Down goes Frazier!
Well, not quite. The Pittsburgh Steelers managed to knock off the Arizona Cardinals last week, giving them a 4-2 record on the season and 2-1 without quarterback Ben Roethlisberger under center. This impressive run will continue to Kansas City this week as the Steelers head west and take on the Chiefs this Sunday at Arrowhead.
(Side note: Boo, Kansas City. Respectfully, all Blue Jays fans.)
After suffering a small tear in his hamstring, quarterback Michael Vick will be sidelined this week which means third year quarterback Landry Jones gets his first National Football League start against a dominant Chiefs front seven. Jones put up an impressive performance against a very good Cardinals secondary last week, impressing even the most staunch critics of his. The former Oklahoma passer was 8 of 12 for 168 yards and two touchdowns, both of which were to receiver Martavis Bryant. Bryant made his first appearance of the 2015 season to the tune of 6 receptions for 137 yards with the two previously mentioned touchdown receptions. The most impressive catch on the day was the 10 yard slant that Bryant managed to turn into an 88 yard touchdown reception, showcasing his freakish athleticism and speed on the play.
The Steelers defense has shown up in a big way in Roethlisberger’s absence, often keeping the game within striking distance for the offense. Stifling the leagues most productive offense to the tune of 13 points is not an easy task. Yes, the Cardinals missed open receivers throughout the game and the Steelers’ defense was aided by a couple of non-calls, but the defense was dominant on Sunday. Defensive Coordinator Keith Butler has done an excellent job thus far of catering the defense to the talent on the field, and it has shown up in a big way.
Todd Haley’s play calling has been the subject of much debate amongst Steelers fans while Vick has been under center, but the offense went back to its old self operating under Jones. The offense may not be as lethal or productive without Roethlisberger on the field but Jones has a better understanding of the offense and allows the playbook to be opened up when on the field. I went to bat for Vick and tried to take some of the blame off of him for the lack of production thus far, but he may have had more to do with it than I would have liked. Vick lacks the ability to get the ball into the hands of the play makers on the field and Jones appears to have that particular knack. It is also debatable whether or not Vick has the ability to make basic reads and progressions in Haley’s offense, and it appears as if he and Haley were never on the same page even regarding simple concepts. Jones gives this team the best opportunity to win with Roethlisberger on the sidelines, and once the game was over, there was never any doubt who was going to be under center against the Chiefs.
Key Match-up to Watch Offensively
Left tackle Alejandro Villanueva against outside linebacker Tamba Hali
This game would be an absolute nightmare for the Chiefs if Roethlisberger were healthy. Rookie cornerback Marcus Peters has had a very good season to this point, but in no way is he ready to take on the leagues best receiver in Antonio Brown. Peters may be the most fortunate that Roethlisberger cannot play in this game, as that match-up would make Sunday a very long day for the rookie. Jones has shown the ability to get the ball into the hands of his play makers and took his shots against All-Pro cornerback Patrick Peterson last Sunday. Brown has the unmatched ability of getting separation with his exceptional route running ability and may be Jones’ primary target this week.
Bryant matched up against cornerback Sean Smith is another to look out for this weekend. Smith and Bryant are actually similarly sized with Bryant being only one inch taller than Smith. Bryant likely wins this match-up, however, as he possesses better straight line speed and more athletic ability to create separation and take the top off of the Chiefs secondary.
The match-up to look out for this weekend, however, will be on the Steelers offensive line. Kelvin Beachum was lost for the season last weekend to an ACL tear. Beachum has struggled at times this season, but his ability in pass protection is going to be sorely missed on an offensive line that is already down its anchor in Maurkice Pouncey.
The next man up is former Army Ranger Alejandro Villanueva. The former Army wideout has packed on more than 100 lbs. since joining the Steelers. His time at tackle has been impressive to this point. Villanueva has not allowed a sack to this point in any of his snaps, including the preseason and the regular season. He has shown the ability to anchor and use his exceptional length against powerful edge rushers and has shown the athletic ability and kickslide to not allow quicker, more agile pass rushers an easy lane to the quarterback. This weekend will be Villanueva’s toughest test thus far as he takes on one of the league’s best pass rushers in outside linebacker Tamba Hali. The 10 year vet has racked up more than 80 career sacks to this point and will be up against a tackle that has only been practicing at the position for a calendar year.
While a mismatch on paper, it is important to take note that Villanueva and Jones have previous playing experience with one another. According to coach Mike Tomlin, Jones has played the most preseason snaps of any player in league history. This has led to extensive playing time between Villanueva and Jones, which allows Villanueva to be comfortable in tendencies of his new starting quarterback. Hali poses a threat coming off of Jones’ blindside, but Villanueva possesses the athleticism and natural ability to neutralize it.
That being said, expect to see most of Le’Veon Bell’s runs go between the tackles this weekend. Hali still has the upper-hand in the run game.
Key Match-up to Watch Defensively
Defensive end Cameron Heyward vs. left guard Ben Grubbs
The Chiefs have allowed 23 sacks through six games and lack talent everywhere along the offensive line. From left tackle to right tackle, the Chiefs are mismatched along the offensive line against a suddenly dominant Steelers’ front seven. The most dominant of the bunch is defensive end Cameron Heyward, and Heyward is going to be a handful for the Chiefs. Left guard Ben Grubbs will be tasked with slowing down Heyward, though I do not know how much good that is going to do them. Heyward has been outstanding thus far and has shown the ability to create interior pressure consistently. Grubbs has struggled with faster, more athletic defensive ends so far and will struggle to contain one of the best defensive ends in football on Sunday.
This is a game that defensive end Stephon Tuitt is surely upset to miss. Tuitt has had a Pro Bowl-level season thus far across from Heyward and would have likely added to his sack total on Sunday. His knee injury will prevent him from playing, but the rest of the front seven is sure to pick up the slack.
The Steelers are likely to welcome back linebackers Jarvis Jones and Ryan Shazier against the Chiefs. Jones played very well against the San Diego Chargers in his last outing and is expected to continue his good play against sub-par tackle talent. Shazier has been missed dearly in this front seven as linebacker Sean Spence has played adequately to this point but simply cannot replicate the type of athleticism and talent that Shazier brings to the middle of the defense.
Linebacker Bud Dupree has flashed the type of ability and talent that made him the 22nd overall selection in this past draft. Dupree is matched up against former number one overall draft selection Eric Fisher. Fisher has shown he struggles in the past against athletic pass rushers and Dupree brings plenty of athleticism, as well as an explosive first step and good bend around the edge.
The consistent pressure that is expected from the defensive front is going to make things uncomfortable for quarterback Alex Smith throughout the game. Expect the Steelers pass rushers to get home frequently against an over matched and overwhelmed offensive line.
In almost every sense, this is a mismatch on paper for the Steelers. The secondary has struggled and will continue to struggle throughout the season as the team lacks a legitimate starting cornerback, but the pressure that is going to be applied on Smith should negate any potential passing attack. Expect to see a couple more turnovers this weekend generated by a pass rush forcing hurried throws.
Score Prediction and Parting Shots
This is likely to be the final game without Roethlisberger under center. Jones has the ability to bring a sense of continuity back to this offense. I have been preaching that whomever is under center until Roethlisberger returns simply needs to get the ball into the hands of the many playmakers on this offense and Jones can do just that. Expect Brown to return to his explosive form with a little bit of Bryant and a whole lot of Bell sprinkled in.
Steelers 24 – Chiefs 10
• Maurkice Pouncey may or may not have had a second surgery, depending on what your definition of what a surgery is. It also may or may not have extended his absence from the field this season. Essentially, there is almost no new information regarding Pouncey than there was previously. The news is, there is no news.
• The special teams penalties are now unacceptable. While it seems to be a league-wide epidemic, the Steelers have consistently taken back good returns from Brown due to an illegal block or holding. Expect to see players have their “hats” taken away if this type of play continues.
• How good is Tomlin? Let me ask this in a different way: how many other coaches in the league would be able to steer their team to a 4-2 record while having their first two starting quarterbacks, starting receiver and All-Pro center and running back all having missed time this season. It’s nothing short of remarkable what Tomlin has accomplished this season considering the circumstances that have been thrust onto him. If Josh Scobee were a competent kicker, the Steelers would have an undefeated record without Roethlisberger under center. Again, remarkable. If he isn’t the front runner for Coach of the Year, I don’t know what more he has to accomplish.
• Defensive coordinator Keith Butler should also be in the running for Assistant of the Year. His breath of fresh air into a stale defense has given new life to a unit that was thought to be one of the worst in the league last season.
• There will be an article up next week detailing the current state of the Steelers’ defense. A little preview: quite frankly, the Steelers do not have a starting NFL cornerback on the roster currently. Brandon Boykin is their best bet, but still remains on the sidelines on Sundays. The infuriating sentiment of loyalty has continued with this coaching staff for a long time now. William Gay and Antwon Blake are Nickel and Dime players, respectively, and Boykin deserves an opportunity to start on the boundary opposite Ross Cockrell.
• Maligned cornerback Cortez Allen was placed on IR to make room for emergency quarterback Tyler Murphy this Sunday against the Chiefs. I once had high hopes for Allen, but this contract may go down as one of the worst in the Kevin Colbert era. His cap hit and dead money in 2016 may be the only reason why he is given another chance next year. Though, it would not surprise me if he is not on the team next season.