Three weeks ago the Pittsburgh Steelers lost at home to Baltimore to fall to 2-2, not to mention give the Ravens their only victory to date. Now, the 4-2 Steelers head to Kansas City this Sunday with the look of a true contender in the American Football Conference. They’ve done it despite having to bring up the junior varsity.
Against the Chiefs, the Steelers will be playing their fourth kicker, likely start their fourth-string quarterback, and their third-string left tackle. Additionally, for multiple games they’ve been without their top running back and second-best wide receiver due to suspensions, a starting inside linebacker, and didn’t have strong safety Will Allen last week against the highest-scoring team in the NFL.
So you’ll forgive Steelers fans if they are less than sympathetic to the plight the Kansas City Chiefs are in because star running back Jamaal Charles tore up his knee.
Don’t dismiss the Chiefs because they are 1-5, however. They’ve only lost one of their games by a significant margin and the Steelers are so banged up they can’t take anyone lightly. And despite their poor start, the Chiefs are only two games back of the final wild card spot in the AFC, just as the Steelers are only two games back of Cincinnati in the AFC North.
Pittsburgh at Kansas City
Kickoff: 1 p.m. ET (Sunday)
Spread: Steelers -2
Three Things To Watch
1. Who is Landry Jones?
Although Ben Roethlisberger has been back at practice this week, he’s spent a lot of that time trying to get fitted for a knee brace. Michael Vick injured his hamstring last week in a 25-13 victory against Arizona, and Bruce Gradkowski is out for the season with a hand injury.
Enter Jones, the former Oklahoma star who spent three underwhelming preseasons making fans wonder why he was on the roster. Yes, he led the NFL in passing yards this preseason, but it was because he saw the lion’s share of action. There’s a reason Vick was given the primary backup quarterback position. But against the Cardinals, Jones was 8-of-12 for 168 yards and two touchdowns. Whether it was the element of surprise or the simple matter that receivers finally knew where the ball was coming from (unlike the passes from the left-handed Vick), Jones led the comeback, as 19 of the team's 25 points came when he was on the field.
One gets the feeling the Chiefs will try to pressure Jones, who most likely will be making his first NFL start. How Jones stands up to this rush, or calls an audible, will determine if the Chiefs can stay close to the Steelers or not. After all, rookie cornerback Marcus Peters has three interceptions this year for the Chiefs.
2. Can the Chiefs protect Alex Smith against Blitzburgh?
Alex Smith may be a game manager, but if ever there was a game in which you wanted a quarterback like Smith to keep mistakes low, this is it.
But Kansas City has allowed 24 sacks this season, tops in the AFC, while the Steelers’ revived pass rush has registered 17 sacks and hasn’t allowed more than 20 points in regulation since the first game of the season. Teams have been able to succeed against the Steelers at times this year by completing passes to the tight end over the middle. It’s unlikely with the likelihood of Jeremy Maclin missing the game after suffering a concussion Smith will have a deep threat, but if and when he can pick up a cornerback blitz from William Gay to find the receiver Gay would normally cover, the Chiefs may unexpectedly be able to get a big play from a relatively short pass.
3. Can the Chiefs find a running game?
With Charles out, Kansas City turned to Charcandrick West at running back. The rookie from Abilene Christian wasn’t much and even fumbled the ball away late in Kansas City’s 16-10 loss to Minnesota last week.
The Steelers have been one of the most efficient teams against the run this season and shut down the Cardinals’ powerful running game last week. If the Chiefs can’t find a running back to catch passes out of the backfield in this game Kansas City might be doomed.
How can any team so beat up still be so good? Yes, Jones could be a liability, but it seems the Chiefs' running game and offensive line already are.
Prediction: Steelers 20, Chiefs 17
— Written by Marky Billson, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. An experienced beat reporter and sports writer, Billson began contributing to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in 2000. He has covered the Steelers, Pitt Panthers, MLB and more during his career. Follow him on Twitter @MarkyBillson.
(Top photo courtesy of Getty Images)