Despite the quick turnaround, there will be a few key differences between this week’s game and that Week 16 victory. Critically, there are a couple of players we will see this time around (or see more of) that we didn’t see before.
With that said, let’s dive into some of the key differences between this week’s playoff game and the Chiefs vs. Steelers game on Sunday night.
Travis Kelce will play
In their last contest vs. the Steelers, the Chiefs were without Travis Kelce (on the COVID reserve list) The offense was sharp that game, but having Kelce back in the fold obviously changes the complexion of this game.
With Kelce active, Mike Tomlin and the Steelers coaching staff will have to account for the multitudinous ways Kelce impacts a football game. We’ve sung the praises of Kelce a lot, but let’s do it some more: his chemistry and trust with Mahomes are second to none, his open-field agility is on par with some great receivers, and he has a penchant for making plays in the clutch.
The Chiefs may have won without him in the last game, but his presence adds so much to the Chiefs’ attack, while also making work that much harder for Mike Tomlin to gameplan around.
Pat Freiermuth is healthy
Big Ben was without his favorite red-zone weapon the last time these teams squared off. The Steelers struggled in the red zone in that game, scoring only one time on four trips inside the red zone. Freiermuth’s toughness, surehandedness, and willingness to make contested catches make him essential to the Steelers’ red zone offense. More importantly, Freiermuth’s combination of athleticism and physicality may pose a challenge the Chiefs defense didn’t see in their last meeting.
With Freiermuth in the fold, the Chiefs are tasked with defending quite an array of playmakers. Diontae Johnson and Chase Claypool are excellent in their own right, but with Freiermuth in the mix, the Steelers boast a great play-making unit. Of course, the other side of that coin is distributing the ball to those playmakers, and the Steelers have struggled in their passing attack.
Either way, the Chiefs will have to account for Freiermuth’s savvy play, especially in the red zone and on third downs- something they didn’t have to consider in the last meeting.
Nick Bolton back from the reserve list
While the Chiefs dispatched the Steelers pretty easily during the last meeting, running back Najee Harris still found a way to have a strong day on the ground. Rookie linebacker Nick Bolton, who is excellent against the run, missed that game due to COVID. Having Bolton healthy, the hero of week 18, will be a pivotal addition when facing a Steelers team that is so run-dependent.
If the Chiefs can contain Najee Harris, they’ll force the Steelers into some third and long situations, which is ideal given the limited nature of the Steelers’ passing attack. The Steelers aren’t built to convert third-and-longs consistently, and stopping the run will force the Steelers into those non-ideal situations, which in turn opens up more possibilities for the kinds of blitzes
Steve Spagnuolo loves to dish out. Bolton’s explosive pursuit and downhill attacking style could be a key part of realizing the Chiefs’ defensive game plan this week.
JuJu Smith-Schuster is off of IR
The Steelers receiving corps is going to get an unexpected boost with the return of JuJu Smith-Schuster during the 2021 season after all. The veteran wideout first went down back in Week 5 with a shoulder injury that placed him on IR with the thought that his season was over. The Steelers were also supposed to be down and out before stumbling their way into the playoffs, and that extra game was enough time for Smith-Schuster to make his way back to the field. He had 15 catches for 129 receiving yards and 0 touchdowns through four games.
Should get more Watt-age
Fighting through a rib injury, TJ Watt played 38 snaps in week 16, good for 55% of the Steelers’ defensive snaps. He ended up with just one tackle and no sack in that game. Chiefs fans should expect to see a lot more from linebacker T.J. Watt this time around, as he is coming off of 56 snaps in Week 17 and 61 in Week 18. Fresh off tying the NFL single-season sack record, Watt is ferocious, tenacious, and practically inevitable. With the stakes of this week’s game in mind, expect to see a lot more Watt than we saw in week 16.