Kevin Gorman’s Take 5: Thoughts on Steelers’ 42-37 loss to Chiefs
The Steelers started their 2018 home opener the same way they finished the AFC divisional playoff game in January at Heinz Field, trailing by three touchdowns before they knew what hit them.
What began looking like it would be a blowout turned into a shootout reminiscent of the 45-42 playoff loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Same type of game, same result for the Steelers.
1. Nothing special: With the most dangerous return man in the NFL in Tyreek Hill, the Steelers knew special teams play would be paramount against Kansas City.
When the first possession went three-and-out, Jordan Berry’s punt pinned DeAnthony Thomas near the visiting sideline. But Thomas sidestepped Roosevelt Nix, then sprinted 31 yards before Cameron Sutton popped the ball out from behind.
Thomas, however, caught it in stride and continued for another 12 yards to the Steelers 10 to set up Patrick Mahomes’ touchdown pass to Chris Conley for a 7-0 Chiefs lead at 13 minutes, 5 seconds of the first quarter.
It only got worse from there.
After missing a potential game-winning, 42-yard field goal in overtime at Cleveland, Chris Boswell continued his struggles. He pushed a 49-yard attempt wide left late in the first quarter and later missed an extra point in the second quarter.
If there was a silver lining, it’s that Boswell booted all four first-half kickoffs for touchbacks to ensure Hill had no chance at a return.
2. Secret weapon: While the Steelers focused on containing Hill, the Chiefs concentrated on getting the ball to Sammy Watkins.
Watkins caught back-to-back passes for gains of 10 and 40 yards to set up the 19-yard touchdown pass from Mahomes to tight end Travis Kelce for a 14-0 lead at 9:08 of the first quarter.
On the Chiefs’ next possession, Watkins took an end around 31 yards — including a stiff-arm to safety Sean Davis — to set up Mahomes’ 5-yard scoring pass to Kareem Hunt for a 21-0 lead.
By halftime, Watkins had 102 yards from scrimmage.
If there was a silver lining, it’s that the Steelers had an answer in JuJu Smith-Schuster.
3. Big break: The turning point came in a play that could have been crushing to any comeback hopes.
On a third-and-10 at the Steelers 19, Ben Roethlisberger fumbled after colliding with right tackle Marcus Gilbert. The loose ball bounced around until it was scooped up by defensive end Chris Jones, who would have scored a touchdown if not for a flag.
Chiefs cornerback Orlando Scandrick was called for holding, giving the Steelers a first down at their 24.
That’s when they turned to JuJu.
Roethlisberger connected with Smith-Schuster on back-to-back passes, for gains of 19 and 12 yards to end the first quarter. They teamed up for a 14-yarder to start the second, setting up a 26-yard scoring pass from Roethlisberger to Jesse James to make it 21-7.
While Kansas City concentrated on stopping Antonio Brown, Smith-Schuster made the Chiefs pay. On the next possession, he caught an 11-yarder to the 4 and scored on a 2-yard pass from Roethlisberger to make it 21-13 at 6:27 of the second quarter.
That opened up the passing game for Big Ben, who found James for a 32-yard gain. James Conner was out of bounds on a spectacular one-handed catch but drew a pass-interference penalty on linebacker Terrance Smith.
Roethlisberger hit rookie pick James Washington for a 14-yard scoring pass — the first career touchdown for the second-round pick — to make it 21-19 with 18 seconds left. When Conner caught a pass for a two-point conversion, it tied the game at 21-21.
4. Upon further review: After being stuffed by inside linebacker Reggie Ragland on an attempt to dive over the pile, Conner showed his short-yardage value on the next play.
Conner took a handoff and went left, spinning off Ragland and Breeland Speaks and diving into the end zone for a 1-yard touchdown. But it became a question of whether Conner’s elbow hit the turf before the ball crossed the plane of the goal line.
After video review, the call stood and the game was tied, 28-28.
But the Chiefs answered with a seven-play, 75-yard drive that saw Mahomes hit Demarcus Robinson on a 3-yard pass in the back of the end zone that was initially ruled out.
But video review came back to bite the Steelers when it showed that Robinson got both feet down before falling out of bounds.
When it came to reviews, the teams tied.
But the Chiefs had a 35-28 lead late in the third quarter.
5. Almost perfect: Mahomes put on a clinic, shredding the Steelers’ secondary by completing 23 of 28 passes for 326 yards and six touchdowns with no interceptions for a passer rating of 154.8.
A perfect passer rating is 158.3.
That was the most passing touchdowns the Steelers had allowed since a 52-34 loss to the Buffalo Bills on Sept. 8, 1991 at Rich Stadium, when Jim Kelly completed 31 of 43 attempts for 363 yards with six touchdowns and two interceptions.
Kelly is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Mahomes was making his third career start.
That spells trouble for the Steelers.
Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Kevin at [email protected] or via Twitter @KGorman_Trib.