Welcome to the 2021 NFL season’s Wild Card Weekend. Here at Buffalo Sports Page we will attempt to inform and educate our readers about the upcoming playoff games and what each team might do to emerge victorious.
One of the AFC’s wild card games will take place at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City, Missouri as the Kansas City Chiefs will face the Pittsburgh Steelers. Here’s what you should know:
CHIEFS’ OFFENSE IS DANGEROUS
Andy Reid’s version of the West Coast offense has taken on many forms over the years. In Philadelphia his passing game with quarterbacks Donovan McNabb and Michael Vick became vertical-based to take advantage of their arm strength, conversely with Alex Smith it was more conservative and horizontal.
Now with Patrick Mahomes under center it has returned to its downfield version. The system has also incorporated college concepts in recent years, and heavily relies on the design of the play to get people open. According to former MMQB/SI writer Andy Benoit, “Kansas City’s passing game is unique because it doesn’t depend on wide receivers winning one-on-one battles outside. The scheme relies on route combinations and creating opportunities for tight ends and running backs. This means the throws are more about timing than velocity.
“Reid features presnap motion, misdirection and multi-option reads. Those tactics put a defense on its heels by presenting the illusion of complexity, but they can transition into traditional concepts once the ball is snapped…. (they) aim to isolate specific defenders – often linebackers – present them with run/pass assignment conflicts and also get defenders flowing one way as the ball goes another.”
Wide receiver Tyreek Hill is perhaps the league’s fastest player and can line up anywhere – out wide, in the backfield and in the slot, where he is especially dangerous on post routes out of trips formations. He is joined by the similarly speedy Demarcus Robinson and burner Mecole Hardman to give the Chiefs a lethal trio who can beat anyone vertically, and all three are used liberally in motion by Reid along with red zone threat Byron Pringle and veteran Josh Gordon.
Travis Kelce, one of the best talents at his position, is versatile and can align in different ways in the formation (especially as the lone receiver on the backside in bunch – otherwise known as the boundary ‘X’ receiver). Perhaps the most athletic tight end in football, he can beat most cornerbacks, safeties and linebackers on many different routes, especially on corners, sticks and crossers. Kelce set a record for receiving yards by a tight end with 1,416 in 2020 and was his usual elite self in 2021.
Last season the Chiefs invested at running back by selecting Clyde Edwards-Helaire from LSU in the first round, significantly upgrading a position that previously relied on veterans Damien Williams and former Eagle and Buffalo Bill LeSean McCoy. Edwards-Helaire is adept at hurting teams not just on the ground (mostly via run-pass options) but through the air as well, especially on screen passes.
Edwards-Helaire and Mahomes operate behind an offensive line that has undergone many changes since 2020. Injuries and underperformance, especially in the Super Bowl against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, saw the Chiefs say goodbye to names like Eric Fisher, Mitchell Schwartz, Austin Reiter and Kelechi Osemele and hello to new faces like three-time Pro Bowler Orlando Brown Jr., former All-Pro Joe Thuney, second-year tackle Lucas Niang and rookies Creed Humphrey and Trey Smith. Veterans Mike Remmers, Nick Allegretti and Andrew Wylie – all starters in Super Bowl LV – have been relegated to bench duties, while Austin Blythe provides experienced depth after coming over from the Rams.
The widespread comparisons of Mahomes to Brett Favre aren’t unfounded, as the former possesses most of the latter’s attributes – a cannon for an arm, an uncanny ability to extend plays and good mobility and intelligence, plus a willingness to fit passes into tight windows. Early in the 2021 season Mahomes was still feeling the effects of a deteriorated front-five, as he showed too much unnecessary movement both inside and outside of the pocket (due to anticipating pressure that wasn’t there), sloppy footwork and not playing within the timing and structure of Reid and offensive coordinator Eric Bienemy’s attack. He also wasn’t taking what defenses were giving him coverage-wise and was forcing plays down the field that didn’t need to be.
As the year has gone on though, Mahomes has settled down. His mechanics have gotten better and his coaches have incorporated more short and intermediate concepts like “smash” and “flood” – resulting in him being more decisive and his offense playing on schedule.
KANSAS CITY’S DEFENSE, ONCE RELIABLE, NOW SLUMPING
From 2013 through 2018 the Chiefs’ defense was conducted by Bob Sutton, a former longtime assistant with the New York Jets. During the first three seasons Sutton applied his scheme in Kansas City the Chiefs had an upper-echelon unit, but between 2016-18 it took a nosedive – bottoming out in ’18 by finishing the regular season in the bottom-half of the league in nearly every statistical category.
Reid promptly replaced Sutton with one of his old assistants in Philadelphia, Steve Spagnuolo. “Spags”, a former head coach with the Rams and Super Bowl-winning defensive coordinator with the New York Giants, implemented a 4-3 system characterized by cleverly disguised five-man overload blitzes and coverages involving mainly Cover One, Two, Zero and two-deep man with press technique by the cornerbacks and the safeties rotating before the snap.
The biggest key to Kansas City’s defense is former Arizona Cardinal and Houston Texan Tyrann Mathieu. Mathieu is one of the most versatile back-end defenders in football, as evidenced by his many snaps at slot cornerback, box safety, nickel/dime linebacker, free safety and outside cornerback. His athleticism and intelligence are valuable to the Chiefs – so valuable to the point where he is mainly used as the team’s middle hole defender in Cover Two zone and not a linebacker.
Opposite Mathieu is a dup of versatile playmakers in Juan Thornhill and Daniel Sorenson (who “Spags” likes to use in man coverage against tight ends). The Chiefs’ other defensive backs are veterans Mike Hughes, Charvarius Ward, L’Jarius Sneed, Rashad Fenton and DeAndre Baker, and they will be on the field a lot on Sunday – as evidenced by Kansas City using dime formations on 35 percent of their plays last season, the third-highest figure in the NFL behind the Green Bay Packers and Carolina Panthers.
The Chiefs’ defensive line is the most talented part of this unit. Pro Bowler Chris Jones may be the most unsung defensive lineman in the league and is the linchpin of this unit thanks to his combination of burst and hand usage off the line of scrimmage. Former Seahawk Frank Clark boats elite quickness and Derrick Nnadi and Jarran Reed (who uses good power and leverage) are the team’s other starters in their front four. At linebacker Kansas City employs former Dallas Cowboy Anthony Hitchens and Ben Niemann (Niemann is usually the second-level defender in their sub-packages and will blitz from that alignment, especially on second down).
Unlike their elite offensive counterparts, the results from this unit over the last three years have been uneven. After a two-year stretch which saw Kansas City finish the 2019 regular season eighth in the NFL against the pass and racking up 45 sacks (11th-best among all defenses), and a 2020 campaign that ended with the Chiefs being ranked 14th against the pass and tied for second in the NFL in interceptions, Spagnuolo’s defense took a nosedive in 2021 – ending the campaign 27th against the pass, 21st against the run and fourth-last in sacks. However they were tied for 12th in interceptions.
STEELERS TRYING TO CHANGE ON OFFENSE DESPITE ISSUES
While some things have stayed the same about the Pittsburgh Steelers – namely on defense – other things have changed tremendously. Because of many factors, Pittsburgh’s offense looked much different in 2020 and ’21 than in recent years, but head coach Mike Tomlin and company have navigated through those issues to finish with 12-4 and 9-7-1 records.
Future Hall of Famer Ben Roethlisberger still boasts a high football IQ and elite accuracy, and his ability to extend plays both inside and outside of the pocket remains. But perhaps because of his age and having undergone elbow surgery in 2019, former Steelers offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner had his signal caller operate more like a point guard in basketball.
Roethlisberger distributed the ball to his playmakers in a scheme that relied on his receivers running shorter routes like slants, shallow crosses, quick outs and hitches, and occasional deep shots down the field. The quicker passing game – usually out of empty sets with “01” personnel (no running back, one tight end and four wideouts) – resulted in Roethlisberger connecting on just 6.3 yards-per-pass attempt, the lowest mark of his 18-year career. The bar was set even lower in 2021 as his yards-per-attempt was just 6.2, and because of his diminished arm strength it is widely believed that this year will be the last in the NFL.
Pittsburgh’s pass catchers aren’t usually sent in motion before the snap, with Roethlisberger mainly relying on their talent to win at the line of scrimmage via basic isolation routes. A five-man crew consisting of versatile fourth-year man John “JuJu” Smith-Schuster (who has missed most of this season due to injury), the shifty Diontae Johnson, second-year standout Chase Claypool, contested catch specialist James Washington and speedy tight end Eric Ebron (also injured), this group has all the talent in the world to be successful. Supplementing them this year is rookie tight end Pat Freiermuth, who reminds some of former Steeler Heath Miller in that he is a reliable third-down weapon and can contribute in the red zone.
The Steelers have a new threat at running back in rookie Najee Harris, whose physical style works well with a line that has undergone a makeover. Guard David DeCastro was released, center Maurkice Pouncey retired and tackle Alejandro Villanueva signed with the Baltimore Ravens. Their replacements – veteran Trai Turner and rookies Dan Moore Jr. and Kendrick Green – will team up with John Leglue and Chukwuma Okorafor. The Steelers also like to make use of backup linemen as extra blockers in their power-based running game and that bears watching as well.
Given their long history of being productive on the ground, one would expect Pittsburgh to be excellent in that area. However, in 2020 the Steelers were dead-last in the NFL in rushing and ended 2021 29th in that category. New offensive play-caller Matt Canada has tried to change that along with utilizing play-action more often, but the problem with that approach is Roethlisberger isn’t a fan of run-fakes due to the need for turning his back to the defense while the play develops.
PITTSBURGH REMAINS “BLITZBURGH”
After a few down years on that side of the ball, Pittsburgh has morphed back in “Blitzburgh” – an aggressive, complex defense to figure out for any opposing offense and is once again elite due to their zone-blitzing scheme. In 2020 the Steelers had the most interceptions in the NFL, led the league in sacks and ranked as the third-best defense in yards allowed. They were also third in points and passing yards allowed and were 11th against the run.
Things have been more of the same in 2021 as they led the league in sacks again and were ninth in passing yards surrendered. But a strange development occurred – Pittsburgh was dead-last against the run, which is a rare occurrence for a franchise that has prided themselves on shutting down opponents’ ground games.
Pittsburgh’s best pass defender is versatile safety Minkah Fitzpatrick who was acquired from Miami for a first-round draft pick two years ago. Capable of playing outside cornerback, nickel cornerback, centerfield as a single-high safety or in the box to help stop the run, Fitzpatrick has become the long sought-after replacement for Hall of Famer Troy Polamalu and is the perfect man to execute defensive coordinator Keith Butler’s preferred Cover One, Two and Three-robber pass defenses.
Fitzpatrick is joined in the Steelers’ secondary by former Cleveland Brown Joe Haden, who is still productive in his 12th season, and former first-round pick Terrell Edmunds (Tremaine’s brother) but questions persist about their depth at cornerback. Slot blitzer extraordinaire Mike Hilton departed in the spring for greener pastures in Cincinnati, which leaves Pittsburgh relying on vulnerable veterans Justin Layne and Cameron Sutton.
When Ryan Shazier suffered a career-ending spinal injury four years ago, it left a big hole in the coverage abilities of the Steelers’ linebackers. At first Tomlin, Butler and general manager Kevin Colbert tried to patch up that gaping wound by emphasizing packages involving three safeties (otherwise known as big nickel) but the drafting of Devin Bush from Michigan in 2019 and the signing of veteran Joe Schobert allows Pittsburgh to use more traditional nickel personnel.
At outside linebacker, Alex Highsmith and T.J. Watt – the younger brother of future Hall of Fame defensive end J.J. Watt – have become one of the most disruptive pass-rushing tandems in football (especially Watt, who tied Hall of Famer Michael Strahan’s single season sack record with 22.5) and can also cover and stop the run at a high level.
Playing in front of Watt and Highsmith are defensive linemen Cameron Heyward and Stephon Tuitt, who combine great technique with high-level quickness and strength, and nose tackle Tyson Alualu. Tuitt and Aluali, however, are on injured reserve with knee and ankle issues, respectively.