Tyler Palko's run as the Kansas City Chiefs' starting quarterback may not last much longer, but he'll at least have the chance to face his hometown team.
The Pittsburgh-area native will try to rebound from a bad first impression when he leads the injury-riddled Chiefs into battle against the formidable Pittsburgh Steelers, who'll be entering Arrowhead Stadium for Sunday's clash with some health concerns of their own at the position.
Palko made a long-awaited initial start of a vagabond five-year career in Kansas City's road test with AFC East-leading New England this past Monday, but it turned out to be quite a trying experience for the former University of Pittsburgh star raised in nearby Imperial, Pa. The 28-year-old threw three interceptions and failed to direct a touchdown drive as the spiraling Chiefs were dealt a 34-3 defeat, the team's second straight loss following a four-game win streak that had put it back in contention in the AFC West.
"You can't turn the ball over in this league and have a chance to win football games, especially against a good offense like that," said Palko, who was elevated to first-string when regular starter Matt Cassel sustained a season- ending broken hand in a Week 10 setback to Denver. "[You] can't give them more opportunities than they already get."
The left-handed journeyman did finish with 236 yards while completing 25-of-38 throws on the NFL's 32nd-ranked pass defense, but now must go up against a sturdy Pittsburgh stop unit that's yielding just 183.2 yards per game through the air, the third-lowest amount in the league.
The Steelers haven't been skilled at forcing turnovers, however, as the reigning AFC champions have produced just four interceptions and an NFL-low six takeaways during their 7-3 start.
Palko may not get a third chance anyway regardless of if he improves this week. With the Chiefs still within striking distance in the division race, the defending AFC West title-holders claimed the considerably more tested Kyle Orton off waivers from the Broncos on Wednesday and will ready him to start the club's game at Chicago next week.
Kansas City enters Sunday's play trailing Oakland by two games in the standings.
The Steelers, meanwhile, survived a major scare in their last outing, a critical 24-17 victory at fellow AFC North resident Cincinnati on Nov. 13. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger fractured his right thumb during the contest yet remained under center, with the two-time Super Bowl champion managing 245 yards and a touchdown with one interception on 21-of-33 passing.
Roethlisberger was fitted with a splint during Pittsburgh's Week 11 bye and practiced without incident in the days leading up to Sunday's tilt, though it's unclear as to whether the injury will affect his performance.
"The big thing is just getting used to throwing with a splint on it again and a glove, which I have done before," he said.
Roethlisberger also broke the same thumb back in 2005, but did not miss any games.
He'll be attempting to lead Pittsburgh to a sixth win in its last seven tries and put the Steelers back into a first-place tie in the AFC North. The Black and Gold presently trails rival Baltimore by a half-game in the division after the Ravens bested San Francisco on Thanksgiving night.
Pittsburgh holds a 17-9 overall advantage in its regular-season series with Kansas City, but was dealt a 27-24 overtime loss to the Chiefs in the most recent encounter between the teams, which took place at Arrowhead Stadium in 2009. The Steelers have won just twice in their last six visits to Kansas City and haven't prevailed as the visitor in this set since a 20-17 triumph on Oct. 14, 2001. Pittsburgh also dropped a 41-20 decision on the road to the Chiefs in 2003, but blasted Kansas City by a 45-7 score at Heinz Field in 2006.
The Steelers and Chiefs have also squared off once previously in the postseason, with Kansas City recording a 27-24 home victory in a 1993 AFC First-Round Playoff.
Both Pittsburgh's Mike Tomlin and Kansas City's Todd Haley have opposed one another, as well as their counterpart's respective teams, just one time prior as head coaches, with Haley's Chiefs downing Tomlin's Steelers in the above- mentioned 2009 matchup.
WHEN THE STEELERS HAVE THE BALL
Pittsburgh owns the NFL's sixth-ranked passing offense, averaging 273.2 yards per game via the air, but it wouldn't be surprising if the team takes a more run-oriented approach this week with Roethlisberger (2877 passing yards, 16 TD, 9 INT) dealing with a wounded thumb. The Steelers haven't been that effective moving the ball on the ground, however, with top back Rashard Mendenhall (517 rushing yards, 6 TD, 11 receptions) averaging a disappointing 3.8 yards per carry on the season and surpassing 70 yards just once this year. The former first-round pick mustered just 44 yards on 16 attempts against a tough Cincinnati defense in Week 10, but did score a pair of touchdowns in the win. Injuries along the front line have hindered the running game at times and made it hard on Roethlisberger on occasion as well, with the standout quarterback having been sacked a league-high 31 times in his 10 starts. When he's had sufficient time to throw, Roethlisberger has done plenty of damage with a strong group of receivers headlined by dangerous playmaker Mike Wallace (53 receptions, 922 yards, 6 TD), one of the game's premier deep threats who's averaged an impressive 19.3 yards per catch over his three-year career. Second- year pro Antonio Brown (44 receptions, 626 yards, 1 TD) has emerged as an excellent No. 2 target as of late, with the sixth-round find have amassed 26 catches over the last four games and eclipsing 100 yards in two of those tests.
The Steelers may be able to get Mendenhall untracked against a Kansas City defense that's been rather porous against the run in recent weeks. The Chiefs have yielded 155 rushing yards or more in three of their last five outings, with the pass-happy Patriots gaining 157 in Monday's blowout and Denver's read- option scheme accounting for 244 yards the previous week. The team was without one of its anchors up front in the New England game, with end Glenn Dorsey (35 tackles) sidelined with a sprained knee, but is hopeful the former first-round pick can make it back for Sunday's matchup. Pressuring the passer has also been an issue for Kansas City, which began the week last in the NFL with a mere 12 sacks even after recording three against New England. More than half of that total has been compiled by outside linebacker Tamba Hali (42 tackles, 7 sacks), the club's lone proven pass rusher who led the AFC with 14 1/2 quarterback takedowns during a Pro Bowl campaign in 2010. A secondary headed up by physical cornerback Brandon Flowers (42 tackles, 4 INT, 15 PD) and free safety Kendrick Lewis (36 tackles, 3 INT, 6 PD) has been a strength, with the Chiefs having come up with 13 interceptions in their 10 games.
WHEN THE CHIEFS HAVE THE BALL
Haley's game plan against the Patriots probably didn't call for Palko (277 passing yards, 0 TD, 3 INT) to throw 37 times, but the journeyman quarterback was forced to air it out more than what was preferred once the Chiefs fell behind by double digits in the second half. Kansas City was able to run the ball with some success early in the contest, with the backfield committee of veteran Thomas Jones (252 rushing yards), Dexter McCluster (336 rushing yards, 30 receptions) and Jackie Battle (436 rushing yards, 1 TD) combining for 126 yards for the game, and all three will likely see their share of touches with Kansas City expected to play it conservatively again this week. Palko was able to hit on a few big passes to wide receivers Dwayne Bowe (48 receptions, 750 yards, 4 TD) and Steve Breaston (39 receptions, 2 TD), with the duo recording 13 catches totaling 160 yards in Monday's loss, but his three turnovers and two failed chances within the red zone all contributed to the lopsided final score. This is an offense that doesn't possess much in the way of playmakers, as the Chiefs' season average of 4.9 yards per play is 27th in the league and they've averaged a mere 14.4 points per game (29th overall).
The Chiefs figure to be dinking-and-dunking once again this week considering the Steelers' stoutness in the secondary and ability to harass enemy quarterbacks. With 2010 NFL Defensive Player of the Year Troy Polamalu (62 tackles, 1 sack, 7 PD) and shutdown cornerback Ike Taylor (25 tackles, 6 PD) roaming in the backfield, Pittsburgh has limited the opposition to a league-low 5.8 yards per pass attempt, and the group is backed by a pass rush that's been slowed somewhat by terrorizing outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley's (36 tackles, 9 sacks) hamstring injury that's kept him out of the last two games and has him doubtful for this one. Opposite-side starter James Harrison (35 tackles, 5 sacks) continues to be a force when healthy, however, as evidenced by his three-sack outburst against Baltimore three weeks back. As has usually been the case, Pittsburgh remains a tough team to run on, with inside linebacker Lawrence Timmons (46 tackles, 1 INT) and unheralded end Brett Keisel (29 tackles, 3 sacks) leading a front seven that's surrendered the sixth-fewest rushing yards in the NFL (96.9 ypg). The Steelers have a paltry total of four interceptions on the year, but two of them came in their Week 10 ousting of Cincinnati.
KEYS TO THE GAME
Roethlisberger's finger. Though the Steelers don't seem to be too concerned with their competitive quarterback's injury, it remains to be seen if a team that's now built on throwing the football will be as proficient in that area because of it. Pittsburgh doesn't need to be real explosive to handle the punchless Chiefs, but any struggles on offense would work to Kansas City's benefit if it can keep the usually-lively Arrowhead crowd fired up by keeping the score close deep into the contest.
Fast starts. Both teams have their reasons for wanting to run the ball here, with the Steelers having a quarterback with an injured hand and the Chiefs forced to trot out a fringe player at the position, and they'll in better position to do so by sitting on an early lead. It's especially important for Kansas City not to fall behind by a considerable margin, as Palko has yet to prove he's capable of leading a team back from a deficit and he'll be facing a Pittsburgh defense that's fourth in the NFL in points allowed.
Turnovers. Realistically, Kansas City's only chance of coming out with a win in this game is if the Steelers play sloppy, which isn't out of the question for a team with a minus-10 turnover ratio on the season. The Chiefs have shown they can be successful when their defense is opportunistic, as they've garnered 11 takeaways in their four victories but just five in their six losses.
This could be a trap-game scenario for the Steelers, who have an important divisional showdown with Cincinnati on the horizon and will be entering a venue that historically been difficult for opposing teams. Add in Roethlisberger's injury and the fact that Pittsburgh won't be without its best pass rusher in Woodley, and it's entirely conceivable that the defending conference champions could be a bit rusty coming off their bye. Don't bet on it, however. The Steelers have outscored their foes by an average of over 21 points in winning their game following the break in each of the last three seasons, and Kansas City's anemic offense shouldn't pose much of a threat. Look for Pittsburgh to keep it rather close to the vest and rely on its defense to grind out a methodical victory over a Chiefs team that's just too undermanned.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Steelers 24, Chiefs 10