Back in Week 4, the Pittsburgh Steelers hung 43 points on the Kansas City Chiefs*. It was their best offensive performance of the season. They were up 22-0 before the end of the first quarter and 29-0 at halftime. They piled up 436 yards of offense and had three different touchdown drives of 75 yards or more. Ben Roethlisberger was on fire all night and ultimately wound up completing 22 of 27 passes for 300 yards and five scores.
This Sunday, he'll try to repeat that performance, only in a game with far greater stakes.
- Who: Pittsburgh Steelers (11-5) at Kansas City Chiefs (12-4)
- When: Sunday, Jan. 15, 8:20 p.m. ET (NBC)
- Where: Arrowhead Stadium, Kansas City, Mo.
- Latest line: The Chiefs are 1.5-point favorites, according to SportsLine
In pondering whether Roethlisberger can have as much success against the Chiefs on Sunday night as he did early this season, it's worth reviewing exactly how that 300-yard, five touchdown performance came together and whether the conditions that allowed for it are likely to be the same in the rematch.
As always, personnel and injuries will be key
First, there's the matter of personnel. The Steelers have left guard Ramon Foster back for this game, further fortifying an offensive line that held up extremely well the first time around. They also have slot receiver Eli Rogers back in the lineup, giving Roethlisberger another target with which to pierce the Kansas City secondary. Ladarius Green is listed as doubtful and seems likely to miss this game, just as he missed the first matchup, but the Steelers have nevertheless been operating out of multi-tight end sets more often of late, with David Johnson getting several more snaps alongside Jesse James.
One of Roethlisberger's primary targets in Week 4 was Sammie Coates, who broke out with six catches for 79 yards and even worked over Marcus Peters a bunch of times during that game. He's not been playing nearly as many snaps since getting injured shortly after that breakout game, though, and Pittsburgh has been splitting his role between Darrius Heyward-Bey, Cobi Hamilton, and Demarcus Ayers.
The Kansas City defense is also likely to be working with significantly different personnel on the field. Neither of their two starting inside linebackers from the end of the season, Terrance Smith and Ramik Wilson, played a single snap in Week 4. D.J. Alexander, who seems like to see snaps inside as well, played just one snap in that game.
Jaye Howard and Allen Bailey are no longer in the mix, but rookie defensive lineman Chris Jones is now getting significantly more playing time, as are corners Steven Nelson and Terrance Mitchell. The Chiefs are utilizing more multi-safety sets to get Daniel Sorensen on the field more often. And, most importantly, the Chiefs may get Justin Houston back on the field, as the star pass-rusher is back practicing fully after sitting out the final two weeks of the season with increased swelling in his surgically-repaired knee.
So, yeah, things will be different on both sides of the ball. The question is how much those differences will affect each team's performance and which of them, if any, has the potential to flip the result.
Hello, Houston: Pass-rusher can change games
Without question, the most likely change to result in a major difference in Roethlisberger's performance is the presence of Houston on the field. When healthy, he is among the most destructive defenses forces in the NFL and he has the potential to single-handedly change a game. In his brief return from injury, Houston racked up 17 pressures on only 137 pass-rushing snaps, a rate of one every 8.1 snaps that compares favorably with players like Jadeveon Clowney, Vic Beasley, and Chandler Jones. There's no telling if he'll be at full health if he does return, but even a partial-strength Houston is likely to affect the game in at least some way.
The Chiefs got pressure on Roethlisberger on only four of his 29 drop backs in the first matchup, a rate far below their season average. Roethlisberger absolutely torched their secondary when throwing from a clean pocket that night, completing 20 of 25 passes for 296 yards and all five of his scores. That works out to a 155.6 passer rating that is very nearly perfect. With Houston on the field, the Chiefs seem likely to generate pressure on a significantly greater percentage of snaps than the 13.8 percent rate they compiled in Week 6. Even if Houston plays, the Chiefs may have to resort to heavy blitzing in order to generate that pressure and that's a somewhat dangerous proposition against Big Ben. It's far preferable to letting him sit in the pocket and tear your secondary apart, though.
Who has the edge in the passing game?
The return of Rogers and the increased playing time for Nelson and Mitchell shakes up the matchups on the perimeter a bit. The Chiefs are not a shadow team, so even though it seems like the kind of game where they'd want Marcus Peters to travel around the field with Antonio Brown, that's a bit unlikely. Peters played 92 percent of his snaps this season on the left side of the field and that's where he'll likely be on Sunday. (Mitchell played 95 percent of his snaps on the right side and will presumably be there for most of the day as well.) Instead, Brown will see a bit of all three corners depending on where he lines up on any given play. Rogers and Nelson are likely to spend much of the day battling it out in the slot, while Heyward-Bey, Hamilton, and Ayers will see Peters or Mitchell depending on where they line up.
Brown's the No. 1 target and will be peppered with opportunities. Heyward-Bey, Hamilton, and Ayers may see shots as circumstantial field-stretchers, but are unlikely to gobble up many opportunities between them. Rogers, with his ability to win on the inside, has the potential to provide a different look than anyone that was on the field during the first game, and could have a significant impact. The same is true of James, though it's more difficult to win against safeties Eric Berry and Ron Parker than it is against Nelson.
Running game might decide this one
The most significant difference from the first game to this one, though, may be the Steelers' increased willingness to rely on the running game. The Kansas City game in Week 4 was his first appearance of the season and he finished with 23 touches. He's had at least 23 carries in six of the last seven games and has averaged 4.6 catches per game during that time as well. If the Steelers slow down the pass rush by using Bell running the ball as a cudgel against the Kansas City defensive front, then get him as involved as usual while operating as a pass-catcher out of the backfield as well, there may simply be too many threats for the Chiefs to deal with at a time.
*Note: The Week 4 game was previously misidentified as being played at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City. It was played in Pittsburgh.