The final matchup of the Divisional Round of the NFL Playoffs is a rematch of Week 4, a game that the Pittsburgh Steelers will try to replicate and the Kansas City Chiefs have been trying to forget.
That game, which was a 43-14 blowout, was the first in which the Steelers had their three-headed monster – Ben Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell, and Antonio Brown – on the field. In an uncharacteristically poor performance, the Chiefs turned the ball over twice and gave up five plays of 30+ yards.
The Steelers have been a prolific but balanced offensive attack, especially when their three big players play together. Pittsburgh’s offense generates a big play of 25 or more yards on 8.58 percent of their plays, good for seventh best in the league. The ninth ranked offense in terms of DVOA (a stat which measures efficiency based on how and when points and yards are accumulated) starts with the rush attack, Le’Veon Bell accumulated 1,268 yards running and 616 yards receiving despite only playing 12 games this season. His mix of power, speed, and patience will be a handful for Kansas City’s 26th ranked rush defense.
Bell drew attention this week after comparing himself to NBA star Steph Curry - as a "game changer" revolutionizing their respective sports. While it might be a stretch to compare the two and their very different sports, Bell was more accurately and favorably compared to Marcus Allen (who played for the Raiders and the Chiefs) by the hall of fame running back himself earlier in the week.
“I had patience, but [Bell] might even have a little bit more,” Me. Allen told the Los Angeles Times. “I think he’s the best back in the game because of his versatility, things he can do, where he can line up in various situations.”
Meanwhile, the Pittsburgh defense features a group of athletic and versatile players who limit big plays. Lawrence Timmons, Ryan Shazier, and Mike Mitchell are playmakers up the middle, capable of stopping the run and covering tight ends and running backs. The ageless wonder James Harrison continues to be a force, racking up 5.0 sacks, an interception and a forced fumble. The Steelers are excellent at keeping plays in front of them, and against Kansas City’s dink-and-dunk attack, the Steelers will look to minimize the after-the-catch yardage of the Chiefs.
Although Chiefs’ quarterback Alex Smith continues to shy away from throwing long, the Chiefs put their playmakers in positions to generate yards creatively. Tight end Travis Kelcie has been the Chief’s most productive offensive player, but Tyreke Hill has been the team’s most explosive. Hill, described as a wide receiver only as a formality, has scored in a variety of ways, including through the passing game, running the ball, and returning. In all, 54 percent of Hill and Kelcie’s yards have come from yards after the catch. If Pittsburgh can limit these plays, the Chiefs offense may spend long stretches of the game stagnant.
Defensively, the Chiefs will have their full complement of pass rushers to try and wreak havoc against Big Ben. Justin Houston is back from injury and is a disruptor, while Chris Jones and Tamba Hali are each capable of winning their one-on-one matchups and getting to the quarterback. Dee Ford has come on as of late, using his speed to free up Houston on the inside. The four pass rushers have combined for 19.5 sacks and their pass rush allows their opportunistic secondary to be aggressive and force turnovers.
The matchup to watch will be the Chiefs' Travis Kelcie against linebacker Ryan Shazier. Kelcie is Pro Football Focus’ No. 1 ranked tight end, and he finished first in the NFL in TE receiving yards. Kelcie is especially dangerous when he builds a full head of steam, finishing fourth at his position in missed tackles. Shazier has the speed to stay with Kelcie, but may struggle against the big tight end in the red zone.
This is going to be back-and-forth contest that will likely come down to the fourth quarter. The Steelers have the weapons to create big plays, but Kansas City has the pass rush to shorten the time Roethlisberger has to find the big one. Our pick is for Kansas City to eek out a close one Sunday night and advance to the Conference Championship.