Each week of this season as the Steelers prepare for the upcoming game, Coach Mike Tomlin and his staff identify some areas unique to the specific opponent that end up being a focus of the work the team does throughout the week.
One of those areas of focus in the run-up to last Sunday's game vs. Kansas City was red zone defense.
"Red zone defense was going to be big, because we acknowledged that Kansas City has a great red zone defense and that points could be difficult for our offense down there when the field got short," said Tomlin during his weekly news conference. "We challenged our defense to match their success rate in that area. Obviously, they did, and they did so emphatically."
The Chiefs came into Heinz Field with the NFL's No. 1 red zone defense, and that was complemented by them having the league's No. 2 red zone offense. But the Steelers bested the Chiefs on both ends of that category in their 20-12 victory that clinched a playoff spot.
Pittsburgh's offense converted 2-of-4 trips into touchdowns in the Chiefs red zone, and that 50 percent rate was better than the 38.3 percent Kansas City had been allowing. And the Steelers defense hung an 0-for-4 on the Chiefs offense, far worse than the 67.5 percent success rate the Kansas City offense had enjoyed over the first 14 games of the season.
"I thought it went beyond the stops," said Tomlin. "The nature of some of the stops were significant and were a shot in the arm from an emotional standpoint. The Chiefs had a nice field goal fake and got a new set of downs down there, and the guys stood up and defended that ground again. We caused a fumble on a hustle play by Stephon Tuitt, and that was big. The fourth-down stop before the half as well. The manner in which some of these stops were made were emotional lifts for us, and we were able to ride the wave as a football team."
Many NFL games are won or lost based on the teams' relative efficiency in red zone football, and that area of the field has its own strategy as well.
"The lack of vertical field impacts both the offense and the defense," explained Tomlin. "The ways in which offenses attack change in that they attack more horizontally as opposed to vertically. They're trying to get you out-leveraged, particularly in the passing game. And defensively, that end line is your best friend.
"Things happen quicker in the red area. There's usually more defensive pressure in the red area. The stakes get raised when you are down there, so it is a little different than in open grass but the issues are generally the same week in and week out."
And in Tomlin's mind, successful red zone play ties in with the general philosophy employed to play winning football – one play at a time, one game at a time.
"Often times when your defense gets down in the red area, you're down there because of some negativity, whether it's a successful fake field goal or a big play or a penalty, and our guys did a nice job throughout the game of playing the down at hand and not carrying the emotional baggage or natural adversity that occurs during the course of a football game," said Tomlin. "It starts there. They had a good week of preparation, and the detail in their play reflected that."
TOMLIN'S INJURY UPDATE
"Vince Williams has an ankle injury, and we'll see where he is in terms of his participation this week. Kelvin Beachum has a lower back injury, and it's the same thing with him. We have two or three guys who will be evaluated this week in terms of their participation, and we'll let that evaluation be our guide. Those guys are Ike Taylor and Troy Polamalu and Matt Spaeth, all of whom missed this past game. Largely, we came out of this game relatively healthy, which is good."