Simply ugly football
Today’s game between the Steelers and the Chiefs was to put it all into one word: weird. Both teams, who could easily face one another again in a playoff game, found themselves with numerous opportunities to snatch a victory that neither really deserved. Two of the league’s premier coaches had moments that charitably, will not be on their highlight reel when they show up in Canton. At the end of the day, the deciding factor may have been that the Steelers were just a shade more desperate for a win.
The first five points (no, that’s not a typo) came directly from mistakes. On Kansas City’s second drive of the game, Alex Smith mishandled a shotgun snap that sailed out of his end zone for a safety. On the ensuing free kick, Antonio Brown allowed the ball to bounce in front of him, giving the Chiefs a short field. Kansas City turned that bounce into a field goal. From that point until the end of the third quarter, the Steelers were as dominant as any team has been this season, especially on defense. They held the Chiefs to one first-half first down and not allowing them to surpass 100 total yards until late in the third quarter.
But, as is their habit, Pittsburgh failed to put the game away, only converting that defensive dominance and an overpowering running game into a 12–3 lead. The Chiefs woke up with four good drives in the fourth quarter, but could only total 10 points as one drive ended with an inexplicable decision to go for it on fourth and two at Pittsburgh’s five, and another ended on downs after a sack by James Harrison and Cameron Hayward. The 10 points may have been enough if Antonio Brown hadn’t caught a deflected pass and turned it into a 51-yard touchdown.
All things considered, this was a fascinating game. It began with a bunch of subplots, from Kansas City trying to sustain an undefeated start to Ben Roethlisberger trying to prove that his five-interception train wreck against Jacksonville wasn’t evidence of a larger issue. Throughout the game, there were twists and decisions, any of which could have sent the game in an entirely different direction.
- The safety and mishandled free kick by the Steelers in the first quarter turned what could have been a 7–0 or 9–0 lead into a 3–2 deficit. All things considered, Pittsburgh would have been better off without the safety, because they would probably have ended up with better field position. Stupid stuff like this has become a hallmark of the Steelers under Mike Tomlin. You can say it’s up to the players to execute, but when the mistakes are so widespread it’s tough not to think there’s a systemic issue. Given the way Brown approached the ball, you almost have to wonder if he knew it was necessary to field it.
- It didn’t appear that any of that would matter much when Pittsburgh rammed the ball down the field on their next drive to regain the lead. Here was where the first strange decision came. Ahead 8–3, Mike Tomlin had nothing to gain by kicking the extra point. The difference between a five-point and a six-point lead on the ultimate odds of winning are minuscule. A seven-point lead, however, which Pittsburgh could have had if they had gone for two and converted, would have made a big difference. Given that the final margin was six and Kansas City had the ball in Pittsburgh territory in the final minute, this decision could have been huge.
- After scoring that touchdown for the Steelers, Le’Veon Bell shadow boxed with the goal post as part of his celebration. It is unclear to me why that is illegal, but it is, and it’s another example of the Steelers shooting themselves in the foot.
- On the Steelers’ first drive of the third quarter, Bell caught a pass in stride from Roethlisberger. With a full head of steam, he would have simply needed to put his head down and ram past the first down marker. Instead, he hesitated and allowed himself to be stopped a yard short. On the ensuing punt, Jordan Berry was called for delay of game.
- The Steelers were able to mitigate the damage from most of their early sloppiness by playing stifling defense. But they still found themselves with just a nine-point-lead in the middle of the third quarter despite dominating the statistical battle.
- On the Steelers’ next drive, they drove from their own 11 to Kansas City’s 35, where they faced a third and two. On a day when Bell averaged 5.6 yards per carry, they chose to throw the ball, resulting in an incomplete pass to Bell. On fourth and two, with the choice of going for it or trying a long field goal that would have forced the Chiefs to score two touchdowns to win. Instead, Tomlin chose to punt. You can see the logic of trusting a defense that has dominated, but Berry bungled the strategy by punting the ball into the end zone, netting the Steelers only 15 yards.
- The Steelers got a break when Kansas city was called for holding on the touchback, forcing them to start their next drive on their own ten. But the offense finally found its groove, driving to Pittsburgh’s four, helped significantly by a roughing the passer call on Mike Mitchell. From there the Chiefs faced a fourth and two. Needing two scores with thirteen minutes to play, it was incumbent on the Chiefs to get something — anything — out of this drive. Andy Reid chose to go for it. Some coaches, when they go for it, have a play in their back pocket that they absolutely know will work. That wasn’t the case here. Alex Smith threw up a jump ball that his tight end, Demetrius Harris, couldn’t come down with.
- At this point, the Chiefs’ chances of winning were close to nil, which is why Reid’s decision to go for the fourth down doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. Smith brought them back, though, on their next drive, a lightning fast 82-yard drive that got them within two with six minutes still to go. Now, all the bad choices that had been made bubbled to the surface. If Tomlin had gone for two after the Steelers’ touchdown, the Chiefs would have been down three instead of two, which would have been huge. Reid’s choice not to kick a field goal on the previous drive loomed even larger.
- All of that became secondary when Antonio Brown made a one-handed catch that deflected off a defender’s helmet and sprinted to the end zone for a 51-yard touchdown, restoring Pittsburgh to a two-score lead. Kansas City entered Pittsburgh territory two more times before the end of the game, and we’ll never know if those drives — one of which ended in a field goal to cut the lead to six, the other which ended on downs at Pittsburgh’s 40 in the final minute — would have transpired if the score had been closer.
When coaches do things that defy logic, they like to say they went with their gut feeling. As both coaches in this game proved, math is not a feel thing. A seven-point lead is so much better than a six-point lead; not going for two points in that circumstance is unforgivable. And when your team needs two scores in the fourth quarter, you can’t come away from a possession in the red zone empty. Mike Tomlin was lucky that his brain fart, and his team’s sloppy play, didn’t cost him another game. Andy Reid wasn’t so lucky.
Kansas City Chiefs