Blitzburgh at Behind The Steel Curtain is answering questions in our FanPost area. When you can, jump over there and read some of his answers on key match-ups for Sunday's game. In this post, we'll scout the Pittsburgh Steelers, a team that has been more of a nemesis for the Colts than New England, going back 40-plus years.
Hines Ward is not afraid to get dirty.
I've been writing all week that the Colts have never won in the city of Pittsburgh. that is actually not true. They did win there once, 40 years ago. Just to put that into perspective for you, the last time the Colts won in Steel Town Johnny Unitas was quarterbacking them, Terry Bradshaw was in college, and Peyton Manning wasn't even an itch in his daddy's pants. It is pretty safe to say that, for the past 40 years, the Steelers have OWNED the Colts, regardless of whether they are in Baltimore or Indy. The Colts are, I believe, winless all-time against the Steelers in the playoffs. The most recent playoff lose was one of the most gut-wrenching games I've ever witnessed.
One of the reasons the Steelers have beaten the Colts for so many years is their offense: Ball control, physical line, control the clock. However, since they hired former-Colts QB coach Bruce Arians as their offensive coordinator two years ago, the Steelers have adopted a variation of the Manning-Moore offense (or M&M offense, if you want to get cute and adopt a nickname for it). This offense puts more emphasis on deeper drops, long pass routes, and big plays down the field. The Steelers use Hines Ward, who is still one of the top 3 WRs in all of football, in a role similar to Marvin Harrison's role for years in Indy. The running game is less "physical," using cutback runners like Willie Parker to gash defenses for big yardage. I use "physical" in quotes because game analysis morons often confuse "physical" with "big, fat guys that run into people." Gone are the Bam Morris or Jerome Bettis-type RBs in Pittsburgh, but to say Willie Parker is not "physical" is simple ignorance. Parker is a tough runner who can make people miss and run over people. His running sets up the play action passes that lead to big plays down the field.
The weakness of this offense is the offensive line. It is not a dominant, physical line. But that doesn't mean it is "bad." Ben Roethisliberger, who has developed into an elite NFL QB, still holds onto the football too long. This has exposed him to several devastating hits from defenders. It is also why he has been sacked so often, which in turn is why he is nursing several nagging injuries. Ben's back-up is Byron Leftwich, and if there ever was anyone worse at holding the ball too long and taking sacks, Leftwich is that guy. Though he played well last Monday night against the Redskins, our old friend Fatty McButterpants likely still has his old tenancy to stare down receivers and take stupid hits. Pressure on the QB is vital. Without it, the Colts are dead.
The Steelers might have the best defense in all of football. Everyone talks about Tennessee's defense, and for good reason (they are 8-0 after all). But they have shown a tendency to give up rushing yards of late. The Steelers dominate the point of attack. For all the love Albert Haynesworth gets, it is my opinion that Casey Hampton is a better player. Unlike Haynesworth, Hampton plays hard on every play. When Hampton has been hurt, his replacement, Chris Hoke, is also a helluva NT himself.
Casey Hampton will eat you.
With their dominat NT and DE play (Aaron Smith is good too), the Steelers are able to turn loose their LBers. Pittsburgh's defensive play makers are their LBers, and they might have the best group in football. They rush the passer with their outside linebackers, in particular James Harrison, who has 10 sacks.
Surprisingly, Pittsburgh does use a similar cover scheme the Colts use, and for good reason: The famed "Cover 2" was honed in Pittsburgh back in the 1970s. As AOL Fanhouse explains (surprisingly) well:
The cornerbacks are coached to fly up in run support, strong safety Troy Polamalu is as much of a linebacker as a defensive back, and the four starting linebackers are all strong enough to shed blockers on plays run at them, but also fast enough to track down plays run away from them.
Polamalu is in the same relative league as Bob Sanders, though Bob likely gets the slight edge (I don't see Defensive Player of the Year on Polamalu's resume). That doesn't take anything away from Polamalu. Where Bob is probably the best hitting and tackling safety in football, Troy is the best coverage safety. He can run with WRs, and just as Bob's coverage skills are under-rated, Troy tackling skills are often overlooked. Polamalu is a very tough matchup for Indy as he will cover Dallas Clark, play in the box on run downs, and blitz... often. Knowing where Troy Polamalu is at all times is paramount to beating Pittsburgh.
To put in mildly, the Steelers special teams have been a train wreck of late. They just cut their injured punter, Mitch Berger, a few days ago. Though they rank OK in Football Outsiders special teams rankings, Blitzburgh says:
Our return game is awful, simply awful. The Steelers are 30th at kick returns with an avg of 20 yards and our punt avg is worst in the league with an average of 5.3. We have tried varied personnel returning but just can’t get it done. Last game we blocked a punt, and personally I’d like to see us try that more, but it probably won’t happen too often.
The Steelers do have a very good FG kicker who knows how to kick at Heinz Field, a stadium referred to as the "black hole for kickers." Their coverage units have also been good.
Mike Tomlin is one of the best young head coaches in football for one reason: A lack of ego. When hired two years ago, rather than come into Pittsburgh and institute wholesale changes, Tomlin did what very few new coaches do: He left well enough alone. Tomlin, a former Tampa 2 coordinator mentored by Tony Dungy, retained the tried and true zone blitz scheme that Steelers coordinator Dick LeBeau has perfected. Tomlin even kept LeBeau on staff. Please understand, players needed for a zone blitz scheme are completely different than players needed for a Tampa 2 scheme. But rather than scrapping the battle tested system and making players fit to his philosophy of defense, he reversed the process.
Tomlin learned the zone blitz instead of making his players learn the Tampa 2. My, how refreshing.
Tomlin has also shown a knack for smart game planning and discipline. The Steelers commit few penalties and rarely beat themselves with boneheaded plays in crunch time. They do not lose their composure and play hard on every down. That says all you need to know about Tomlin.
Tough, attacking-style defense that shows multiple looks regardless of down and distance. Able to create pressure with their front line (Hampton and Aaron Smith are very good), with their LBers, or even their secondary. They have the best coverage safety in football, and their CBs are deceptively good. Their offense is similar to the Colts, but relies more on deeper drops and more plays down the field. Ben Roethlisberger is hurt and has taken too many hits this season thus far. Willie Parker is returning to form, and the WRs are as good as it gets.
This is a tough match-up for the Colts, but not an impossible one. Key to defeating Pittsburgh is pressure on the QB. Roethlisberger has crumbled this season in the face of consistent pressure. The offense is also turnover prone of late, with 5 in the last two games. Stopping the run and pressuring Roethlisberger will allow the Colts offense time (and field position) to move the ball against a very, very tough Pittsburgh defense.
This is a mega big game for both teams.
UPDATE: Willie Parker has now been ruled out for Sunday's game.