Sunday Night Football Preview

Sunday Night Football: Deep Dive

by Warren Sharp
Updated On: January 15, 2022, 10:44 am ET

Because the Raiders and Chargers wouldn’t tie their game, we are treated with the most lopsided betting spread since the NFL expanded the Wild Card round.  The Steelers and Ben Roethlisberger are catching 12.5 to 13 points in Kansas City.  And the betting public is still laying it with the Chiefs.

Like the Las Vegas Raiders, the Steelers remind me of the “he can’t keep getting away with it” meme from Breaking Bad.  How do they keep winning games?

The Steelers won four of their last six games to make the playoffs:

1-point win over the Ravens which saw them trailing at halftime and to start the fourth quarter
6-point win over the Titans which saw them trailing at halftime and to start the fourth quarter
12-point win over Browns in a rare game they led at halftime, 10-0
3-point win in over time over a backup QB of the Ravens which saw them tied at halftime and trailing to start the fourth quarter

The “trailing at halftime” is a major theme for the Steelers.  

Pittsburgh trailed at halftime in 10 games this year.  Only the Jaguars, Jets, Lions and Giants trailed more at halftime than the Steelers.  Those are literally the 4 worst teams in the NFL.  The Steelers led for just 21.8% of their offensive snaps this year, ahead of only the Giants, Lions, Jets, and Jaguars.

Pittsburgh never led at halftime in a road game this year.

Enter the Chiefs, who have led at halftime in 10 games this year.  Only the Bills and Colts led at halftime more often.

After screwing around far too often in the first half during their 2019 playoff run, last year saw the Chiefs post halftime leads of 19-3 vs the Browns and 21-12 vs the Bills before falling to the Bucs in the Super Bowl.

Last time Mahomes played the Steelers, he completed 23-of-30 passes for 258 yards (8.6 Y/A) and 3 TDs.  The Steelers got pressure on just 8 of Mahomes 32 dropbacks.  The Chiefs led 14-0 at the end of the first quarter, 23-0 at the half and 36-3 up until 2:54 left in the game.

And that was without TE Travis Kelce (COVID) and with a not-100% Tyreek Hill (he ran only 20 pass routes).

Mahomes was handling the Steelers on that day so well he didn’t even have one rushing attempt.  He simply didn’t need to take off.

The only thing that changes in this game that’s not a positive for the Chiefs is the loss of their RT and the fact that Hill may not be perfectly 100% right now.

But imagine this:  the leading receiver in that last game for the Chiefs based on catches (and yards) was Byron Pringle followed by RBs Derrick Gore and Damien Williams.  

It’s not that the Chiefs were hiding the majority of their offense for this potential playoff game.  It’s that they didn’t have their top weapons… and they didn’t need them.

So with a drubbing as significant as the first game, we have to ask ourself, what is different?  What can change to allow the Steelers to see more success?

For starters, TJ Watt absolutely must get to Patrick Mahomes.  Eight pressures won’t cut it this go around.  The Steelers defense must come up with a different strategy to make life less comfortable for Mahomes.

Most everything else has to do with the offensive side of the ball, because they are the ones that fumbled the game away (pun intended).  The defense held the Chiefs to only 4 of 11 on third down.  But they were set up to fail by the Steelers offense.

Pittsburgh had 10 legit drives (non-end-of-half).  They punted only twice.  That sounds good.  The problem was what they did with their possessions.  Just look at these turnovers, going from drive 1 at the beginning of the game to drive 10 at the end:

Missed FG
End of game (at KC 19)

Pittsburgh’s missed field goal from the KC 18 marked their 4th trip to the red zone and they walked away with 10 total points inside the red zone on 4 trips, which is extremely horrible.

But KC turned these Steelers turnovers into easy points:

The interception started KC at the PIT 49 and turned into a TD
The turnover on downs started KC at the PIT 31 and turned into a missed FG
The first fumble started KC at the KC 49 and turned into a TD
The second fumble started KC at the PIT 7 and turned into a FG

Three true turnovers gave KC great field position and 17 points.

You can’t spot Mahomes anything, especially when he’s perfectly fine driving the length of the field to score.

Aside from the turnovers, what can the Steelers do?  I would say run the ball better & more often and control the clock more, but there are two problems with that.

The first is that Najee Harris already averaged 4.9 YPC with a 58% success rate rushing the ball in the last meeting, including 5.3 YPC, 69% success and +0.04 EPA/att on early down runs.  It’s going to be hard to expect better production than that.

The second is that Harris was injured in the last game.  Harris injured his elbow against the Ravens in the season finale.  He left for a while, returned in the second half with a brace and played through the pain.  He didn’t practice Wednesday or Thursday, but did return Friday for a full practice.  He’s going to play, but the bigger question will be, how effective will he be?

That’s TBD and they’ll need him to carry a heavy load and deliver even better efficiency than he did last time vs KC, because it wasn’t close to enough.  It’s just hard to be realistic and expect he’ll be up for either a full work load or be able to be more productive than last game.  

So neither sign is looking great for Pittsburgh here.  

If they can’t do better on the ground, they’ll have to do better through the air.

The problem is, the season seems to be wearing on Roethlisberger.

In his first 12 games, he only saw two games that produced worse than -0.15 EPA/att.

In his last 4 games, he’s had 3 games that produced worse than -0.15 EPA/att:

-0.20 EPA/att in a win over the Titans at home
-0.35 EPA/att in a loss to the Chiefs
-0.38 EPA/att in a win over the Browns at home

In fact, Roethlisberger has gone 5 straight games without producing greater than 0.0 EPA/att on his passes.

Prior to that, he had positive EPA/att in 6 of 11 games.

You could argue he’s playing better opponents, but explain this:

Game 1 vs the Browns in week 8:    +0.01 EPA/att, 6.8 YPA
Game 2 vs the Browns in week 17:  -0.38 EPA/att, 2.7 YPA

Game 1 vs the Ravens in week 13:  +0.21 EPA/att, 7.9 YPA
Game 2 vs the Ravens in week 18:    0.00 EPA/att, 5.5 YPA

I will add the games vs the Bengals, even though the second meeting wasn’t towards the end of the season so it doesn’t matter as much for this analysis, but to be thorough:

Game 1 vs the Bengals in week 3:    -0.15 EPA/att, 5.5 YPA
Game 2 vs the Bengals in week 12:  -0.30 EPA/att, 6.4 YPA

The point here is that Roethlisberger is trying to go out a winner and play admirably.  He doesn’t have to try.  He is a winner.  Career wise, he’s a future Hall of Famer and has had a brilliant career.  Much better than even the Steelers could have hoped for when they drafted him.  Unbelievably, he’s NEVER had a losing season in Pittsburgh.  It’s insane.

But he simply doesn’t have the arm to get it done anymore, which is obvious, and which is why he’s smartly retiring.  There’s nothing to be ashamed of.  There’s nothing to mock.  But the facts are the facts.

Look at the losses for the Steelers and what Ben has tried to do:

Week 2 vs Las Vegas:  42 attempts, 7.4 YPA, 1:1 TD:INT
Week 3 vs Cincinnati:  62 attempts, 5.5 YPA, 1:2 TD:INT
Week 4 @ Green Bay:  42 attempts, 5.8 YPA, 1:1 TD:INT
Week 11 @ LA Chargers:  47 attempts, 6.2 YPA, 3:0 TD:INT
Week 12 @ Cincinnati:  44 attempts, 6.4 YPA, 2:2 TD:INT
Week 14 @ Minnesota:  45 attempts, 7.7 YPA, 3:1 TD:INT
Week 16 @ Kansas City:  48 attempts, 4.5 YPA, 1:1 TD:INT

There are a few trends to take away from this.  For one, the Steelers have won just 2 of their final 7 road games, and those wins were vs division foes Cleveland and Baltimore.  Secondly, the games Roethlisberger did his best while trying to come from behind were in LA vs the Chargers and in Minnesota vs the Vikings… and both were dome games.  The road games outdoors in Cincy, Kansas City, etc were simply ugly.  And lastly, he’s been throwing 42+ attempts in these losses, for an average of 47 attempts per game.

Given everything we’ve analyzed here, we know the Steelers are typically bad in the first half, the Chiefs typically are good, and when trailing, Roethlisberger throws the ball a lot.  That information, coupled with the fact that Najee Harris is not 100% leads me to like the over on Roethlisberger’s attempts prop and perhaps parlaying another game to the Chiefs first half moneyline.

Warren Sharp

Warren Sharp is a football and betting analyst for NBC Sports. As a leading voice in football analytics, Warren writes a yearly book previewing the upcoming season from all angles at his Sharp Football Analysis website. You can follow Warren Sharp on Twitter @SharpFootball.