1. Can the Chiefs offensive line control the line of scrimmage?
The offensive line has been a storyline for the Kansas City Chiefs throughout the first part of this season. This group now faces a Pittsburgh Steelers team on Sunday that quite-literally developed the zone blitz under former defensive coordinator and NFL legend Dick LeBeau.
While LeBeau has moved on, the system has remained.
"(Steelers defensive coordinator) Keith [Butler] is doing a nice job of mixing them up with different pressures," Chiefs coach Andy Reid said earlier this week. "It's similar to what Dick [LeBeau] was doing and [Butler] has probably added more volume than what was going on before—and it was quite a bit before."
The Steelers have managed to consistently get pressure on opposing quarterbacks, picking up 17 sacks this season, which ranks No. 6 in the NFL.
They have 10 players with at least 1 sack.
"Really, it's over the last three games that he's increased (the pressure), Reid noted. "So the guys – he's got good players and he's bringing them from different areas."
In the last three games, the Steelers have forced 7 turnovers, which have led to 28 points on the board. It's one of the main reasons they've managed to win two of their last three without their starting quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger, who has missed the last three games with a knee injury.
The Chiefs offensive line will need to control the line of scrimmage to find success in the running game with Charcandrick West and Knile Davis, which will hopefully minimize the number of third-and-long situations. Regardless, even when the Chiefs are in those situations, the guys up front need to have a good day and keep Alex Smith upright.
2. Will the Chiefs find consistency on offense?
At times this season, the Chiefs offense has moved the ball at will. Other times, they've struggled to simply get a first down.
Last week against the Minnesota Vikings, the offense found a rhythm in the second half.
"We sped up our tempo," Chiefs offensive coordinator Doug Pederson explained. "The execution of plays was also better [than the first half] and obviously you can't have 50 yards of penalties.
"That kills you. It takes 50 yards of offense-worth, potentially, or more."
While you can't go tempo (no-huddle) throughout the course of an entire game, particularly when facing a Steelers offense with the running game like they have with Le'Veon Bell, the defense could get worn down fairly easily if the offense has a couple of three-and-outs in very quick fashion.
That said, there are advantages to going tempo.
"It simplifies your playbook number, one," Pederson explained. "It's kind of your core group of stuff that you rep from day one of OTAs. So the guys know how to execute it and play fast.
"It's going to be your two-minute, no huddle offense."
Whatever and however the Chiefs attempt to move the ball on Sunday, the goal is to find efficiency and to start fast—something they haven't been able to this season.
"I think you'd love to start the game that way," Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith said of the offense's performance in the second half last week. "There's no reason to wait around a half to do that, you make it tough on yourself.
"So certainly for us, you have to come out with some better energy, start faster, get into a rhythm early."
3. Will the Chiefs continue their momentum in good run defense?
Last week against the Minnesota Vikings, the Chiefs defense shut down future Hall of Fame running back Adrian Peterson by holding him to just 26 carries for 60 yards.
That was without two-time Pro Bowl defensive lineman Dontari Poe, who missed the game with an ankle injury, starting inside linebacker Josh Mauga, who missed with a groin injury, and defensive lineman Mike DeVito, who left early with a concussion.
Even with those two guys missing and DeVito leaving early, the group stepped up and shut down Peterson.
"This group of guys, we don't quit," Jaye Howard, who is having the best season of his career along the defensive line, said. "We've gotten put in some bad situations where we had to step up and make plays and we did.
"That's the one thing about our defense, we won't quit."
This week, they face another elite running back in Le'Veon Bell, with whom they found success against last year in Week 16 when they held him to just 20 carries for 63 yards.
It will be important that this group carries over the confidence from last week's game against Peterson and the fact that they've had success against Bell in the past to this week.
Nick Williams, who stepped in and played a career high of 28 snaps for the defense last week, believes they will carry-over that confidence.
"It just shows you how deep our defense is at each position," Williams said. "Josh [Mauga] being out, Ramik [Wilson] was able to step up and do a lot of great things. DeVito went down and I had to move to three (technique). I played well.
"It just gives us confidence that no matter who goes down we can get the job done."
4. How do the Chiefs handle the starting debut of Landry Jones?
Last week in their win over the Arizona Cardinals, third-year player Landry Jones had to step in and play in his NFL debut as starter Michael Vick left early with a hamstring injury.
Vick was only playing because Ben Roethlisberger is currently dealing with a knee injury that has kept him out of their last three games.
Jones completed 8 of 12 for 168 yards and 2 touchdowns.
At 6 feet 4 and 225 pounds, Jones is similar to Roethlisberger in that he's a pocket-passer, unlike Vick, who even as an older veteran, can still move around and make plays with his legs.
"We don't know exactly how he's going to play," Chiefs defensive coordinator Bob Sutton admitted of Jones, "but we have a better feeling of how they may play structure-wise."
Sutton was impressed with how Jones played in his first regular season action.
"I think anytime a guy goes in and does what he did in that game, rallied them and did a great job of executing the offense, I think it speaks well for his ability to prepare. That's the challenge for any guy that's a backup – and he was actually the third – so he obviously drilled down the opportunities leading up to that, preseason, OTAs, etc.
"He obviously stayed very much involved mentally and emotionally as he was sitting in the background there. It speaks well for the guy I think, when he comes in and does it. He's got, obviously, some composure, the players responded well to him. He did a heck of a job in a very difficult situation."
Roethlisberger has been practicing in a limited basis this week, but offensive coordinator Todd Haley said he was planning on Jones starting at Arrowhead on Sunday.
LAST TIME THEY MET
Kansas City Chiefs vs the Pittsburgh Steelers on December 21, 2014
5. How will the Chiefs utilize multiple tight ends in the passing game?
Alex Smith has a yards per attempt average of 10.5 with two or more tight ends on the field this season, which is more than 3 yards better than his overall average of 7.49 YPA.
Travis Kelce leads the group with 29 receptions for 316 yards and 2 touchdowns. Rookie James O' Shaughnessy has 5 catches for 88 yards and Demetrius Harris grabbed 2 catches for 15 yards last week against the Vikings.
"We've tried to utilize their talents and they've got some good downs for us," Reid said. "James [O'Shaughnessy] is learning, a little bit like we said about Chris [Conley]. He's learning as we go here. But the effort's good, and again, he's had some good downs for us.
"Demetrius [Harris] looks like he's back now. I thought he played faster this past game than the previous ones, you could see him gradually get faster and faster. So we try to play to their strengths and give them opportunities."
In order for that heavy personnel group to continue to have success through the air, which comes from the mismatches created, they have to be consistent in the run game.
"It's important that we are able to run the ball out of that personnel and stay balanced," Pederson explained. "The goal is to get some of those guys matched up on linebackers and safeties and try to take advantage of it. Those guys have done a good job of handling all of that."
For quarterback Alex Smith, who has found success with chunk plays from that group, the arrow is pointing up with their three tight ends, all of who are under 27 years old (Kelce-26, Harris-24, O'Shaughnessy-23).
"I think it's been good for us," Smith said. "And those guys, it speaks for them. Certainly look at what they bring to the table and how they prepare for their job. All three of those guys are really young so there's a lot to look forward to."