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Steelers, Ben Roethlisberger far from perfect foils to Patrick Mahomes’ Chiefs atop AFC

The Steelers are the last undefeated team standing in the AFC and, with the Seahawks’ Sunday night loss, the entire NFL after Week 7, improving to 6-0 after handing the Titans (5-1) their first loss of the 2020 season. That doesn’t mean they have fully emerged as a real threat to dethrone the reigning Super Bowl champion Chiefs (6-1) as conference champions. Until proven otherwise, the Chiefs, and not the Steelers, remain the best team in the AFC.

While Pittsburgh held on to win at Tennessee, 27-24 on Sunday, Kansas City delivered a 43-16 victory in Denver later in the afternoon. Over the past two weeks, the Steelers have padded their resume better with wins over the Browns (5-2) and Titans. For now, the Chiefs most impressive wins have come against the Ravens (5-1) and Bills (5-2).

The Steelers have been strong all around this season. Their defense stops the run and rushes the passer at a high level. The offense has a strong baseline of running with James Conner and others. They have endless weaponry in the passing game for quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, on track to be the league’s Comeback Player of the Year.

But despite the flawless results in record and standings for the new AFC North leaders, Pittsburgh is showing some concerning peccadillos that scream it won’t match up well with Kansas City when it counts most in the playoffs. The Steelers and Chiefs do not play in the regular season.

After the win over the Titans, when the Steelers were on the brink of blowing a 27-7 lead until Stephen Gostkowski missed the game-tying field-goal attempt before the end of regulation, coach Mike Tomlin pointed to some of the issues.

“We knew they wouldn’t flinch. They have been in these types of games more than we have. We knew that that was a winning edge for them, and it showed” Tomlin said of the Titans’ comeback. “We had something to do with how the game got as well. We gave up a big play for a touchdown. We turned the ball over. You do those things against good people they’re going to get back in the game 100 percent of the time.

“Thankfully our guys didn’t blink and were able to hold it together and make enough plays to secure a victory. (We’re) not a perfect product. We understand that. But I appreciate their efforts. We are perfect from a record standpoint and so we respect that.”

Here’s breaking down Tomlin’s concerns about his team’s weaknesses even further as they relate to the Chiefs’ strengths

Steelers have a lot of big-play lapses

Tomlin was right in citing that “big play for a touchdown,” which was a 73-yard catch and run by the Titans’ best wide receiver, A.J. Brown. That gave Tennessee life to get back into the game in the middle of the third quarter. Two weeks ago against the Eagles, when they mostly shut down Miles Sanders, they still gave up a 74-yard TD run. With the exception of Week 6 against the Browns, the Steelers have surrendered chunk plays in every game. 

There are some series where it’s impossible to move the ball on the Steelers, as teams get behind schedule on early downs before facing pressure in obvious third-down passing situations. But then sometimes th Steelers get overaggressive or overrun a play, losing some discipline at critical times.

That’s not a good formula against Patrick Mahomes, Tyreek Hill and the rest of the Chiefs’ speedy playmakers. Teams have been protecting against being burned downfield by Mahomes and Hill on home runs, making the Chiefs methodically move the ball down the field with running and short-to-intermediate passing. But it’s still Mahomes, who doesn’t need much an opening to deliver a deep backbreaker. They also are getting more receivers involved and picking good spots to take their shots.

In the second half against Ryan Tannehill, the Steelers struggled to finish their rushes. That’s happened a lot for teams vs. Mahomes, not getting to him and wearing down in the fourth quarter. The Steelers have faced several athletic QBs who adjust well to buy extra time against them.

Steelers cornerbacks are struggling

Related to the first item, outside starters Steven Nelson and Joe Haden and nickel Mike Hilton have been taking turns being shaky in coverage. Nelson, a ballhawk, has often lost his man when not making a play on the ball. Haden is starting to show his age in slowing down at 31. Hilton is typically sound covering the slot, but he’s had his share of whiffs. When the Steelers aren’t getting sacks and a QB can buy some time, there are plays to be made with wide receivers all over the field. That’s been seen with Wentz, Tannehill, Daniel Jones and Deshaun Watson. The Steelers are better against tight ends with safety Minkah Fitzpatrick and others.

Mahomes has good versatility at wide receiver with which to attack, seen in both Hill’s interchangeable outside-inside impact and in how effective they remain without Sammy Watkins, going No. 2 by committee based on matchup with Demarcus Robinson and Mecole Hardman. Then you have to consider the attention Travis Kelce merits as the toughest AFC tight end to cover. Between Nelson, Haden and Hilton, Mahomes can find someone to consistently exploit from one pass play to another vs. the Steelers.

Steelers aren’t consistently putting away teams

The Steelers beat the Giants by 10 in Week 1 and the Eagles by 9 in Week 5 and both games felt a lot closer than the final scores would indicate. They also had one-possession wins against the Broncos, Texans and Titans. You would think Pittsburgh is built to pile on and continue to rattle teams trying to catch up or stay with its offense. But the big-play lapses and cornerback issues are opening the door for opponents to stay in games.

They have the potential to dominate and smash teams all-around like they did with the Browns. Tomlin mentioned the Titans’ experience in showing fight and resolve. The Chiefs built plenty of that equity in last season’s playoffs, coming back strong to beat the Texans, Titans and 49ers with Mahomes. 

The Raiders were able to beat the Chiefs with the ideal blend of ball control and big plays of their own. The Steelers’ offense can do that to try to keep Mahomes off the field, but he needs only the slightest chance to lift the Chiefs when they’re down.

Steelers masking issues with Ben Roethlisberger

Roethlisberger is 38 and coming off a season mostly lost to a major right elbow injury. The reports from the Steelers since the early offseason were that he was on track for a full recovery, which has been the case. That said, his arm isn’t at full strength and the Steelers’ passing game is getting it done with a lot of short passes and good work after the catch by wide receivers JuJu Smith-Schuster, Chase Claypool and Diontae Johnson, among others. 

Consider Big Ben went into Week 7 ranked No. 24 in the NFL in intended air yards from quarterback. He also was 27th in intended air yards per passing attempt and No. 29 in completed air yards per completion (4.9). Because of calculated, careful passing, Roehtlisberger had only one interception before throwing three against the Titans.

With Tennessee able to slow down Pittsburgh’s rushing attack, Roethlisberger threw more than expected with a significant lead, averaging 5.5 yards over his 49 attempts. He was forcing the issue with fitting the ball deep at time. Two of his interceptions came when the Steelers were in position to score points, once late in the red zone. Like with the Saints’ Drew Brees, there is some natural, noticeable dropoff with Roehtlisberger.

The Raiders were able to get the better of Mahomes and the Chiefs in Week 5 because they had the ideal blend of ball control and effective, aggressive downfield passing from Derek Carr. The Steelers went into Week 7 as the top NFL team in time of possession, four spots better than the Raiders in that regard.

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There’s not a feeling that the Steelers would be comfortable in true shootout mode with Roethlsibeger vs. Mahomes. And where they are weak in coverage plays right into the right arm of Mahomes.

The Chiefs already have dispatched four of the five teams that made the AFC playoffs with them in 2020. They don’t play the Titans, either, so they won’t make it six, but they did plenty to prove their worth vs. pretty much the same Tennessee team in AFC title game.

That would add up to thinking the Steelers have made it more than just a two-team race, also overtaking the Chiefs as AFC favorites. The reality is, like every team in the NFL, Pittsburgh is nothing resembling perfection, given the team nearly blew it big-time in a close game with a contender it is supposed to be leapfrogging on the way to Kansas City.

The Steelers definitely seem equipped to take back the AFC North from the Ravens, their bye-returning opponent in Baltimore in Week 8. Lamar Jackson is going through some shaky downfield passing and the Ravens have had trouble getting their traditional running game going. Those issues, plus the Ravens’ limited receiving depth, mean the Steelers match up much better with the Ravens than the Chiefs.

Getting back to winning the division is the first obstacle the Steelers must clear to stay undefeated, but more important, to work toward a more favorable playoff position. As for being built to beat the Chiefs and being better than the Chiefs, that isn’t the case. With the Patriots suddenly dying as a contender, there’s room for a new Steelers intraconference nemesis to emerge. The Chiefs are the ones perfect for that role.

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