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The Steelers have found their defensive mojo at the right time
- Updated: January 16, 2017
The Pittsburgh Steelers used a different formula in Sunday night’s divisional round matchup against the Kansas City Chiefs. Instead of their powerful offence taking over, it was their defence that took control of the game with their incredible discipline and playmaking ability.
The Chiefs didn’t have many answers for the Steelers’ swarming defence, with explosive playmakers in Tyreek Hill (45 yards) and Travis Kelce (77 yards) being held under check for the majority of the contest. Chris Boswell stepped up with an NFL-record 6 field goals to provide the Steelers with of all their points, but without any scoring touchdowns their defence had to deliver. Pittsburgh would step up like the old days of the Steel Curtain, holding Kansas City to a mere 227 total yards on their way to an 18-16 victory, and a spot in the AFC Championship game against the New England Patriots next Sunday.
Even though they were amongst the middle of the pack in total defence during the regular season, the Steelers’ defensive unit has started to look like one of the best in the NFL throughout the playoffs. In their 2 games against the Miami Dolphins and Chiefs, the Steelers have allowed a postseason-low 56.5 rushing yards and rank 1st in total defence after only giving up an average of 266 yards.
Their rushing defence will have to continue to play at their best against the Patriots, with them boasting a tremendous 1-2 punch in LeGarrette Blount and Dion Lewis. Blount led the NFL in rushing touchdowns with 18 in the regular season, and Lewis has re-emerged as one of the premier receiving backs in the NFL. They’ll be a completely different beast compared to the running games of the Chiefs and Dolphins, but the Steelers will need to rely on their defence as they continue coming together at the right time.
They’ve received contributions from almost every position in their defensive unit; ranging from veteran linebackers in James Harrison and Lawrence Timmons, to young defensive backs in Bud Dupree and Ross Cockrell. Everything’s falling into place for this team, and it couldn’t have come at a better time. There’s no doubt that Pittsburgh’s explosive offence will continue to be looked at as their focal point, but their defence is what is giving them a chance to win their 1st AFC title since 2011.
Our 36 playoff victories are the most in NFL history. pic.twitter.com/VcjEj38yKp
— Pittsburgh Steelers (@steelers) January 16, 2017
Lined up against a shaky, but capable Chiefs offence, the Steelers knew that they would have to be prepared for any unpredictable sequence coming their way. Kansas City hasn’t been known for their passing game, but with their recent addition in Hill, and the resurgence of Jeremy Maclin – Pittsburgh had to stay patient and wait for their opportunities to disrupt Alex Smith and their offence.
Despite knowing the Chiefs’ offensive approach, the Steelers would find themselves on their heels early. Kansas City would bring the heat on their 1st offensive possession, creating a 6-play, 3-minute drive, capped off by a tricky 5-yard TD connection from Smith to Albert Wilson to give the Chiefs a 7-3 lead.
With a hyped up crowd at Arrowhead cheering on the Chiefs, the momentum seemed to be flying towards their way, until the Steelers’ defence woke up and made life extremely difficult for Smith. After allowing a mere 26 yards on Kansas City’s ensuing offensive drive, Pittsburgh would force an interception on Smith – with Dupree hitting the QB to spring the ball out of his possession and allow Ryan Shazier to gain possession with 8:08 remaining in the frame.
The Steelers’ defensive unit started to step up and create quick 3-and-outs heading into the half, only allowing the Chiefs to stay on the field for a combined 1:38 minutes of possession before the break. A field goal would give the Steelers a 12-7 lead at the end of the 1st half, but their defence wouldn’t take its foot off the pedal – enforcing their will on the Chiefs to start the 2nd half.
After their offence scored another field goal to start the 3rd quarter, Pittsburgh’s defence would make a strong defensive stand. Kansas City would gain a total of 20 yards in their first 2 possessions of the 3rd, with Harrison closing out the latter with a monster sack to force a punt on back-to-back drives.
Kansas City’s lone bright spot of the quarter would come in the late stages, with the offence receiving some great field position before capitalizing on a 48-yard field goal to cut the lead to 15-10 with 10 seconds left in the 3rd quarter. With the game coming down to the wire, and Boswell scoring another field goal to give them an 18-10, the Steelers’ defence would be put up to the challenge once again.
The Chiefs make their way down the field like they had the whole year, and would convert on a pair of 4th-down situations before setting themselves up for a 1-yard rushing TD. With the Chiefs holding momentum and looking to tie the game with a 2-point conversion, a familiar face would step up for Pittsburgh.
At first, it looked like the Chiefs converted on their 2-point play, with Smith throwing a dart to Demetrius Harris for the score. Unfortunately for them, a hold on Harrison by Eric Fisher would force the Chiefs to have to retry their 2-point conversion at the 12-yard line – resulting in a big-time deflection from Sean Davis to keep the score at 18-16 with 2:43 remaining. Pittsburgh’s offence would have a chance to seal the deal, and they would – with Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown connecting and converting on a 3rd down, giving them time to milk the clock and put the game to rest.
The Steelers’ defence has shown a lot in their 2 games of work in the postseason, proving that they are capable of playing like a well-balanced and disciplined unit. Despite lacking a superstar within their defence, the unit boasts a bevy of young and experienced playmakers that have stepped up when their number has been called.
Taking on Tom Brady and the Patriots won’t be a walk in the park, but with their defensive coordinator in Keith Butler executing their 3-4 defence almost to perfection, the Steelers should be able to disrupt the Patriots’ high-powered offence. This defence has an answer for almost any offensive attack, owning a strong defensive line, fast and instinctive linebackers, and a gritty secondary that isn’t afraid to get physical when the time is right.
Last season, this defence was a shell of itself – allowing teams to eat them up on their way to a divisional round loss to the Denver Broncos. Now, it seems like the Steelers have finally rekindled some of their defensive prowess by utilizing their key pieces to make plays. They won’t have to lead the team with an incredible offence in front of them, but as long as they can deliver when they’re needed; this Pittsburgh shouldn’t have anything stopping them from making their 3rd Super Bowl appearance in 9 seasons.
All stats for this article are from NFL.com
You can follow Peter Ash on Twitter @peterash_