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Steelers Vs. Chiefs Super Wild Card Week Outlook

Today I wanted to look at some data and discuss takeaways for the season, the Week 16 matchup between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Kansas City Chiefs, and pose some questions for you the readers. Here are links to my work from the recent game as well: Outlook Recap

First, let’s look at quarterbacks using heatmaps of pass locations provided by a great article from Thomas Mock and the publicly available data from Next Gen Stats:

We can see from the visual the different style of passes of the quarterbacks historically, information many people know that study the film, and the visual really gives context. Out of the available data since 2017, we can see the majority of Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes passes have been just outside of the hashes but inside the numbers in the three-eight yard range to the right and four-seven yard range on the left. Comparing to Roethlisberger, we see most of his passes in the middle of the field five yards or shorter. In a more total view, there is a big difference in 20+ yards between the two. Both quarterbacks throw more frequently to the right, with the former much more frequently. Also, the intermediate and deep middle data is telling, comparing the colors of 10-15 yards and 15-20 yards where Mahomes has a lighter color in each and Roethlisberger’s color dropping off at 21 where Mahomes’ extends to 31. What are your takeaways?

Here’s another fun visual comparing the quarterbacks:

Using the same data with this view we can really get a comparison of the two, and the biggest takeaway is the dark blue from zero-four yards for Roethlisberger. Largely speaking we see his targets greater than five yards to the sideline, and Mahomes throwing to greater varieties of the field that make it tough for any defense, and it will be interesting to see what the Steelers defense can do against this passing attack Sunday night.

Since I recently looked at season data for the quarterbacks in the earlier links, I wanted to provide the following data from Week 16 only here:

  • Air Yards To The Sticks = Amount of air yards ahead or behind the first down marker on all attempts for a passer
  • TD/INT Ratio = touchdowns-interceptions
  • Passer Rating = completion %, yards per attempt, touchdown %, and interception %

Here we can see Mahomes on the top right, and in Week 16 was tied for the second-best TD/INT ratio of three, highlighting his three touchdowns and zero interceptions. This was a big takeaway, and as Pittsburgh strives for a different outcome, this number will likely need to be lower along with a hopeful interception. Another strong element of his game was throwing past the sticks, ranking fourth at a 0.87 number. Mahomes red the Steelers well and took what the defense gave him, and while he didn’t have elite total air yards, he kept drives moving on only 30 passes, 258 yards, 76.7 completion percentage and the second highest passer rating of the week at 135.1!

In comparison, Roethlisberger had a TD and INT for a ratio of zero, -2.26 air yards to the sticks that ranked 24th of the 33 quarterbacks, 65.7 completion percentage and a 73.4 passer rating on his 35 passes for only 159 yards! If Pittsburgh can keep the game close in the first half this time around, the script sets up much better than the results from Week 16. Here’s to hoping this is the case so we can see a completive playoff dual with the ball in Roethlisberger’s hands with a chance at the end.

How do you think the quarterbacks will perform?

Next let’s look at how the running backs fared in Week 16 with the following data points:

  • 8 Men In The Box = How many defenders are stacked in the box at the snap
  • Time To Line Of Scrimmage = Amount of time a rusher spends before crossing the line of scrimmage

The graph especially highlights the game script, with the Steelers defense playing eight men in the box at a high rate against running backs Darrel Williams (45.5%) and Derrick Gore (50%) as Kansas City enjoyed a big lead and running the ball for 122 yards total yards. Williams led the team with 55 yards on his 11 attempts while getting to the line of scrimmage at the third quickest rate of the week! He is questionable for the game, practicing on a limited basis with a toe injury. Gore had a good game in his opportunity with running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire getting injured in the game, especially as a receiver for the second most team yards (62) on three catches along with rushing for 43 yards on 12 attempts, but the second lowest time to the line of scrimmage number. Edwards-Helaire just missed the graph with only nine attempts for 27 yards, but had the only rushing touchdown in the game. He has been ruled out for this contest as well, so it will be interesting how the backs on the graph are used and fare along with possibly Jerick McKinnon as well, who had a good season finale.

Steelers running back Najee Harris lands on the left middle of the graph, emphasizing the Chiefs defense 0% eight men in the box rate! They were able to play the pass with the game script and most of Harris’ 91 yards came with the game already decided. He was also limited in the passing game to only 17 yards on his five catches, highlighting again the importance to start this matchup stronger in the first half for hopeful victory. Harris is the only player with a game status on the Friday injury report for Pittsburgh, listed as questionable but practiced fully and thankfully appears good to go for Sunday after his elbow injury last week.

How will the running backs fare?

Now let’s look at the wide receiver data from the previous meeting:

  • Separation = Distance measured between WR and the nearest defender at the time of catch or incompletion
  • Yards After Catch
  • % Of Teams Air Yards = Sum of WR’s total intended air yards (all attempts) over the sum of his teams total intended air yards as a percentage

The first thing that jumps out is the absence of Chiefs wide receiver Tyreek Hill on the graph, who the Steelers were able to focus their coverage attention to during his lower 29 snaps before the game got out of hand, with only two targets and catches for 19 yards! This will definitely be tougher with Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce available unlike last time, so it will be interesting to see how these factors play into Pittsburgh’s defensive approach. Will they focus their attention on Hill again and risk players like Kelce going off?

Either way, Kansas City wide receiver Byron Pringle could play a big factor again as he did in a great Week 16 game. He ranked first in the game in separation, percent of teams air yards (31.7), catch percentage (85.7), yards (75), and touchdowns (two) and tied for most receptions (six)! Fellow wide receiver Mecole Hardman had three catches for 31 yards and a touchdown, excelling with 11.2 yards after catch which ranked fifth across the NFL in Week 16! It will be interesting to see if the Steelers defense provides the same amount of cushion off the line, and if these two go off again with the stars getting the bulk of the attention.

Steelers wide receiver Diontae Johnson led the team in separation, but with the Chiefs playing tighter coverage against the quick passing game resulted in collectively lower separation numbers for Pittsburgh, as we have seen much of the season. Johnson also provided a team best yards after the catch at 4.97 for second best in the matchup, third ranked 25.28% of teams air yards, a game leading nine targets with six catches for 51 yards, and Pittsburgh’s only touchdown! After his “once we win” comment, hopefully he puts that confidence on the field with a big game.

Wide receiver Chase Claypool led the team with 25.52% of teams air yards (slightly above Johnson) on his four catches for 41 yards, but a very low yards after catch number of 1.2!

He and fellow receiver Ray-Ray McCloud land on the bottom right of the graph, with both under two yards of separation. The latter fared well with yards after catch (3.22) but only a 50% completion percentage on four catches and 25 yards. Hopefully they both can continue their trend of positive play we’ve seen since this game. The game script again played a huge factor allowing Kansas City to force short passes (159 total yards), so the Steelers must flip the script early and come out aggressive with hopeful success.

Huge news came for Pittsburgh this week, with a possibility that wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster could play and is designated to return! This is obviously big, even if it’s on a limited basis. If he is activated, I love the chance for him to aid in keeping drives moving with the chemistry he has with Roethlisberger, along with adding more experience to the young position group that lacks it in the playoffs.

Pittsburgh wide receiver James Washington was also activated from the COVID list, so as of now it appears all hands could be on deck at the most important time of the year.

How do you see K.C.’s passing attack looking Sunday night against a healthier Steelers defense? What about the Pittsburgh passing game with hopeful reinforcements?

Here’s a view of the tight ends using the regular season since both missed the Week 16 game:

Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce lands at the top middle of the graph, tied for the most touchdowns with nine, second most catches (92), yards (1125) and only one of only three tight ends over 1000 yards on the season! He is slightly above the mean in separation with a 3.3 number, but more importantly is great with 6.4 yards after catch and fights hard for yards. Pittsburgh’s tackling must be sound to hopefully quiet an offense that converts first downs with ease.

Pittsburgh tight end Pat Freiermuth lands at the top middle below Kelce, highlighting his high number of touchdowns (7) at the position! He has similar separation (3.27) to Kelce along with 60 catches for 497 yards. Yards after catch is a big difference between the two, with Freiermuth at 4.2, although an improved number with great moments in recent memory against the Ravens.

Which tight end (or both) will end up in the end zone on Sunday? How will the Steelers linebackers and coverage fare against Kelce?

For the offensive lines, I wanted to provide the publicly available top ten pass and run block win rate lists from ESPN: (Spoiler, there are zero Pittsburgh offensive lineman to make any of the lists).

Chiefs center Creed Humphrey stands alone at the top rank in pass block win rate for the season and…

he ranks fifth in run block win rate as well!

Guard Joe Thuney is another top ranked pass blocker for the Chiefs along with fellow guard Trey Smith at number two, and it could be difficult to get pressure up the middle for the Steelers defense.

Smith is the third ranked run blocker, landing on both lists just as Humphrey did as stellar rookie teammates! Pittsburgh defensive tackles Chris Wormley (missed Week 16) and Cameron Heyward really need a stout game against this excellent interior line.

Chiefs tackle Orlando Brown ranked second in run block win rate, and four out of five Chiefs lineman made a list!

In the matchup, no Chiefs offensive tackle made the top ten in pass block win rate, and this could be a big factor in the game for the Steelers edge rushers, especially considering linebacker T.J. Watt played limited snaps due to injury in Week 16.

Perfect time to switch to the defensive lines:

Speaking of Watt, he is ranked fifth on the season in pass rush win rate. With right tackle being the weakest link of K.C.’s offensive line, it is imperative that he is more available and disruptive. Mahomes had several moments where he had all day to throw last time around, so here’s to hoping that’s one of the biggest differences in Pittsburgh’s favor on Sunday.

Watt also ranks seventh ranked run stop win rate, followed immediately by fellow linebacker Alex Highsmith. Hopefully both can be a factor against the run, and also containing the edge on runs and scrambles.

The Chiefs have two defensive tackles making the top ten, at number two is Chris Jones and number nine is Tershawn Wharton who led the team in pressures last matchup, but a weaker run defender. Pittsburgh center Kendrick Green started in Week 16 and played poorly. J.C. Hassenauer seems likely to start this time around for the Steelers and has played better since this game. Will he fare better against this defensive interior that feasted last game?

No players in the matchup made the top ten in run stop win rate as a defensive tackle, who do you think will win the battle in this regard?

Last let’s look at points allowed and takeaways for defenses for the regular season:

The Chiefs are above the mean and rank top 10 in both data points: eighth in points allowed (364) and tied for fifth in takeaways (29)! Linebacker Nick Bolton leads the team with 112 combined tackles on the season, Jones with nine sacks, safety Tyrann Mathieu with three interceptions, and cornerback Charvarius Ward with 10 passes defensed! Former Steelers linebacker Melvin Ingram has also fared well in his role, and provided pressure in the last meeting. The inside linebackers had a strong game overall as well, with Ben Niemann leading the team in tackles in Week 16.

Pittsburgh is near the mean in both data points, ranking 20th in points allowed (398) and tied for 14th with 22 takeaways. Safety Minkah Fitzpatrick leads the team with 124 combined tackles, and had to clean up several 10+ yard plays last game. Hopefully with a healthier group in front of him, they can limit the quantity of such plays or we’re in for another long game. Watt is the 2021 sack leader at 22.5, with four more than the next player! Pittsburgh cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon was a bright spot in a mostly discouraging Week 16, has the team lead with three interceptions on the season, and tied with Heyward for passes defensed with nine!

Are you optimistic the Steelers defense can step up against the potent Chiefs offense? How will the Steelers offense fare against the Chiefs defense?

Enjoy the Super Wildcard Weekend everyone! Thanks for reading and let me know your thoughts in the comments!

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