As we’ve done in the past, the keys to the Pittsburgh Steelers winning (or losing) today’s game. Three things that need to happen for them to end up on the right side of the score and vice versa in tonight’s Wild Card game against the Kansas City Chiefs.
My prediction is at the bottom.
THE STEELERS WILL WIN IF…
1. They Are +2 In The Turnover Battle
Our Saturday X-Factor. Not only do the Steelers need to win the turnover battle, I think they need to be +2. And preferably, obviously, forcing two takeaways without giving it away at all. Giving Mahomes an extra possession and short field is far from ideal and probably won’t be enough to win a game. One driving reason for the Steelers’ blowout loss in the first meeting was the Steelers being -3 in the turnover battle, with the Chiefs scoring 17 of their 36 points off it.
2. Special Teams Makes A Splash
As an extension of the top point, those turnovers don’t have to come defensively. Steelers’ special teams have made plays this year too with a pair of Miles Killebrew blocked punts. Danny Smith could be aggressive once again and frankly, he should be. But splash can come from a long return by Ray-Ray McCloud, who had a couple decent runbacks in Week 18’s win over Baltimore. It could mean a forced fumble created on the coverage unit, a 50+ yard field goal by Chris Boswell, or field-flipping punts by Pressley Harvin III. Upsetting the Chiefs means winning in all three phases.
3. Offense Creates At Least Three Explosive Plays
And even three might be too conservative. But that’s probably the minimum it’ll take if they can create some turnovers defensively or on special teams. It’s hard to beat the Chiefs without matching at least some of their big plays. The Bengals did that in their Week 17 victory over KC.
I’m not expecting Pittsburgh to be able to replicate that; if the Steelers win this game, it’ll be in the 20s, not the 30s, but they will have to find ways to create chunk yardage in the run and pass game. Three plays of 20+ yards. That has to be the least this offense can do. That could be Harris winning 1v1 versus a linebacker or safety, Roethlisberger taking a 1v1 shot against Cover 1 (even a DPI will work) or a pick/rub route on a slant against man coverage on third down.
THE STEELERS WILL LOSE IF…
1. Linebackers Can’t Defend The Seam/Corner From Kelce
Big worry here. Pittsburgh didn’t have to worry about Kelce in the first meeting, sitting out due to COVID. He’s back this time around. All year, Steelers’ linebackers have had problems defending tight ends on corner and seam routes, most recently against Mark Andrews last week. Expect the Chiefs to go after the presumed rotation of Joe Schobert, Devin Bush, and Robert Spillane. Marcus Allen might be the Steelers’ best cover linebacker right now.
2. The Offense Has Another Slow First Quarter Start
Saying this one every week. Faster starts. That’s asked for every week and required this one. No team is hotter in the first quarter than Kansas City. No team is colder in the first quarter than Pittsburgh. Something’s gotta give for the Steelers to pull off the unthinkable. Doesn’t mean Ben Roethlisberger and company need to race out to a 14-0 lead. Just keep it relatively close. 7-3, 10-7, something like that after the first quarter and a similar deficit at the half. Not digging themselves into a 14-0 after the first quarter in Week 16 and 23-0 at halftime.
3. Red Zone Defense Struggles
Essentially every game the Steelers have won this year has been due to the defense keeping the first half score down. Look at last week. Pittsburgh’s offense was trash in the first half (it wasn’t very good in the second half either but it was better). But the game was 3-3 at the half thanks to the defense making stop after stop.
The key to Pittsburgh doing this again is red zone defense. Barring something unforeseen, the Chiefs’ offense will move the ball. Their weapons are too good. The defense has to make stops inside the 20 and hold Kansas City to field goals, not touchdown celebrations.
REGULAR SEASON PREDICTION RECORD
Don’t listen to my predictions. That’s the lesson here.