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Chiefs set sights on silencing Steelers star RB Le'Veon Bell

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(2017 Getty Images)

KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Prevailing wisdom says the easiest way to hold a star running back in check in the NFL is to simply keep him from getting started.

That doesn't really work against Le'Veon Bell.

He willingly stops. Or at least hesitates. Then, when his patience has allowed the Pittsburgh offensive line to pry open the slightest of creases, the fourth-year running back has an uncanny ability to slip through it from a near-standstill, befuddling just about every defense trying to stop him.

"He has a unique style about him, that delay to get to the line of scrimmage," Chiefs coach Andy Reid said. "It's been effective for him. He's really the only one that does it, so it's unique.

"The obvious thing is you have to contain him and take care of your gaps, for sure."

That's something the Chiefs, who are preparing to face Bell and the Steelers in the divisional round on Sunday, struggled to do when the teams met in Pittsburgh in early October. In his first game back from a three-game suspension, Bell gashed the Chiefs for 144 yards on just 18 careers. And to add insult to embarrassment, he also caught five passes for 34 yards, an effort that went widely under-the-radar only because Ben Roethlisberger was busy throwing five TD passes.

It was only a precursor of bigger things.

As the Steelers were putting together a seven-game winning streak to finish the season and head into the playoffs, Bell was putting together one of the best stretches in NFL history. He ran for 835 yards over a six-week period before sitting out Week 17, and then rolled up 167 yards rushing and two touchdowns in last weekend's wild-card romp over the Miami Dolphins.

Much of that success was due to his unique running style, one that caused CBS analyst Phil Simms to dub him "The Great Hesitator" — and one that runs counter to conventional wisdom.

Take the handoff. Hit the hole hard. Run to daylight.

That's the simple progression coaches from Pop Warner to high school to college have taught running backs for years. The idea is to minimize idle time in the backfield, pressure defensive fronts to react quickly to where a play is developing, and take away any chance of a tackle for loss.

But the style Bell has adopted is more like this: stop, consider the options, pick one. Then go.

"It's different," said Chiefs safety Eric Berry, who will be called upon to help stop Bell on Sunday. "A lot of people focus on coaching technique, but it's a little easier to diagnose technique and figure out what it is. When you have a unique style, along with technique, it's a little difficult."

It is particularly difficult for the defensive linemen.

Once upon a time their job in run defense was to penetrate the backfield and make a play. These days they are coached to hold the line — remain what coaches call "gap sound." The reasoning behind that is it clogs up the middle, cuts down on running lanes and makes it harder to pop a big play.

But with Bell's patience, holding the line becomes a much more difficult task. Things are bound to break down sooner or later, and that's when Bell darts upfield to do his damage.

"In your own brain," Chiefs defensive coordinator Bob Sutton said, "you're saying, 'If he's not hitting that thing downhill, we ought to be able to get him on the ground quick.' But he accelerates very well, he has great strength and body balance. You lose track of some of those things."

Making things even more challenging? Kansas City has a hard time stopping the ground game.

The Chiefs allowed more than 121 yards rushing per game in the regular season to rank 26th. In a game against lowly Jacksonville, they allowed more than 200 yards.

No disrespect to T.J. Yeldon and Chris Ivory, but neither of them has Bell's unique talents.

Then there's the fact that injuries have robbed the Chiefs of some of their best run defenders. Top tackler Derrick Johnson ruptured his Achilles tendon and is out for the season, and fellow linebacker Josh Mauga and defensive linemen Jaye Howard and Allen Bailey are also on injured reserve.

"This is going to be an all-day job," Sutton said. "We're going to have to be really disciplined up front. When you play really, really good players, you need everybody every play."

Pittsburgh (11-5) at Kansas City (12-4)

Sunday, 7:25 p.m., NBC

Opening line — Chiefs by 2

Record vs. spread — Steelers 10-7, Chiefs 9-6-1

Series record — Steelers lead 21-11

Last meeting — Steelers beat Chiefs 43-14, Oct. 2, 2016

Last week — Steelers beat Dolphins 30-12; Chiefs had bye, beat Chargers 37-27 in season finale

AP Pro32 ranking — Steelers No. 5, Chiefs No. 3

Steelers offense — overall (17), rush (14), pass (t5)

Steelers defense — overall (12), rush (13), pass (19)

Chiefs offense — overall (20), rush (15), pass (19)

Chiefs defense — overall (24), rush (26), pass (16)

Streaks, stats and notes — Second postseason meeting after Chiefs beat Steelers 27-24 in wild-card round Jan. 8, 1994. Chiefs have not won home playoff game since. ... Steelers and Chiefs have combined to lose once since Nov. 20. ... Steelers scored franchise record 22 first-quarter points in win over Chiefs in October. ... Steelers won four straight divisional playoff games before losing at Denver last year. ... RB Le'Veon Bell set Pittsburgh playoff record with 167 yards rushing in win over Miami last Sunday. ... Bell ran for 144 yards vs. Kansas City in October in first game after three-game suspension for violating NFL's substance abuse policy. ... Pittsburgh defense had five sacks against Dolphins, matching Heinz Field record. ... Steelers All-Pro WR Antonio Brown had five catches for 124 yards receiving and two TDs vs. Dolphins. ... Steelers offensive coordinator Todd Haley was Chiefs head coach last time Kansas City hosted playoff game in January 2011. ... QB Ben Roethlisberger will tie Mel Blount and Terry Bradshaw (19) for most playoff games in Steelers history. ... Roethlisberger needs eight completions to pass Donovan McNabb (341) for seventh most in NFL playoff history. He needs 22 to pass John Elway (355) for sixth. ... Roethlisberger threw five TD passes to four different targets against Chiefs in October. ... LB James Harrison needs 1 1/2 sacks to pass LaMarr Woodley (11) for most in Pittsburgh playoff history since sacks became official in 1982. ... Chiefs have lost four straight home playoff games, three in divisional round. ... Kansas City has lost four of last five to Pittsburgh. ... Chiefs coach Andy Reid has 11 playoff wins, second to Patriots' Bill Belichick (23) among active head coaches. ... Chiefs All-Pro CB Marcus Peters had six interceptions, one behind Chargers' Casey Hayward for NFL lead. Peters has 14 picks in 31 career games. ... Chiefs' Travis Kelce led all TEs with 1,125 yards receiving this season. ... Kansas City S Eric Berry had two interception returns for TDs this season, giving him five for career. ... QB Alex Smith averaged 262 yards passing in five playoff games, three with Kansas City. He's thrown 11 TD passes against one interception. ... Chiefs had plus-16 turnover differential this season, tied for NFL lead. ... Kansas City went 22-4 over last 26 regular-season games, best record in league during that span. ... Chiefs K Cairo Santos was 31 of 36 on FG attempts, kicking winners against Carolina and Denver.

Fantasy Tip: Chiefs rookie WR Tyreek Hill has 10 TDs since Week 10, most in NFL over that span, and made All-Pro team has punt returner.