Starting QB: Ben Roethlisberger, 1 Pro Bowl
Starting RB: Willie Parker, 2 Pro Bowls
Starting WR: Hines Ward, 4 Pro Bowls
Starting DL: Aaron Smith, 1 Pro Bowl
Starting ILB: James Farrior, 2 Pro Bowls
Starting OLB: James Harrison, 2 Pro Bowls
Starting DB: Troy Polamalu, 5 Pro Bowls
The Kansas City Chiefs aren’t built this way. Brian Waters is the team’s only repeat Pro Bowler. Mike Brown, Mike Vrabel, and recent acquisition Chris Chambers have each appeared once. Todd Haley understands the difference. His father, Dick Haley, was a personnel man for the Steelers for two decades. He drafted a lot of Pro Bowlers and Hall of Famers – four in 1974 alone (Lynn Swann, Jack Lambert, John Stallworth, and Mike Webster). The Steelers continued to draft well long after Dick’s departure. That’s why they still win Super Bowls.
The Chiefs have never drafted well. That’s why they don’t.
Todd wants a team like his father’s. He wants a perennial winner. There is little in the world that he would love more than to have a team like the Pittsburgh Steelers. If he were to speak in earnest – a practice to which most NFL head coaches are not accustomed – he might mention something else he’d like even better. He’d like to beat the Pittsburgh Steelers.
To the NFL fanbase at large, Todd is known for a single game. He is known strictly as the offensive coordinator of the Arizona Cardinals who revived Kurt Warner and the Greatest Show On Turf, only to fall flat in last season’s championship. Until he achieves something greater, he joins Jim Kelly in the ranks of those known best as Super Bowl losers. Kelly is in the Hall of Fame, but that’s still not the company Todd Haley wants to keep.
Ergo, given the circumstances, it stands to reason that this game meant a lot to Todd Haley. It stands to reason that the game probably meant a lot to Clancy Pendergast too – he, like Haley, is also known primarily as one of 2008′s biggest losers. It did, and it showed. For them, this was their rematch.
It probably mattered more for Pendergast. Haley’s postseason exposition earned him the opportunity to accept a better, higher paying job. Clancy’s contributions to January’s and February’s network television offerings, on the other hand, got him fired. He took a defense chock full of talented players and proved that it was distinctly possible to accomplish nothing with everything.
Today he sought to do the opposite, and, despite the Steelers having gained 515 yards, I’m inclined to say he achieved that goal.
To begin with, the defense consistently pressured Ben Roethlisberger. Were he a smaller man, he would have been sacked six or seven times (the same would be true if the Chiefs knew how to tackle, but my team just beat the Super Bowl champs, so I’m not about to get nitpicky). They also held a respectable running attack – one which was averaging 4.2 yards per carry – to 3.5. At the line of scrimmage, they simply dominated. Tamba Hali, Wallace Gilberry, Alex Magee, Mike Brown, Derrick Johnson, Corey Mays, Ron Edwards, Jovan Belcher, and Andy Studebaker took up residence in Pittsburgh’s backfield. The Chiefs have been known for the better part of a decade now as a finesse defense. Finesse is usually code for awful. Today they shed the finesse in favor of punching guys in the mouth. I’m a fan of that approach.
Speaking of Studebaker, it might be a good idea to go ahead and pencil him in as a starter. The Eagles’ loss is the Chiefs’ gain – The Bake did more in one game than Mike Vrabel has done all season. The obvious stats everyone will discuss are his two interceptions, punctuated by a Devard Darling-esque loss of steam eight yards shy of the endzone, but those weren’t the only plays he made: he also knocked down two more passes and recorded half a sack. To put that in perspective, Roethlisberger whiffed on 13 passing downs (10 incomplete passes and three sacks). Studebaker was the primary defender responsible for stopping five of those plays. The Chiefs haven’t had that type of singular performance from a linebacker since Donnie Edwards left the first time.
Most importantly, however, the defense got the job done despite being hung out to dry by the offense. In four quarters plus seven minutes of overtime, the Chiefs’ defense was on the field for a little over 44 minutes. Half of that was without Ron Edwards, who, for better or worse, has been the front seven’s most consistent performer post-Jared Allen. Had the defense simply folded in overtime, few would have faulted them. But they didn’t, and that, talent be damned, shows determination.
If you asked me to use similar language to support Matt Cassel, I’d be hard pressed to do so. He, along with Shaun Hill, Derek Anderson, and JaMarcus Russell, is bringing up the rear of the league in 1st downs. He seldom throws the ball deep, which, given his penchant for underthrowing receivers, might be a good thing. I can honestly say that, for the first time this season, I’m glad Tony Gonzalez isn’t here. Tony would do for Cassel what Wes Welker did for him last year in New England: obscure the fact that the guy can’t really play NFL-caliber quarterback.
Jamaal Charles, on the other hand, might be an NFL-caliber running back, but today’s game certainly wasn’t prima facie evidence. The Steelers demonstrated a tacit understanding of Cassel’s skill level by cueing in on Charles all day long. And, as it turns out, the Steelers’ linebackers know how to play a little defense. Haley showed some wisdom and mercy by limiting Charles’s carries to 17, even when Cassel’s performance merited a 30 carry complement – I’m not sure Charles would have survived the type of beating LaMarr Woodley and James Farrior would have liked to give him. Regardless, he earned his paycheck in the first fifteen seconds of today’s game anyway. Had he done nothing else, it still would have been plenty.
I’m content to disregard for the time being the fact that this team appears to be structured around a quarterback who can’t play. Instead, I’ll revel in the discovery of a linebacker who can. Today’s victory was, along with Larry Johnson’s dismissal, the first significant step forward this organization has taken in over two years. For Haley and Pendergast, it was a quality gut check too. Neither had watched their Super Bowl loss prior to this week’s preparations. I am of the opinion that both are better off now for having finally taken on that task. This is not an endorsement on my part of the new order, but it is an acknowledgment of progress. One quality team defeated. One quality player discovered. In recent history, it’s been a better Sunday for Chiefs fans than most.