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17 Oct 2017

Any Given Sunday: Steelers Over Chiefs

by Rivers McCown

The Kansas City Chiefs were 5-0, but they were 5-0 and arguably underperforming in some areas. We knew that losing Eric Berry would make a big impact on this roster, but the weakest point of the team hasn't been the pass defense. It has been the run defense.

Kansas City entered Week 6 with the 24th-rated DVOA run defense. They will now drop to 30th after being ripped by Le'Veon Bell in the third straight meeting between the Chiefs and Steelers. After the 178 and 164 total yards he racked up against Kansas City in two games last year, including a playoff loss that felt spiritually similar to this one, the 191 he had on Sunday can't be considered all that surprising.

Over the last 12 games, the trend for Kansas City's run defense looks like this:

Chiefs Run Defense, 2016-2017
Year Week Run Defense DVOA
2016 13 7.2%
2016 14 10.2%
2016 15 24.3%
2016 16 6.9%
2016 17 16.4%
2016 Divisional 15.4%
2017 1 -1.0%
2017 2 30.9%
2017 3 -7.6%
2017 4 -7.4%
2017 5 -6.1%
2017 6 25.3%

They're better than they were at the end of last season, but they're still good for the odd gashing and are less about stopping the run than they are wearing it down. The one thing that is consistent in their statistical profile is their problems at the second level. Last year the Chiefs were 30th in second-level yards, which looks at average yards gained in the 5- to 10-yard range. Through Week 5, they were 25th in that same split this year. It's a stat that points to opposing offenses generating a lot of medium-size runs that keep efficiency easy.

Bell had nine separate runs between 5 and 10 yards in this game. He had seven more that went for longer than 10 yards. In that context, it's actually kind of miraculous that the Chiefs held him under 200 yards. After writing about Pittsburgh's issues with Ben Roethlisberger last week, it was interesting to see them taper back his usage, but given how successful the Steelers were on the ground, how could they not use Bell as often as they did?

It's always awesome to see a master of his craft operating at his full potential, and that was what Bell did. Here's one example, and I picked this play because, let's be honest, there was a play to be made here. Derrick Johnson (56) got just the slightest silver of daylight with Bell in his sights. The pulling tight end Vance McDonald moved right past Johnson.

But Bell was gone.

(Click here if you are having trouble loading the image.)

By the VOA

PIT 29.9% -27.9% -15.6% 42.2%
KC -10.8% 20.9% 20.6% -11.1%
PIT 35.1% -8.8% -15.6% 28.2%
KC -19.4% 23.9% 20.6% -22.7%

It's hard to figure out exactly what to do with a play like the free kick where Pittsburgh never touched the ball and Kansas City recovered. It's more indicative of a mental error than a fumble or a design flaw. In the end, we treated it like a muffed punt or kickoff recovered by the kicking team, just as we did last year when the Jets recovered a kickoff in the end zone when Buffalo neglected to field the thing. This play explains most of the big special teams difference.

Questionable Coaching Decision of the Week

In the comments on last week's Any Given Sunday, a reader asked why I didn't bother talking about Pittsburgh's red zone DVOA splits after the upset against the Jaguars. The answer is pretty simple: their red zone DVOA splits are actually pretty good. Through last week's games, they were 11th in red zone offensive DVOA and fourth in goal-to-go DVOA. However, these issues once again seem relevant after seeing another dominant offensive performance lead to not many points.

Yes, I am mildly concerned that Mike Tomlin settled for a 24-yard field goal near the end of the first half. This wasn't a game of massive blunders, but the fact that Pittsburgh just charged down the field 93 yards and that Bell was crushing the entire drive made it hard to believe they kicked it, even if it was fourth-and-goal from the 6.

Are Two Games A Trend? The Kansas City Chiefs Run Offense

The Chiefs offense that had destroyed the league took a backseat in Week 6, but the split began to be displayed in Week 5. Center Mitch Morse went down with a foot injury in Week 2, and the Chiefs were able to mostly continue their rushing dominance without him. However, when right guard Laurent Duvernay-Tardif went down in Week 4, the Chiefs did something interesting. They initially brought in Jordan Devey to hold the fort, but in Week 5, awarded a starting spot to Cameron Erving.

Erving, as you may know, was an enormous bust in Cleveland. A guy the offensive line scouts thought had all the tools to be a top-of-the-line NFL center has instead blown a massive amount of blocks. The Browns surrendered 19 sacks to defensive tackles and 10 more to inside linebackers last year. No other team gave up more than 11 or five, respectively. The thought was that putting Erving at right guard would at least let him play physically without having to worry about the mental responsibilities of center. Instead, the Kansas City run game has died with him in the lineup. In Week 5, the Chiefs averaged 3.6 yards per carry against a depleted Texans front without J.J. Watt or Whitney Mercilus for most of the game.

One of the big reasons that we loved Pittsburgh in our projections is that the Steelers were so talented in all areas that it didn't actually matter if Roethlisberger was getting older and starting to show wear. The run defense is anchored by three excellent 3-4 linemen: healthy versions of Stephon Tuitt and Cameron Heyward, as well as recurring Football Outsiders top prospect Javon Hargrave. When the pass rush came around towards the end of last year, this was a unit to be feared. Now at full strength, it's entirely capable of wrecking even the best offenses in the league.

It intuitively makes a lot of sense that the Chiefs would struggle with their backup linemen against that front. Kareem Hunt is terrific, but even he can only break so many tackles behind the line of scrimmage. Ultimately, it probably won't matter all that much. Neither Morse (already practicing) nor Duvernay-Tardif (sprained knee) is expected to miss the rest of the year. Zach Fulton can slide over and cover guard if they determine Erving was the main issue.

But it says a lot about just how much NFL personnel men and evaluators rely on projection that, even after failing as much as he did in Cleveland, Erving got another shot to play in Kansas City almost right away, over a backup who mostly kept the Chiefs on schedule against the Chargers in Week 4.

Posted by: Rivers McCown on 17 Oct 2017

14 comments, Last at 18 Oct 2017, 11:54am by LyleNM


by LyleNM :: Tue, 10/17/2017 - 1:06pm

I'm sure a lot of FO readers are scratching their heads and wondering why, when given the Dolphins (29 DVOA last week) winning at Atlanta (13) and the Giants (26) winning at Denver (16), you chose to go with the Steelers (4) winning at KC (1).

by Raiderfan :: Tue, 10/17/2017 - 1:50pm

Do not know about a lot, but I am certainly one of them. I was sure it would be NYG-DEN.

by BJR :: Tue, 10/17/2017 - 1:51pm

Dolphins were 13 point underdogs against the Falcons, and came back from 17-0 down to win. There can't have been many more incredible results in NFL history. Would have liked to have read about how on Earth that happened.

by joe football :: Tue, 10/17/2017 - 3:46pm

Maybe those games didn't feature an easily-captionable flamboyant TD celebration

by Rivers McCown :: Tue, 10/17/2017 - 10:23pm

We debated MIA-ATL, but the major factor there was that we'd already covered ATL a few weeks ago in the upset role. Not a lot has changed since then. Beasley isn't back. The receiving corps is banged up. And then you go to Miami and what are readers going to care about there? I love writing about bad football teams, but sometimes it's as simple as "what kind of hope are we going to sell about a one-win team with major injuries and/or Jay Cutler?"

However, I'm happy to open up the selection process. I'll happily start running polls for it.

by LyleNM :: Wed, 10/18/2017 - 11:54am

"Hope" is not something that I thought this column was about. I thought it was about, "Why did this team that had no business winning this game actually win this game?"

by ddoubleday :: Tue, 10/17/2017 - 1:08pm

And yet, Bell was not in the top 5 rushers by DYAR. There is something wrong with DYAR.

by bravehoptoad :: Tue, 10/17/2017 - 4:41pm

I'd bet the YAR was pretty high. Playing a crappy run defense will muck with that.

by Vincent Verhei :: Wed, 10/18/2017 - 5:05am

I answered this in the QR thread, but without opponent adjustments Bell was by far the top runner of the week.

by BearDown103 :: Tue, 10/17/2017 - 2:30pm

You did not pick either of the double-digit upsets: Dolphins over Falcons or Giants over Broncos.

by fb29 :: Tue, 10/17/2017 - 3:15pm

Can I toss my hat in as someone wondering what the hell happened in the Dolphins-Falcons game. As a fan, and talking to many friends, we are struggling to understand.

There were some big penalties (the Grady Jarrett roughing the passer most notable), and swingy plays like the interception that ended it, but I still feel justified getting my pitchfork out with Sarkisian's name on it

by James-London :: Wed, 10/18/2017 - 5:33am

Atlanta shanked two punts, and dropped the snap on a third, all leading to points. Grady Jarrett took an terrible INT of the table with the most bone-headed late hit you'll see all year, and despite Atlanta averaging over 5ypc, they refused to run.

tl,dr: Atlanta went a long way to beating themselves

Phil Simms is a Cretin.

by RickD :: Tue, 10/17/2017 - 4:17pm

Chiming in with the "Really, this was hardly a big upset considering what else happened on Sunday" crowd.

Steelers beating Chiefs? This was their third win in a row over KC. They beat the Chiefs in the playoffs last year. I know the Chiefs were #1 in DVOA, but they were hardly dominating.

by young curmudgeon :: Tue, 10/17/2017 - 4:47pm

Oh, come on, people! Surely you realize that the unusual circumstance isn't the Steelers beating the Chiefs, it is the Steelers appearing in "Any Given Sunday" in a non-losing role.