With five games remaining in the NFL season, the Colts put their 6-5 record, along with a three game winning streak, on the line in Pittsburgh when they battle the Steelers on Sunday Night Football. The Steelers are also 6-5 on the season, so while the Colts had been resigned to the fact their only path to the Playoffs was by winning the AFC South, with how well they've played of late a Wild Card isn't out of the question at all, so a win against a team they'll be directly competing with would be a major boost.
The Steelers have had almost identical QB injury problems to the Colts, as Ben Roethlisberger has missed four games this season, the same number as Andrew Luck. The biggest difference between the two situations, other than that Roethlisberger will be playing this week, is the Steelers are just 2-2 in games he missed, while Matt Hasselbeck has led the Colts to four wins, partly due to good play, and partly due to a fairly easy schedule. In a year that has seen so many QB injuries, these two teams have definitely suffered.
Another big weapon the Steelers have been out for a while now is RB Le'Veon Bell, arguably the best running back in the NFL. Since he's been out for a while it won't have much of an impact from week to week any more, but I know between Bell, Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown, they were all on the field together at one time for a think a half this year, which is less than ideal for them. They also may be without TE Heath Miller (Rib) and WR Martavis Bryant (Hip), although Bryant was limited today. The Colts will hopefully get Mike Adams back, but will still be without Luck, Anthony Castonzo, and Jerrell Freeman. It's getting towards the end of the season, so it's unsurprising to see guys needing a week or two to heal up.
These two teams played a back-and-forth Offensive shootout last season, a 51-34 pasting by the Steelers that was just an awful day for the Colts Defense, giving up over 500 passing yards and only stopping them by forcing two fumbles. Overall the Colts have a horrific record against the Steelers, winning just three of the 15 games they've played since coming to Indianapolis, with only one of those three wins coming in Pittsburgh (Dominic Rhodes wheel route!). They also had a stretch of six straight games they played in Pittsburgh, which seems a little unfair, but I digress. From history alone Sunday will be a tall order for the Colts.
How do these two teams match-up? Let's jump into the numbers and find some keys.
Statistical Preview between Colts and Steelers (Adjusted):
|Orange Zone Eff||61.7%||6||55.8%||18||50.4%||21||52.4%||13|
|Avg Start Pos||28.0||25||29.2||14||30.9||8||28.1||6|
|3 and Outs||4.21||27||3.39||22||3.41||12||3.97||12|
|Penalty Yds / Play||0.763||10||1.121||2||0.798||16||0.991||5|
Keys to the Game:
- Because the Colts got torched with the passing game last year, that is a big concern going into Sunday night again. The Steelers rank 8th in the NFL even after missing Roethlisberger for 4 games, so they're obviously even better than that ranking. Antonio Brown, in my opinion, is the best WR in the NFL, and Bryant and Markus Wheaton can beat Defenses over the top with ease (see #1 in Yards per Play). To be Mr. Obvious: the Colts can't give up 500 yards passing again.
- The Steelers are also near the top of the league in the Red Zone, ranking 4th at 72%, but they rank just 21st inside the Orange Zone, and I'm guessing the discrepancy there is awful field goal kicking. The Colts will have to get them off the field early, or else they're going to score point.
- Luckily for the Colts, getting to Steelers to third down and getting them off the field can be done, as they rank just 22nd on 3rd/4th down. However, the Colts haven't been great themselves in those situations, so these will be crucial downs. They were 9-14 last year on 3rd/4th down. Need to be better.
- Even without Bell, the Steelers running game has been very good all season. I'm guessing the Colts will take their chances stopping the run with a six man front to try and limit the passing game, so a big day running could happen too. Ugh.
- On the flip side, Turnovers are always an issue, and the Steelers Defense ranks 9th in the NFL in takeaways. The Colts faced a tougher Defense in that area last week and got through unscathed. They'll have to do it again this week.
- The Steelers Drive stats Defensively are pretty average, matching the pretty average Colts Offense. I still think the Hasselbeck-led Colts can only be expected to have 2-3 really good drives, so maybe they can squeeze one or two more out.
- The Colts have also benefited from really good field position the past two weeks, so seeing the Steelers rank 6th isn't so encouraging and would be a detriment to those successful drives.
- The other area the Colts need to capitalize is in scoring points when they get in the Orange/Red Zone, an area they're really good at. Scoring touchdowns can cover up a lot of holes, something they struggled with last week against the Buccaneers.
After re-reading this, it looks like I'm giving the Colts no chance Sunday night, but I'm having trouble getting past last year's game and all their previous history against the Steelers. However, the logical side of me says those games that happened 10+ years ago have virtually no affect on the game this year, so it gives me a little optimism. I do think the Colts have done a really good job with Matt Hasselbeck and not asking him to do too much, but he threw a lot of passes last week, and I'm thinking the Steelers are going to make him throw it a lot again this week, which in the long run will not be good for the Colts. I think the Colts hang around for a while, but ultimately fall short, which won't be the end of the world with three of their last four games against the AFC South.
Steelers 27, Colts 23