Late on Sunday afternoon, the Pittsburgh Steelers (3-2) will walk onto the field at Arrowhead Stadium – one of the loudest arenas in the NFL – to face a Kansas City Chiefs team that is unbeaten and ready for a fight after losing to the Steelers twice in 2016. As the lone undefeated team in the league, the Chiefs have a big target on them and they’ve seen Pittsburgh unseat them, even when they’ve been favored to come away victorious, before.
Scores to settle
In the 32 games these two teams have played each other (including twice during the postseason), the Steelers have been the victors 22 of 11 times; last season winning at Heinz Field by a score of 43-14, before the postseason game in Kansas City where they beat the Chiefs by a narrow margin, 18-16. The playoff loss was a heartbreaker for the Chiefs, especially after holding the Steelers to Chris Boswell’s record six field goals and no trips into the end zone.
Head coach Andy Reid is the type of coach who tries to out-think his opponents, strategizing as the game unfolds, adjusting and adapting. The Chiefs started their season 5-0 for the second time in the past five years, and see the Steelers as being in their way to an AFC Championship. Reid will have his team prepared, having handed DeShaun Watson and the Houston Texans a loss and watching the Jacksonville Jaguars embarrass Pittsburgh last week.
If we look back at last season, though, we'll see that Pittsburgh is in a very familiar situation. Last year, before facing the Chiefs, the Steelers lost in humiliating fashion to the Philadelphia Eagles, 34-3. This year, Steelers fans are hoping to see their team take out their frustrations by positively beating Kansas City - on the road.
The one big x-factor for the Chiefs is their special teams; both in returns as well as field goals.
Chiefs on offense
It would not be an overstatement to say that the Chiefs have a very good, balanced offense. Where they previously struggled to finish games last season, that hasn't been the case this season. Quarterback Alex Smith has played highly efficient football and has yet to throw an interception in 1,391 passing yards (76.6 completion percentage). He has also found a target 11 times for a touchdown. His yards-per-attempt numbers are up, too: 8.8 yards.
Running back Kareem Hunt has been the stabilizing force, allowing Smith to spread out his passing with a healthy mix of ground game. Hunt enters Sunday's game as not only the best rookie running back of the 2017 regular season but as the top rusher in the NFL. Hunt has carried the ball 609 yards on 97 carries (6.3 yards-per-carry average) for four touchdowns. He has proved versatile in bouncing out of the offensive backfield to make a catch, as well, recording 16 receptions for 166 yards (10.4 yards-per-reception average) and two touchdowns.
If Travis Kelce is a scratch on Sunday, the Chiefs will lean more on Demetrius Harris and Ross Travis at tight end. Chris Conley suffered an Achilles injury (final status unknown at this time) and will look for more receiving production from Demarcus Robinson and Tyreek Hill.
The Steelers enter the game with the top passing defense in the league (allowing just 139.6 yards per game). The defense is fourth in the league with 276.2 yards allowed per game, but the Jaguars were able to put together 231 yards on the ground thanks to Leonard Fournette's 181 yards (90 of which came on a single run). Against the Bears, the Steelers allowed 222 yards of run offense...and lost.
There's still something not quite 'right' about the run defense, even though they've been applying a healthy amount of pressure on opponents' offensive lines. Mainly gap assignment and not playing what has been assigned and overpursuing. Expect the Chiefs to try to take advantage on the ground, even if the Steelers make changes to the depth chart. And if they can't get Hunt rolling in the run game, they'll use his skills as an extra receiving target.
Chiefs on defense
The Chiefs defense has been tested week after week, but not against a team with as many potential big weapons as Pittsburgh. Granted, the Patriots were a test, but New England did not have as much power or personnel on the field in Week 1. The Chiefs don't have as heavy a pass rush that they relied on in the past and they are still vulnerable in run 'D' themselves, mainly due to injuries to key players.
The last time the Chiefs faced the Steelers, Le'Veon Bell was running all over them - 170 yards on 30 attempts in the rain. This season, he is fifth in the NFL with 371 rushing yards (3.6 yards per carry) and 144 receiving yards. Although Bell wasn't given the ball - surprisingly - as much against a weak Jaguars run defense, this may be the week to allow him to pound the ball and get the ship righted.
Yes, Justin Houston is still dangerous from the edge, but he didn't practice on Wednesday due to calf spasms. That isn't likely to keep him out of the big game, but it may play a factor in how well he is able to move on game-day. Safety Steven Terrell is in concussion protocol and defensive lineman Bennie Logan has been limited due to a knee injury.
The Chiefs are tied for second in the league for 20+ yard receiving plays allowed in 2017 with 14 entering this game. That isn't to say that they don't have value in their defensive backfield, however. Defensive back Marcus Peters may only have one interception on the season, but he has been playing smart. Whether he is in man-coverage or zone, Peters sniffs out the ball and will be someone the Steelers need to game-plan for.
Where Kansas City has shined is in not making too many costly mistakes. They've allowed their offense to get ahead of their opponents and that has allowed the defense to sit back into more of a prevent style in the second half of games. Pittsburgh isn't likely to go down that easily and will present more options across the board that the Chiefs will have to account for.