The Pittsburgh Steelers are in the midst of a youth movement on defense. Linebacker Ryan Shazier, who had a key interception during Pittsburgh’s divisional-round win over Kansas City, is 24 years old. Bud Dupree, whose hit on Alex Smith set up that INT, is 23. Ditto for Javon Hargrave and Stephon Tuitt.
Those guys weren’t even in middle school when James Harrison entered the NFL, 15 years ago.
If you didn’t know about the age gap, you wouldn’t guess it. Harrison, now 38, remains an absolute terror for opposing offenses. And with the Steelers in danger of coughing away a lead late Sunday, it was Harrison who forced Kansas City left tackle Eric Fisher into a holding penalty, which wiped out a game-tying two-point conversion with 2:43 remaining.
The Chiefs’ subsequent attempt, following the flag, fell incomplete—Sean Davis managed to get a hand on Alex Smith’s pass to Jeremy Maclin. The Steelers then ran out the clock, securing an 18–16 win and an AFC title-game trip to New England.
“I’ll just go give everything I’ve got,” Harrison told NBC’s Michele Tafoya of the showdown with the Patriots. “Let the cards lay where they fall.”
Harrison had a sack of Smith earlier in the game, and he generated pressure numerous times. The Steelers also asked him to drop in coverage, as they will from time to time, and he did that in capable fashion, as well.
Granted, his team should not have been in such a tenuous spot late Sunday, in a game that was moved back seven hours to dodge an expected ice storm in the Kansas City area. All night long, Pittsburgh’s offense marched down the field, yet time and again failed to find the end zone. On seven trips into Chiefs territory, the Steelers came away with six field goals (an NFL postseason record for kicker Chris Boswell) and a turnover.
So, despite running 66 plays, dominating in total yardage (389 to 227) and controlling the clock (34:13 to 25:47), the Steelers found themselves clinging to a lead late.
The Chiefs pulled within two when RB Spencer Ware capped a 13-play, seven-minute drive—one which included two conversions on fourth down—by powering into the end zone. All they needed then was the two-point conversion to even things up at 18.
Smith found an open Demetrius Harris in the back of the end zone, delivered him the ball, then took off running upfield in celebration. When he turned back around, he noticed the flag in the Chiefs’ backfield, where Fisher had hogtied Harrison as Harrison turned the corner.
The biggest play of the game came from the oldest player on the field.
“I mean, it sucks. This sucks,” Chiefs TE Travis Kelce said. “It was unbelievable play calls that last drive ... [then we] just get our jugulars ripped out because the ref felt bad for James Harrison falling on the ground. The ref shouldn’t be able to wear a zebra jersey ever again. He shouldn’t even be able to work at f****** Foot Locker.”
The circumstances will add to the sting for the Chiefs, but it certainly looked like a legitimate call on Fisher. He was unable to keep Harrison from turning the corner on a pass rush, so he wrapped an arm around him before Harrison could get after Smith.
Had the play stood and Kansas City completed the comeback, the storyline would have centered on how their defense had bowed up near the red zone. Pittsburgh moved the ball seemingly at will from 25-yard line to 25-yard line, only to find an impenetrable force field waiting for it deep in Kansas City territory.
Had the Steelers closed it out a little easier, the focus would have been on a familiar topic: Le’Veon Bell and his incredible ability to tip toe along in the backfield until he can find an opening. It should be noted that Bell is able to be so patient (and that those holes eventually reveal themselves) because his offensive line is playing at an exceptionally high level. Bell carried the ball 30 times for 170 yards Sunday, often making it to the second level untouched because Maurkice Pouncey, Ramon Foster and David DeCastro were mauling the Chiefs inside.
“It’s the line,” said Ben Roethlisberger, who sealed the game by finding Antonio Brown on a third-and-3 with 2:00 remaining. “Le’Veon is awesome, there’s no doubt about it, but we are only as good as the group up front. They do a lot of the dirty, grimy work. Against that pass rush, that defense, in a hostile and loud environment, you have to tip your cap to the guys up front.”
Brown posted 108 yards through the air, while TE Jesse James added 83 as he came open several times over the middle of the field. That duo plus Bell accounted for 357 of the Steelers’ 389 yards.
The Chiefs never came close to striking a similar run/pass balance. Nor did they find much success moving the ball, period, save for a phenomenal opening drive—a 6-play, 55-yard effort capped by a Smith-to-Albert Wilson—and the late TD march. Their own mistakes undid them at times, like when Travis Kelce let a deep dime from Smith slip through his fingers. The Steelers did not afford them much space otherwise.
Kelce vanished for a huge chunk of the game, as the Steelers worked multi-level coverage on him. Tyreek Hill, Kansas City’s big-play threat over the second half of the season, was a virtual non-factor, too: 18 yards rushing, 27 yards receiving and a paltry 18-yard average on kick returns.
All in all, it was a strong defensive effort against a Kansas City offense that ended the regular season on a roll and started Sunday hot.
When the Steelers were on the verge of letting it all slip away, though, it was Harrison who managed to force the issue. The Steelers’ youngsters have been integral in their defense’s rapid improvement this season. But they needed their aged veteran to save the day Sunday.