PREGAME STRETCH: Pittsburgh at Kansas City

Have rumors of Steelers demise been greatly exaggerated? We'll find out Sunday

The game: Pittsburgh Steelers (3-2) vs. Kansas City Chiefs (5-0), CBS, Sunday, 4:25 p.m., Arrowhead Stadium, 76,416.

Announcers: Jim Nantz and Tony Romo. It’s time! It’s time! It’s time for Steelers fans to see what all the fuss is about around Romo, who’s been pretty much universally praised in his brief and refreshing career as a football analyst. Here are some things to look for in terms of what’s made Romo so good, so quickly. First, he has a simple, direct way of explaining what quarterbacks are looking for when reading defenses and how they react to that. Despite the fact there have been literally hundreds of ex-QB analysts, Romo’s perspective seems unique. Second, he often predicts correctly what the quarterback is going to do next. You’ll see. It’s uncanny. Finally, he’s quicker with the telestrator than anyone we’ve ever seen, often diagramming stuff on the first replay rather than “after the break.” And probably the best thing about Romo is that, so far, he has made Nantz seem much less annoying.

Information courtesy www.the506.com

Weather – or not: Some sun, 70. A far cry from the catastrophic ice storm these two teams dealt with the last time they met. With two domes coming up in Detroit and Indy, it’s possible weather will play zero factor in any Steelers games before Thanksgiving.

Information courtesy www.accuweather.com

The last time: Chris Boswell kicked six field goals and Le’Veon Bell rushed for 170 yards as the Steelers dodged an ice storm and the Chiefs in an 18-16 win in a Divisional Round playoff game last January. In retrospect, maybe THIS was where the Steelers offensive problems first showed themselves as the “field goals instead of touchdowns” performance allowed the Chiefs to hang around and apparently tie the game with 2:43 left only to see their two-point conversion taken off the board because of a blatant holding call by Eric Fisher on James Harrison. The Steelers lead the all-time series 22-11 and have won five of the past six meetings.

Referee: Carl Cheffers. Ironically, Mr. Cheffers was last seen throwing that flag on Eric Fisher, a call that become controversial only because the national sports media has to create controversy to fuel its inane sports arguments shows. In any event, expect to see more flags this time as Cheffers’ crew is tossing an average of 16 per game, well above the league average. Information courtesy www.footballzebras.com, www.profootballreference.com and www.nflpenalties.com (it takes three, count ’em, three web sites to provide you with the best each week in officiating background information).

The line: Kansas City -4.5/46

Smarts say: About 70 percent of bettors were on the Chiefs as of midweek. All five Pittsburgh games so far this season have hit on the under. What a stat for a team and a quarterback who once boasted their goal was to average 30 points per game on offense. The O/U of 46 this week would mean something like Chiefs Steelers 25-21.

Information courtesy www.pregame.com

When the Steelers have the ball:

PIT offense, 12th passing, 24th rushing, 19th scoring (19.8 ppg), 19th sacks allowed (9)

KC defense, 25th passing, 28th rushing, 17th scoring (22.2 ppg), 8th sacks (14)

When the Chiefs have the ball:

KC offense, 9th passing, 2nd rushing, 1st scoring (32.8 ppg), 17th sacks allowed (20)

PIT defense, 1st passing, 20th rushing, 6th scoring (17.8 ppg), 3rd sacks (17)

So…: As expected, one of these teams is unbeaten with a high-powered offense. Of course, it’s the Chiefs, led by a “game manager” quarterback who’s suddenly found his downfield touch and a little-known rookie running back. But those pedestrian defensive stats for Kansas City came as big of a surprise to us as Pittsburgh’s pedestrian offensive stats are through five games.

Information courtesy www.nfl.com

Key matchups: Eli Rogers and Vance McDonald vs. Chiefs secondary

Why: Two things have been missing from the Steelers passing game for most of this season, the option routes out of the slot, where Rogers usually excels, and seam routes from the tight end, which we saw ever so briefly last year from Ladarius Green. Rogers has been mostly absent from the offense this year, first because of injury then the bizarre two-game banishment Mike Tomlin decreed. He can be a safety blanket for Ben Roethlisberger on plays where otherwise might force a throw or take a sack. He’ll need to be that Sunday. McDonald, it seems, has yet to arrive yet in the Pittsburgh offense, with just four targets and zero/zip/zilch/none/nada receptions. Yikes. That’s production from a guy that cost the Steelers a draft pick. McDonald has got to get more involved down the seam, where the plodding Jesse James is not really a factor, and it needs to state this week.

Player on the spot (again): Ben Roethlisberger

Why: You’ve seen the stats – 28th in the league in passing yards, 19th in quarterback rating – and you’ve seen the struggles firsthand. The Steelers are going nowhere if Roethlisberger doesn’t start playing better. We’ve talked a lot in the last year or so about what the Steelers will look like without a franchise quarterback and now we’re seeing it firsthand. Come back, Big Ben. Come back, Drama Queen Ben. Come back, Surly Ben.

Quick hits:

+ We didn’t like Eli Rogers fumbling that punt in Chicago either. But we also didn’t like Mike Tomlin forcing his players into a corner that’s caused lingering dissent by requiring they come to a unified decision about the National Anthem protests and no one deactivated Tomlin over that. Obviously, we’re not inside the Steelers locker room and maybe there’s more to the story, but to deactivate such a valuable player for two freakin’ games seems nuts to us.

+ If you are a longtime reader of this blog, you know we predicted more than five years ago, that the NFL already had reached its zenith in popularity (we like SBXLV, Steelers and Packers, as the high point) and that a slow and sure decline was inevitable. We thought then (and still think today) that changing social mores toward and increasing litigation about the violence in the game would be remembered as the biggest factor in the league’s (and sport’s) slow spiral. The current social and political unrest surrounding the game certainly has a chance to hasten that spiral, and might be credited by the current culture of instant gratification with causing the spiral, but the long view of history will recognize it as body blows after a knockout punch already was delivered.

+ None of that changes the fact that we personally love the NFL and will continue to watch it. That others do not is not something we care about. We can’t understand why people can’t just like what they like and let others do the same. Instead, there’s this crazy push for groupthink. Don’t fall for it.

+ A very good harbinger of a potential Steelers victory Sunday is that Peter King, SI’s legendarily bad prognosticator, tweeted “what are you smoking?” after getting a question about Pittsburgh’s chances.

The pick: Had the Steelers lost at Baltimore and beaten Jacksonville at home (which is what we thought was going to happen), what would the fan and media mood be about the team? Certainly much more positive than it’s turned out with the opposite results. What would the line be in this game? We’re guessing -3 instead of -4.5. The NFL is the ultimate week-to-week league and we see that demonstrated EVERY SINGLE WEEK yet somehow we can’t help ourselves in making these huge assumptions based on a single week’s performance. We felt all along (and there’s plenty of historic evidence to support this) that Pittsburgh would get to the bye at 5-3. We still think that’s the case. If Pittsburgh wins this game, and we think they will, they’ll likely trip at home against Bengals or at Detroit. It’s a week-to-week league and this week… Steelers 29-24.

Last week: We couldn’t have been much more wrong about last week’s game (although we did say “anything can happen if Bad Ben shows up). Another double loss leaves us at 2-3 straight up and 3-2 against the spread.

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