“It’s a trap!” – Admiral Ackbar, Star Wars: Episode VI
After a week in which many of us found ourselves geeking out over the new Star Wars: The Force Awakens trailer and/or bemoaning the fact that Back to the Future day came and went with nary a flying car in sight, there was no doubt in my mind when I sat down opened my laptop that this post was going to contain a reference to one of these iconic movie franchises. So I decided to get it out of the way early.
Now, before you leave this page in search of some honest-to-goodness, nerd-free football analysis, let me illustrate how the fish-faced admiral’s exclamation near the end of Return of the Jedi relates to the Steelers and their trip to Arrowhead Stadium on Sunday.
Call it what you want – a trap game, a donut game, a letdown game – a matchup with the 1-5 Chiefs on the road is a game the Steelers should win. I mean, come on, Tomlin’s boys are damn near invincible after dispatching the Chargers on the final play of the game and the unlikely duo of Chris Boswell and Landry Jones combining to put away the Cardinals. Aren’t they?
Starting tailback Jamaal Charles is out for the year. No. 1 wide receiver Jeremy Maclin is questionable for this game after sustaining a concussion last Sunday. The Chiefs’ defense is ranked 25th in the league. Steeler Nation will roll into Kansas City, crush some of the nation’s best barbecue in the parking lot and enter the concrete cereal bowl known as Arrowhead Stadium to watch Pittsburgh roll the Chiefs on their way to a 5-2 record. If only it were that easy.
Offensively, quarterback Alex Smith and the Chiefs have struggled to move the ball consistently, but for all the improvements lately, I’m concerned that the Steelers’ linebackers and safeties will have trouble keeping track of tight end Travis Kelce. I’d imagine Kelce and his coaches have watched (and salivated over) the tape from Week 1 when the Brady-to-Gronk combo beat up the Pittsburgh secondary and stole its lunch money…repeatedly.
And yes, the Steelers will have a different look on offense with Jones under center than they did with Michael Vick at the helm. But that doesn’t mean every open receiver will be found or that every third down will be converted. Jones made the correct read and a great throw to Martavis Bryant to seal the win over Arizona last Sunday, but from where I was sitting, Bryant’s brilliant run after the catch and effective downfield blocking got him into the end zone.
Arrowhead is loud. Communication will be a challenge. Jones will have his ups and downs in his first regular-season start. He might throw an interception or (gasp!) two. He may burn a timeout that makes us want to lob a half-full can of I.C. Light at the TV.
The best thing Jones – through the play-calling of offensive coordinator Todd Haley – can do on Sunday is get the ball into Le’Veon Bell’s hands early and often. Hand it to him, throw it to him, let him take the snap from center ever now and then…but Bell has to touch the ball at least 25 times against the Chiefs for the Steelers to grind out this win.
Sure, the Cardinals racked up nearly 500 yards of offense last week, but I liked what I saw from the Steelers on defense for much of the afternoon. To give up a mere 13 points to an Arizona team that had scored 30 in all but one game enter last Sunday’s contest was huge. The bend-but-don’t-break secondary was opportunistic. Mike Mitchell (yes, I said Mike Mitchell!) baited Carson Palmer into an end-zone interception that looked like a vintage Troy Polamalu play.
The front seven got pressure when it needed to, and that group could be bolstered by the return of linebacker Ryan Shazier this weekend. The statistics may not bear it out at this point in the season, but Keith Butler’s defense could be turning into something special. A dominating performance in Kansas City would go a long way in proving that this defense is legit and solidifying the Steelers as an AFC postseason contender when Ben Roethlisberger returns.
So when the clock hits 1 p.m. on Sunday, let’s all just assume that the Death Star is operational – even if it looks like it’s still under construction.