Since the stadium opened in 2001, the Steelers have held opposing offenses to an average of 17.7 points per game,and have a .733 winning percentage on their home field (30-11-1). Not only are the 1-3 Steelers desperate to save their season, their defense is also the worst possible matchup for Kansas City's makeshift offensive line.
For years, the Steelers have played a 3-4 zone blitz scheme designed to confuse opposing blockers. No one does it better. Pittsburgh defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, the man who invented the scheme, is certain to throw his most exotic blitzes at the Chiefs on Sunday.
Like everyone else in the NFL, he knows the Chiefs have lost both of their starting tackles and their Pro-Bowl fullback from last year's top-ranked offense. Since a horrific opening day that saw the Chiefs surrender seven sacks to Cincinnati, the line has held opponents to four sacks in three games. On the surface, this performance looks good. If you dig a little deeper, you will find cause for concern.
Chiefs offensive coordinator Mike Solari has adjusted by calling more quick passes and helping his shaky tackles with two tight-end sets. Meanwhile, the zone blitz is predicated on overloading one side of the offense with pass rushers, while still dropping six or seven defenders into coverage. The idea is to confuse the offense so they leave one blitzer with an open path to the quarterback, even if there are enough blockers to handle them.
Playing the zone blitz is where having a good fullback is critical for an offense. A fullback can pick up the free blitzer if the offensive line's pre-snap read is off. But if the offense uses the two tight-end set, the defense knows where the blockers are. A zone blitz team then has an advantage in trying to overload one side.
Aside from the right scheme, Pittsburgh also has the right players to give the Chiefs fits. The last two weeks, Damon Huard has exploited defenses geared to stop Larry Johnson (to the tune of 496 yards passing and four touchdown passes without an interception). But neither the 49ers nor the Cardinals had a safety like Troy Polumalu. He's a rare player that is strong enough to be a terror in the box but fast enough to get back in coverage, even when he lines up as an extra linebacker. Polumalu will severely test Huard's ability to read defenses.
Along with Polumalu, the Steelers field defensive end Brett Keisel and perennial Pro-Bowl linebacker Joey Porter on the right side of their defense. Keisel is the rare 3-4 defensive end who can use power to pressure the quarterback, while Porter uses quickness and speed. If starting LT Kyle Turley misses a third straight game, these two will be opposed by Jordan Black, a man who has given up so many sacks that he has been nicknamed "I-65" by frustrated Chiefs fans. While Black has surprised people over the last two weeks with solid play, Keisel and Porter will be a tremendous mental and physical challenge for him.
This week, we find out if the Chiefs have enough offense to make a playoff run. Forget about the scoreboard. Even if the Chiefs lose, a good showing on offense will indicate this team has what it takes to make the postseason.
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