AFC North

Steelers Visit COVID-Constricted Chiefs

Najee Harris
AP Photo/Don Wright

The Steelers travel to Kansas City on Sunday to face the Chiefs. The Chiefs have been one of the teams hardest hit by COVID and may be without some key players.

The COVID Situation

My colleague, Simon Shortt, nicely outlined the Steelers’ COVID list on Wednesday, and there are already new players that have been added. While this seems surprising, it has been the case for a lot of teams recently. COVID reserve lists have been adding players every day, and the Steelers are not exempt as they prepare to take on the Chiefs on Sunday.

DE Isaiah Buggs (Dec. 23) and RB Anthony McFarland Jr. (Dec. 23) are the most recent Steelers’ players to join the list. Buggs is especially disappointing to see on this list, as he practiced in full on Wednesday and was expected to play for the first time in three weeks against the Chiefs.

Speaking of the Chiefs, they have stopped adding players to the reserve list for the time being, but are still in danger of being without Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill on Sunday.

What to Do About Patrick Mahomes?

Regardless of Hill and Kelce’s COVID status, the Steelers will still have to find a way to slow down Patrick Mahomes. The Chiefs have won seven straight, and Mahomes has looked like his unguardable self more and more during their win streak.

Unfortunately, I am not sure there are any secret insights on how to stop him. He is in that elite group of quarterbacks that can only really be stopped if they aren’t on the field. I tend to put more importance on time of possession than other people do, but I feel it applies here. The Steelers’ offense was not good in their win last week against Tennessee. They won in large part due to the Titans’ inability to hold onto the football. The Steelers’ offense needs to sustain drives on Sunday to keep Mahomes on the sideline and their defense rested. It sounds so painfully obvious, but it’s true.

Najee Needs to Bounce Back

The entire offense was bad against the Titans, but I still want to see a bit more from Najee. To be fair, he is not exactly getting great holes to run through, but I believe he could have had more than the 18 yards he gained on 12 carries.

I realize I am being nit-picky here due to the offensive line issues, but I want Harris to be more decisive. There were a few runs last week where I got the sense he was waiting for something to open up. By now, he should almost expect that not a lot will open up. Instead of lingering behind blockers, I want him to get forward even if he only gets two yards.

Conversely, I realize that there are times when he plunges forward and misses a lane to cut into, but I just want him to avoid the negative yardage plays. Again, the offensive line hasn’t done him many favors, but I’d like to see him take this step as a rookie. One yard forward is so important when the alternative is three yards backward.

Boy Is It Good to Have Joe Haden Back!

Joe Haden returned last week and sealed the game on a tackle that only savvy veterans can make. I went back and watched the highlight – which you can see here – and I still thought that Nick Westbrook-Ihkine was going to fall forward for the first down.

This play proved the immense value Joe Haden has. The season is on the line, in a game the Steelers probably should have lost, and Joe Haden steps up. The Steelers will need him to make similar plays again this week against the Chiefs.

Experience Key in Muddled AFC Playoff Race

The Steelers still have a shot at the playoffs despite some horrific play at various times this season. Now it’s time for the veterans to take over and smooth out some of these inconsistencies. The aforementioned Joe Haden will be a clutch addition down the stretch, as his presence only enhances the opportunities for T.J. Watt. Watt broke James Harrison’s single-season sack record against Tennessee and is a front runner for defensive player of the year.

On offense, Ben Roethlisberger needs to take control with his Hall-of-Fame acumen. He has mentioned it in the past but needs to find some way to make sure the offense doesn’t shoot themselves in the foot. They need to seize opportunities more than they did against the Titans. Further, the Chiefs may not look upon them with the same generosity. If the Steelers are serious about the playoffs, they need to make a statement in Kansas City.

A Few Final Thoughts

Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce are going to get all of the headlines if they are unable to play on Sunday, but T Lucas Niang may be another name to monitor. He was put on the COVID reserve list on the 21st; if he can’t go, that could be a big boost for the Steelers’ pass rushers. Getting to Mahomes could be key in making him force some throws that would give the Steelers chances to make a play.

Also noteworthy for the Chiefs will be the absence of K Harrison Butker. The Chiefs called up K Elliot Fry from their practice squad to fill in, and this will be something to watch if the game remains close. Fry has very limited NFL experience, going 1 for 2 on extra points and making his sole FG attempt. I like having the advantage of experience in this one. Chris Boswell has made 28 of 31 field goal attempts this season, and has much more experience kicking in a playoff atmosphere.

Last, Pat Freiermuth (concussion protocols) and Chris Wormley (groin) are both questionable to play on Sunday. They will definitely be missed, but I also want the Steelers to play it safe with Freiermuth. This is his second time in concussion protocols, and they need to make sure they don’t rush him back.

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