Steelers Must Force Turnovers Against Mahomes, Chiefs

Pittsburgh Steelers CB Ahkello Witherspoon
Pittsburgh Steelers CB Ahkello Witherspoon
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

NFL Wild Card - The Steelers are playing on borrowed time. They needed an unlikely Josh Jacobs first down and Daniel Carlson 47-yard field goal in overtime in Week 18 to even make the playoffs. And since that upset pushed the Raiders to the fifth seed in the AFC and earned them a game in Cincinnati against the upstart Bengals, the Steelers are left facing a trip to Kansas City that is only enviable relative to the alternative the team nearly suffered of missing the postseason entirely. The 39-year-old and presumably retiring Ben Roethlisberger has seen a few things in his 18-year career. And his public message to his team to "just go in and play and have fun" puts into words what the weekend-long line of nearly two touchdowns implies: this is very likely to be Roethlisberger's last game.

The Chiefs are better than the Steelers. They have a better record. They have a better DVOA ranking—seventh versus 24th, the lowest of all playoff teams—and have trended even better over the second half of the season. They have played in the last three AFC title games and last two Super Bowls. And they offered a possible preview of this game when they dismantled the Steelers 36-10 just three weeks ago in Kansas City. The Chiefs went up 30-0 in that game and did so without star tight end Travis Kelce, who missed the week on the COVID list. Now at full strength, they could reasonably be assumed to roll over the Steelers yet again.

But I'm less confident. The Chiefs benefitted from some breaks in that game to counterbalance the Kelce absence and overstate the dominance implied by a 26-point final margin. And the Chiefs' reputation as world-beaters they have recovered with nine wins in their last 10 games owes some credit to turnover luck that is just as unsustainable as their turnover misfortunes from the first half of the season. Those imperfections in this year's Chiefs juggernaut may not leave them particularly vulnerable to a Steelers upset. But they should allow the Steelers to push them to full effort in the fourth quarter and offer hope for the better AFC contenders in their quests to take down the monster of their conference.

For those who may be unfamiliar with the Football Outsiders stats, they are explained at the bottom of the page. Scroll down or click this link. Game charting data appears courtesy Sports Info Solutions, unless noted. All stats represent regular season only, except for weighted DVOA and anything else specifically noted.

  PIT KC
DVOA -10.4% (24) 17.5% (7)
WEI DVOA -12.5% (26) 24.3% (6)
Steelers on Offense
  PIT OFF KC DEF
DVOA -11.2% (22) 4.5% (24)
WEI DVOA -15.7% (26) -2.5% (13)
PASS -0.3% (24) 11.3% (23)
RUSH -14.7% (24) -5.6% (20)
Chiefs on Offense
  PIT DEF KC OFF
DVOA -0.6% (14) 18.1% (3)
WEI DVOA -2.1% (14) 17.3% (3)
PASS -0.4% (8) 34.7% (3)
RUSH -0.9% (27) 0.7% (10)
Special Teams
  PIT KC
DVOA 0.2% (17) 3.9% (3)

All readers can click here for the open in-game discussion thread. If you have FO+, you can click here to see all the matchup of DVOA splits for this game.

WHEN THE STEELERS HAVE THE BALL

PIT Week-to-Week Graph

The Steelers replaced offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner with Matt Canada in 2021 with the hope that a change could make life easier for a physically declining Roethlisberger with more modern passing concepts such as play-action and pre-snap motion. That hasn't happened. The Steelers finished the regular season with just 94 play-action pass attempts, second-fewest of all teams, per Pro Football Reference. I guess it's hard to teach an old quarterback new tricks, especially one whose now nonexistent mobility in the pocket makes him reasonably reluctant to turn his back to the defense.

That said, the meme-ification of Roethlisberger's deteriorating arm strength exaggerates his struggle to push the ball down the field. The veteran quarterback has actually increased his completion percentage on deep pass attempts of more than 20 air yards from 30.3% before his elbow injury in 2018 to 32.2% in 2020 and 33.3% this season. He may not look pretty doing it, but Roethlisberger has the understanding of defenses and anticipation to release his deep passes earlier, like a post-neck-fusion Peyton Manning. And while Roethlisberger has seen his deep pass percentage decline from 11.2% in 2018 to 9.7% and 9.4% the last two seasons, some of that decrease is likely by choice. As Roethlisberger and star defensive veterans have taken bigger pieces of the Steelers' salary cap pie in recent seasons, the team has hemorrhaged talent from its offensive line and been forced to make some compromises.

The Steelers lost David DeCastro, Maurkice Pouncey, Alejandro Villanueva, and Matt Feiler to some combination of salary cuts, retirement, and free agency in 2021. And while the team clearly saw the exodus coming and did well to draft replacements, overwhelmingly inexperienced third- and fourth-round draft picks such as Chukwuma Okorafor, Kendrick Green, Dan Moore, and Kevin Dotson were unlikely to measure up to departing linemen that made a combined four All-Pro teams and 17 Pro Bowls. The Steelers suffered a second-worst 49% pass block win rate and third-worst 67% run block win rate per ESPN, and a fifth-worst 3.84 adjusted line yards. It's remarkable the Steelers offense didn't backslide further than its 25th offensive DVOA rating this season. And Roethlisberger deserves much of that credit for his stylistic transformation.

In his prime, Roethlisberger leaned on his deep passing game because he had the arm strength, pocket mobility, and field-stretching receivers such as Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown to facilitate it. Without any of those requisites the last two seasons, Roethlisberger has evolved into Drew Brees. He led regular quarterbacks this season with a 2.38-second average time to throw per Next Gen Stats. And that quick trigger helped Roethlisberger avoid the sacks his lack of pass protection would allow most quarterbacks. In fact, the Steelers had the 11th-lowest adjusted sack rate of just 5.6%.

The Steelers offense might not be explosive, but it stands to reason they could string together some extended drives and control the time of possession, keeping Patrick Mahomes' explosive offense off the field as much as possible. Roethlisberger had a palatable 64.5% completion rate this year. And the Chiefs defense ranks 20th in DVOA or worse against the pass, the run, and overall, and looks on paper like the unit that could sabotage the team's attempt to reach its third Super Bowl in as many seasons.

The bad news for Roethlisberger and company is that full-season DVOA rates fail to capture the current standard of the Chiefs defense. That unit has improved dramatically from 31st (38.4%) against the pass and 30th (0.7%) against the run from Weeks 1-7 to eighth (-6.7%) and 15th (-10.6%) from Week 8 on. And while full-season DVOA rates tend to better predict future results than improving season-half splits, the Chiefs can point to personnel changes as a reason to believe they can sustain their improvements.

The most discussed Chiefs defensive upgrade is the one the Steelers will most likely rue if it disrupts their bid for an upset this Sunday. That's because Melvin Ingram started the year in Pittsburgh on a team-friendly $4-million contract, and his midseason trade to the Chiefs for just a sixth-round draft pick is likely the biggest reason the reigning conference champions became a top-10 pass defense. Ingram produced a modest total of 11 pass pressures in nine games for his new team, per Pro Football Reference. But his drawing of offensive line attention allowed star defensive lineman Chris Jones to return to his preferred position of defensive tackle, in turn enabling the Chiefs to generate pressure with just four pass rushers, most notably Jones and Frank Clark. The Chiefs improved modestly from 23.4% pressure and 3.2% sack rates the first seven weeks to 25.7% and 5.7% the last 11 weeks. But they made those improvements despite a dramatic decrease from a 33.5% to a 26.5% blitz rate. And Jones and Clark produced excellent if not career-defining totals of 34 and 29 pass pressures this season, the latter exclusively after missing the first month of the year with a hamstring injury.

Diverging blitz and pressure rates would have helped the team's coverage by themselves, but Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo added to that effort with a decision to bench veteran safety Daniel Sorensen for Juan Thornhill. An athletic and talented second-round draft pick, Thornhill was a Day 1 starter as a rookie in 2019. But a torn ACL in December of that season had seeming ramifications that dragged into 2021. Thornhill returned for the start of last season but, according to Spagnuolo, may have rushed his recovery and even into 2021 needed to "earn his way back."

Perhaps there were nuances in the early Sorensen-over-Thornhill choice that are difficult for an outsider to see. But the Chiefs defense enjoyed a dramatic turnaround from a 9.1% broken tackle rate in Weeks 1 to 7 that was fourth-worst in football to a 5.7% rate in Weeks 8 to 18 that ranked 14th. With a 5.9% broken tackle rate per Pro Football Reference, Thornhill proved to represent a marked improvement from Sorensen's abysmal 25.0% rate. And linebacker Willie Gay made a major difference as well. The former second-round linebacker missed just 9.4% of his tackles after he returned from a toe injury in Week 5. That's an excellent rate for his position.

In their Week 16 matchup, the Steelers caught the Chiefs on the wrong side of their defensive makeover and witnessed what non-blitz pressure and strong tackling could mean for a less explosive offense. The Chiefs blitzed the Steelers on just 22.2% of dropbacks that week but limited Roethlisberger to a meager 4.5 yards per pass attempt. And lesser defenses than the second-half Chiefs have tipped the Steelers from a steadily productive offense to one that falls consistently behind the sticks. Roethlisberger averaged just 6.5 air yards per attempt this season, second-lowest of regular quarterbacks. And he easily paced his position with 128 failed completions.

Highest Failed Completion Rate, 2021
Player Comps Failed
Comps
Failed
Comp%
Ben Roethlisberger 390 128 32.8%
Davis Mills 262 82 31.3%
Sam Darnold 243 74 30.5%
Zach Wilson 213 64 30.0%
Kirk Cousins 371 109 29.4%
Daniel Jones 233 68 29.2%
Taylor Heinicke 324 93 28.7%
Jared Goff 332 95 28.6%
Teddy Bridgewater 288 82 28.5%
Ryan Tannehill 360 102 28.3%
Minimum 200 pass attempts

Rookies Najee Harris and Pat Freiermuth are excellent receivers for their positions. Diontae Johnson is a borderline star and basically erased his drops problem, improving his drop rate per catchable target from 12.7% last year to 4.4% this year. But consistent catches behind the sticks won't sustain offense if the Chiefs continue to make tackles in the open field. And Roethlisberger seems unlikely to have time to hold the ball for deep shots to Chase Claypool with the balance the Chiefs have in their defensive front. The Steelers could struggle to reach 20 points and will likely need their defense to keep this game competitive.

WHEN THE CHIEFS HAVE THE BALL

KC Week-to-Week Graph

Non-blitz pressure was the Chiefs' undoing in last year's Super Bowl. And that would figure to be a good thing for a Steelers defense ranked second behind the Bills with a 22.7% non-blitz pressure rate this season. But the Chiefs had more resources to improve their offensive line than the Steelers did, and the major swings they took there have universally turned into home runs. The team traded their 2021 first-rounder and other future draft picks for Orlando Brown, who has blown 3.0% of his blocks per Sports Info Solutions charting. That is a marked improvement from Eric Fisher's 4.0% blown block rate last year. They signed free agent Joe Thuney to a $46.9-million guaranteed contract, and he has blown just 1.8% of his blocks. They drafted Creed Humphrey and Trey Smith in the second and sixth rounds. The former has blown just 0.8% of his blocks, the third-lowest rate of regular centers, and is an All-Pro candidate; the latter has blown just 3.1% of his blocks. Altogether, the Chiefs line has improved from a 63% pass block win rate last year (sixth, and no doubt worse in the playoffs after myriad injuries) to a 68% rate (second) this year. And they improved dramatically from a 67% run block win rate last year (31st) to 74% (third) this year.

If the Chiefs have an Achilles heel on their offensive line, it's at right tackle where Lucas Niang's patellar tendon tear two weeks ago thrust Super Bowl goat—the bad kind—Andrew Wylie back into the starting lineup. Wylie allowed a sack and four quarterback hits in the team's Bucs beatdown, and pass rusher Shaq Barrett called him "a scrub." But one weakness on the line is easier to help with chips than multiple. And Wylie played every snap for a then-injured Niang in Week 16, and the Steelers pressured Mahomes on just 23.1% of their non-blitzes, barely half the Bucs' 39.1% rate from their Super Bowl win.

For the Steelers to fare better with a four-man pass rush in their Chiefs encore, they'll need more from star defender T.J. Watt. And that isn't far-fetched. Watt was dealing with cracked ribs that week that saw him holding his side with trainers on the sideline. He managed just a 55% snap share. But he has since told reporters the injury was minor and rebounded with 79% and 86% snap shares the last two weeks. Watt seems single-handedly responsible for the eye-catching disparity between the Steelers' middle-of-the-pack 41% pass rush win rate and second-ranked 8.2% adjusted sack rate. His 52 pressures are fewer than his totals of 59 and 61 from the last two seasons and not leaps and bounds ahead of teammate Cameron Heyward's and Alex Highsmith's totals of 32 and 26 pressures. But Watt tied the all-time NFL record with 22.5 sacks this season.

Even with Watt compromised in late December, the Steelers followed the new book of how to defend the Chiefs. They blitzed Mahomes on just 18.8% of his dropbacks that week, a much smaller rate than their 24.0% one from the full season. Overall, Mahomes has seen his blitz rate drop from 21.6% and 22.8% of dropbacks the last two seasons to just 16.0% this season. Even after their Week 16 failures, the Steelers should stick to that defensive game plan. The two-high safeties narrative that analysts leaned on to explain the Chiefs' four September and October losses may seem tired now that the team has won nine of their last 10 games. But Mahomes' return since Week 14 to a yards-per-attempt average over 8.0 yards like he had in 2019, 2020, and early in 2021 owes more to unsustainable improvements in things like drop rate than to a recovery of his explosive plays. Mahomes had nearly identical 7.0- and 7.1-yard average depths of target in Weeks 7 to 13 and in Weeks 14 to 18. His deep target rate declined from 10.2% to 8.9%. And the Chiefs barely improved their percentage of drives that ended in explosive plays of more than 20 yards from 18.2% in the middle third of the year to 21.1% in the final third. That's down from the 26.9% and 26.1% explosive touchdown rates from 2020 and the first third of 2021. And it's dramatically down from the 45.7% rate from 2019.

Patrick Mahomes' Passing Splits, 2019-21
Split Att Acc% Comp% Drop% aDOT Deep% YPA
2019 484 72.1% 65.9% 5.2% 8.8 13.2% 8.3
2020 588 72.6% 66.3% 4.8% 8.1 10.9% 8.1
Wks 1-6, 2021 242 75.2% 69.8% 4.5% 8.0 12.0% 8.1
Wks 7-13, 2021 236 69.5% 60.2% 8.1% 7.0 10.2% 6.3
Wks 14-18, 2021 180 71.7% 70.6% 0.6% 7.1 8.9% 8.1

Over the long term, two-high safety looks without blitzes should force the Chiefs to sustain drives with 10 or more plays. That may simply be a different way for most teams to lose. The Chiefs could probably run all over a bottom-six Steelers run defense if they chose to. But Mahomes is mortal and can make mistakes. Mahomes suffered a ridiculous run of poor interception luck at the start of the season. He saw five of his 28 tipped or deflected passes become interceptions per Sports Info Solutions charting. That is 3.0 more tipped-pass interceptions than he would have suffered with a league-average rate. Mahomes has seen that rate regress toward average with 1.9 tipped-pass interceptions more than expected in the middle third of the year and just 0.3 more in the final third of the year. However, Mahomes has also seen his dropped interceptions flip from 1.3 fewer than expected in the first third to 2.4 and 3.6 more than expected in the latter two thirds of the year. The Steelers may not have stars in their secondary other than safety Minkah Fitzpatrick. But if corners such as Ahkello Witherspoon and Cameron Sutton can have sticky fingers, then they can help equalize what on paper is a mismatch between the No. 3 DVOA Chiefs passing offense and No. 8 DVOA Steelers pass defense.

Patrick Mahomes' Interception Luck, 2021
    Tipped Pass/Deflection   Interceptions
Split Total INTs INTs
Over
Exp
Dropped Total Dropped
Over
Exp
Wks 1-6, 2021 28 5 +3.0 1 9 -1.3
Wks 7-13, 2021 24 2 +1.9 4 3 +2.4
Wks 14-18, 2021 17 1 +0.3 5 1 +3.6
Data from SIS courtesy of Stephen Polacheck

The Steelers may be due for better turnover luck this week, in any case. The Chiefs recovered all five fumbles in their Week 16 matchup. And the Steelers may catch a break from some Chiefs injuries on offense. Running backs Clyde Edwards-Helaire and Darrel Williams are dealing with shoulder and toe injuries that rendered them limited practice participants on Wednesday. Tyreek Hill was limited to 14 snaps in Week 18 with a heel injury. And while head coach Andy Reid indicated Hill should play on Sunday, he did not specify whether Hill would be at 100%. No one hardship seems likely to put the Chiefs and Steelers on even footing. But if the Steelers could catch the Chiefs in a week without a key player or two on offense and win the turnover battle, they would have a chance of pulling the upset.

SPECIAL TEAMS

Unfortunately for the Steelers, the Chiefs only widen the disparity from the teams' offenses and defenses with the No. 3 vs. No. 17 special teams by DVOA. Harrison Butker spurred the Chiefs to top-six field goal and extra point value and the No. 1 kickoff value. He would garner Pro Bowl consideration if he weren't stuck in a conference with Justin Tucker. With Mecole Hardman playing more offense this season, Byron Pringle took over the team's primary kickoff return duties and finished fifth among regular returners with 24.8 yards per return. The Chiefs are practically as explosive on special teams as they are on offense. And without the extreme winter weather, the Chiefs seem unlikely to see their advantage there sabotaged.

The Steelers can match Butker on field goal attempts with their veteran Chris Boswell. But rookie punter Pressley Harvin has struggled this season and landed the team the fourth-worst punt value. Harvin played in Week 18 after missing two weeks for the death of a family member. But Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin has not committed to playing Harvin or temporary punter Corliss Waitman on Sunday.

OUTLOOK

The Steelers do not strike me as the hopeless underdogs of public perception, but they will likely need to win the turnover battle decidedly to pull an upset. Mahomes has given defenses more chances at turnovers since they forced him to sustain longer drives. But he's also Patrick Mahomes. Steelers fans shouldn't cultivate too high of hopes of a defense-driven victory. Hopefully, they can settle for one last Roethlisberger playoff game to enjoy. Because with one or two different bounces last weekend, they wouldn't even have that.

 

 

STATS EXPLAINED

DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average) breaks down each play of the season and compares it to the NFL average based on situation and opponent. You'll find it explained further here. Since DVOA measures ability to score, a negative DVOA indicates a better defense and worse offense, and a positive DVOA indicates a better offense and worse defense.

Team DVOA numbers incorporate all plays; since passing is generally more efficient than rushing, the average for passing is actually above 0% while the average for rushing is below 0%.

SPECIAL TEAMS numbers are different; they represent value in points of extra field position gained compared to NFL average. Field goal rating represents points scored compared to average kicker at same distances. All special teams numbers are adjusted by weather and altitude; the total is then translated into DVOA so it can be compared to offense and defense. Those numbers are explained here.

Each team is listed with DVOA for offense and defense, total along with rush and pass, and rank among the 32 teams in parentheses. (If the DVOA values are difficult to understand, it is easy to just look at the ranks.) We also list WEIGHTED DVOA (WEI DVOA), which is based on a formula which drops the value of games early in the season to get a better idea of how teams are playing now (explained here).

Each team also gets a chart showing their performance this year, game-by-game, according to total DVOA. In addition to a line showing each game, another line shows the team's trend for the season, using a rolling average of the last five games. Note that even though the chart appears in the section for when each team has the ball, it represents total performance, not just offense.

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