiefs do, only better. The Pats “bent” far less than the Chiefs, allowing an average of 42 fewer yards per game. And they “broke” far less often, too, allowing points on a league-low 26.7 percent of drives (the Chiefs rank 10th at 33.5 percent).
If there’s hope for the Steelers, it’s in the difference between the Chiefs’ and Patriots’ strengths on defense. Football Outsiders charted the Patriots as being better against No. 2 receivers, while the Chiefs did much better than the Patriots against No. 1 receivers and running backs. That means Bell could have a little more room, and that Antonio Brown, Pittsburgh’s No. 1 receiver, will likely be important to the Steelers’ offense in the red zone.
In the red zone, defenders don’t fear getting beaten deep because there’s no field behind them. To counter this, Steelers offensive coordinator Todd Haley spreads multiple wideouts across the line to give Roethlisberger many short-range options — but against the Chiefs that put pressure on the Steelers pass-catchers to win their one-on-one matchups.
Brown often matched up against Kansas City’s first-team All-Pro cornerback Marcus Peters, and struggled to get open in short-field situations — and when he did, as in this crucial red-zone 3rd-and-7, Roethlisberger flat-out missed him:
Maybe Roethlisberger is a little sharper against the Patriots. Maybe Brown has an easier time getting open against Patriots defensive backs Logan Ryan and Devin McCourty than he did against Peters and Chiefs safety Eric Berry. Maybe the Patriots don’t spy Bell out of the backfield, or a Pats linebacker like Kyle Van Noy doesn’t shadow Bell as well as Houston did.
Over the regular season, the Chiefs ranked slightly higher in red-zone touchdown defense (fourth, 45.6 percent) than the Patriots (eighth, 51.1 percent). But over each team’s last three regular-season games, the Patriots rank second in the league with a red-zone touchdown allowance rate of just 28.6 percent; that’s one slot higher than Kansas City (third, 30 percent).
If Pats defensive coordinator Matt Patricia follows the Chiefs’ blueprint for keeping the Steelers out of the end zone, the Steelers might want to consider another strategy: Just let Bell run. Go back to the Steelers’ first drive against the Chiefs: Bell picked up six, 11 and eight yards on three consecutive carries before two unsuccessful pass attempts turned 2nd-and-2 from the Chiefs’ 5-yard line into a field goal.
It’s unlikely that Bell will break another of his own rushing records. New England finished third in rushing yards allowed and fourth in rush-defense DVOA. But the Pro Bowler has been extremely effective all season. If the spread-and-shred keeps stalling the Steelers at the short end of the field, they should try finishing drives by letting the guy who got them that far pull all the way into the end zone.
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