This is the eighth of a 13-part series breaking down the off-season moves, coaching changes, draft and 2015 outlook for each opponent of the Kansas City Chiefs, counting down to their foe for Week 1. Today we look at one of the toughest foes the Chiefs seemingly face every season, the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Steelers are a team in transition this year despite winning the AFC North last season.
Team: Pittsburgh Steelers
2014 Record: 11-6 (lost to Baltimore in Wild Card Round of playoffs)
All-time Chiefs Series Record: 9-20 (1-0 in playoffs)
Last Regular Season Meeting: Steelers won 20-12 at Heinz Field (12/21/2014)
Last Postseason Meeting: Chiefs beat Pittsburgh 27-24 at Arrowhead in Wild Card game (1/8/1994)
2015 Schedule: Week 7 at Arrowhead
Top 5 players: QB Ben Roethlisberger, RB Le’Veon Bell, WR Antonio Brown, C Maurkice Pouncey, LB James Harrison
Notable draft picks: LB Bud Dupree, CB Senquez Golson, CB Doran Grant, TE Jesse James
Notable offseason additions: QB Mike Vick, RB DeAngelo Williams, K Garrett Hartley
Notable offseason departures: DC Dick LeBeau, S Troy Polamalu, Ike Taylor, Jason Worilds, Brett Keisel
The Steelers took advantage of an easy schedule in 2014 and won the AFC North division by a game over Baltimore and Cincinnati and then bowed out to Baltimore in the Wild Card game during the playoffs, 30-17. This year, instead of having the soft AFC and NFC South divisions on their schedule, Pittsburgh gets the AFC and NFC West divisions which means that, unlike 2014 when they never traveled west of the Mississippi to play a game, this year they get to rack up some frequent flyer miles, including a Week 7 date in Kansas City.
The biggest changes for Pittsburgh happened all over the defensive side of the ball. It began when their defensive coordinator, Hall of Famer Dick LeBeau, “mutually agreed” to part ways with Head Coach Mike Tomlin and the Steelers franchise. It took LeBeau about 30 seconds to land a new job in Tennessee as their DC, so apparently he was not ready to retire just yet. Too bad that some others on the defense didn’t feel the need to stick around.
Gone from the field are Troy Polamalu and Ike Taylor from the secondary, Jason Worilds from the linebacking corps and defensive end Brett Keisel. Other than Worilds, all were past their primes, so the Steelers should potentially be better with younger players. However, the leadership vacuum that has been created could cause severe growing pains for a team where the projected starters on defense average only 26.5 years old. Losing Worilds, who retired to pursue his faith, was the biggest blow as his 7.5 sacks and production will be hard to replace.
Taking over for LeBeau is long-time linebackers coach, Keith Butler. Butler will keep the base 3-4 zone blitz defense that LeBeau invented, but is expected to simplify it a bit to help his young players get up to speed quicker. The Steelers have spent high first-round draft choices for linebackers the past three drafts with Jarvis Jones (2013), Ryan Shazier (2014) and Bud Dupree (2015) all expected to turn the squad back into a Top-5 defense.
Offensively, the Steelers could be the best unit in the league under the guidance of former Chiefs head coach, Todd Haley. At one point in the 2014 preseason, all of Pittsburgh liked Haley about as much as former Chiefs GM Scott Pioli did. In other words, they wanted to run Haley out of town on a rail. You might remember that even Snoop Dogg taped an interesting Instagram clip denouncing Haley in colorful Snoopish language.
However, armed with a healthy Ben Roethlisberger, a breakout wide receiver in Antonio Brown, and the emergence of a superstar running back in Le’Veon Bell, the Pittsburgh version of The Triplets rewrote the records books in the Steel City under Haley’s play-calling. All of a sudden, Haley was forgiven because the Steelers offense was near-unstoppable at times.
Big Ben threw for 4,952 yards with 32 touchdowns and only nine interceptions. Brown led the NFL with 129 catches for 1,361 yards and his 13 touchdowns ranked second among receivers, while Bell led the AFC with 1,361 yards rushing while adding an astounding 83 catches out of the backfield for another 854 yards. Bell found the end zone 11 times as well. Reliable tight end Heath Miller stayed healthy long enough for 66 catches, 761 yards and three touchdowns of his own.
The offense is going to have to carry the team while the defense adjusts to new players and a new coordinator. Unfortunately, Pro Bowl center, Maurkice Pouncey, broke his ankle in last week’s exhibition game and is out for the year. His loss leaves a massive hole in the middle of the line. Roethlisberger was sacked a career-low 33 times in 2014, but that will undoubtedly change with a tougher schedule and the loss of Pouncey.
Roethlisberger needs to stay healthy because the back-up quarterback – as of about 4:00 p.m. local time Tuesday – is Michael Vick, who the Steelers had to sign when back-up Bruce Gradkowski got hurt. The third healthy QB in camp is Landry Jones, a fourth-year player out of Oklahoma who has yet to suit up for a game in three seasons.
Bell will miss the first three games due to a league suspension but the Steelers should be OK with former Carolina Panther, DeAngelo Williams, who can provide everything Bell does for three games. Roethlisberger has an embarrassment of riches to throw the ball to in the receiving corps as Markus Wheaton and Martavis Bryant both showed flashes of brilliance in the second half of the season and should continue to flourish in Haley’s system.
Bottom line: It will take an injury to Roethlisberger to derail another Steelers run to the playoffs so, outside of that, expect an excellent team to be on the field against KC in Week 7 at Arrowhead. Interestingly, when the Chiefs lost to them in Week 16 last year in Pittsburgh, the KC defense held the Pittsburgh offense down to 130 yards less than their season average. The Chiefs offensive line, which by that time was one of the worst in the league, couldn’t open holes for Jamaal Charles to run and gave up six sacks. This was the game that broke Alex Smith’s spleen so badly that he couldn’t play the next week against San Diego. Before they visit Kansas City, Pittsburgh plays at St. Louis, home against Baltimore, at San Diego, and home against Arizona. It would not be out of the realm of possibility that every one of these teams could finish in the top-10 defenses this year, so it’s doubtful the Steelers will be on the roll they were on last year when the Chiefs game was the one that put them in the playoffs for the first time in three years. Look for the Arrowhead crowd to make a difference and the Chiefs win a close one before they hit the road for a month, including a trip to London, England.
Previous articles in the series:
Oakland Raiders (Weeks 13 & 17)
Cleveland Browns (Week 16)
Baltimore Ravens (Week 15)
San Diego Chargers (Weeks 11 & 14)
Buffalo Bills (Week 12)
Denver Broncos (Weeks 2 & 10)
Detroit Lions (Week 8)