The Pittsburgh Steelers are facing a particularly difficult challenge Monday night in Tampa Bay. That’s because the Buccaneers are the NFC version of the Chiefs.
And the Chiefs just skewered the Steelers in Pittsburgh, putting 42 points on the board.
Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes leads the NFL with 10 touchdown passes. Tampa Bay’s Ryan Fitzpatrick is second with eight.
Kansas City features Tyreek Hill at wide receiver. He’s tops in the AFC in receiving yards with 259. DeSean Jackson of the Bucs leads the NFC with 275. Teammate Mike Evans is sixth with 230.
Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce just popped off for 109 yards and two touchdowns against the Steelers defense. O.J. Howard of the Buccaneers already has three catches over 20 yards. Only one other NFC tight end — Seattle’s Will Dansby — matches that.
The only difference is that the Chiefs actually have a running game. Andy Reid’s crew is averaging 4.5 yards per carry. That’s 10th best in football. Their back, Kareem Hunt, led the NFL in rushing last season.
Meanwhile, Dirk Koetter’s Bucs have the worst ground game in the league through the first two weeks, averaging a meager 2.7 yards per carry. Koetter’s offensive players barely run the ball. And he hardly seems to care.
Why should he? When Fitzpatrick has completed 78 percent of his passes to the tune of at least 400 yards in each game, the run game hardly seems necessary.
“People desire to be balanced,” Koetter said. “But they desire winning more so than being balanced.”
The Bucs have done that twice in a row to start the season. In fact, if they beat the Steelers on “Monday Night Football,” they can boast wins against the defending AFC North, NFC East (Philadelphia), and NFC South (New Orleans) champions to start the 2018 season. That would be three straight wins with a backup quarterback, against three clubs who combined to total 37 regular-season victories last year.
Impressive. Even more impressive when you consider it has all been done without even the whiff of a run-game threat.
“Our explosive pass game has been red hot,” Koetter said. “You are going to take it any way you can get it. The name of the game is points. No matter how you get them, you just want to get them.”
The phrase “selling out to stop the run” is a typical football cliche. You don’t hear it as much applied to the passing game. That’s especially the case because if you do so, you leave yourself susceptible to short, efficient chunks of yardage from the opposing running back even if — as is the case with Tampa’s Peyton Barber — they don’t have much of a track record of success.
“You’ve got to prepare for both,” Steelers cornerback Mike Hilton said. “They might have tendencies. But they’ll go back to the run eventually.”
It’s not like the Bucs don’t try to run. They’ve kept it on the ground 57 times. That’s eighth the NFL. Consistency just hasn’t been there in Tampa Bay. Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin isn’t leaning too much on the splits from the first two weeks.
“As they step into more stadiums and the volume of work gets bigger, I think you’ll be able to assess some of that,” Tomlin said. “I just think at this point you should appreciate what they’ve done through two games and be prepared to minimize that.”
Indeed. Based on what we saw from Kansas City last week, minimizing the score to at least the mid-to-low 30s may feel like a moral victory.
Although with the Steelers at 0-1-1, a moral victory won’t be good enough. So that defense needs to get better and get better fast.
Tomlin said: “We won’t hate the extra day.” He meant for practice time in advance of facing Fitzpatrick and the Bucs.
Extra day? They may need an extra week. Maybe an additional training camp. Or maybe even ask the officials if it’d be OK to play with 12 or 13 players.
All that could be necessary before the Steelers have visions of minimizing the Bucs on offense.