Remember T.J. Watt’s scoop-and-score touchdown? Remember when the Pittsburgh Steelers’ led 7-0? That was fun. But blink and you would’ve missed Pittsburgh actually having a lead in a game in which they fell behind 35-7 and ultimately lost 42-21. The Chiefs made that lead disappear like magic. It was Travis Kelce’s score in the first half’s final seconds that put the stake through the Steelers’ heart, giving KC a commanding 21-7 halftime lead.
Plenty went wrong on the Steelers’ defense after playing an outstanding initial 20 minutes. But I wanted to circle that play because it was a defining moment that cemented the Chiefs’ lead and victory. A 48-yard touchdown on 3rd and 20 to put Kansas City up two-scores and getting ball at halftime. Backbreaker.
So let’s talk about the play that killed the Steelers’ season.
Again, it’s 3rd and 20. 3×1 formation out of 12 personnel with TE Travis Kelce aligned as #3 (furthermost slot receiver) to the trips side to the top. Vertical bender concept with Kelce running across the field on a post with a smash-corner by #2 (post-corner) and #1 (curl) to the top. #1 to the bottom runs a curl, while chipping and slowing down T.J. Watt pre-snap.
Pittsburgh calls an Inverted Cover 2. Traditional, Cover 2 concepts, a two-deep, five-under zone coverage. Only difference is the two-deep shell is inverted with safety Minkah Fitzpatrick spinning down and RCB Ahkello Witherspoon, to the top, becoming the deep 1/2 player. Here’s how it looks.
So where do things fall apart? At the top, you have to give credit to the Chiefs for a solid scheme. Run the bender with Kelce across the field with the TE to the bottom running the curl to hold CB Joe Haden to the bottom. It’s fair to argue Haden should’ve gotten more depth here but he is the flat defender, #1 is on a curl (not running away from him) and he’s probably also trying to keep the Chiefs out of field goal range. A ten yard completion puts them on the cusp.
Tre Norwood is the middle zone defender, opening his hips to the strength of the formation, the three-receiver side on the snap of the football. Kelce passes through his zone and begins to work to the next window so Norwood lets him go, also hitting the rookie with a little stutter like he’s going to break down before continuing on his route.
That area is really Edmunds’ air space. But he gets eyes on #2 to the top threatening to run the post, and with Witherspoon out-leveraged moreso than Fitzpatrick would’ve been as the normal deep 1/2 defender. Following Patrick Mahomes’ eyes, Edmunds begins to leave his deep 1/2 to take #2 to the post, who could end up in his zone if he runs the post, though #2 runs the corner, totally taking Edmunds out of position and ultimately covering nothing.
That leaves Kelce open running the bender across the field. Mahomes finds him and hits him with a clear path to the end zone.
And at the end, don’t love the effort from Norwood, who doesn’t even make a tackle attempt on Kelce. Would he have made the play? Probably not. But I would’ve liked to see him at least try. Edmunds himself is pretty slow to flip his hips and try to rally to the football too after realizing the ball was being thrown away from him.
Here’s how it all came together.
Ask me to pick a player to put this on and ultimately, I choose Terrell Edmunds. Kelce caught the ball in his zone and Edmunds left his area to gamble on the throw on the post that never came.
But I don’t like the idea of spot-dropping zone, which has hurt this team time and time again, you could argue Haden needed more depth here (the trips formation with a #2 TE isolated suggests there are routes being run behind him), and Norwood could’ve run harder here, too.
There’s also the reality of rushing four and letting Mahomes have a comfortable pocket to work and run around in. Allow him time to extend the play with the weapons he has and he’s going to find someone. Pittsburgh just made this one a little easier on him.
Would the Steelers have won this game even if they had gotten a stop here? Probably not. But who knows, and the game likely would’ve been closer. The Chiefs wouldn’t have been able to double-dip at the end of the first half and start of the second half, boosting their lead from seven (14-7) to 21 (28-7). Which ended the game right there, ended the Steelers’ season, and ended Ben Roethlisberger’s career.