For the first time in team history, the Indianapolis Colts (5-5) will host a Thanksgiving Day game as the Pittsburgh Steelers (5-5) come to town.
The Colts have historically played very well on Thanksgiving and on Thursdays, as they’ve won their last eleven games on Thursdays and are 2-0 all-time on Thanksgiving Day (with both wins coming during that eleven game win streak and coming in the Peyton Manning era). The Colts’ history against the Steelers isn’t as impressive, however, as they’re just 6-21 all-time against Pittsburgh (including playoffs) and have lost three in a row. They haven’t beat the Steelers in Indianapolis since a Monday night game in November of 2005, eleven years ago.
While the Colts haven’t done well historically against Pittsburgh, recently it’s been even worse. In the two meetings between the teams in the Chuck Pagano era, the Steelers have absolutely dominated. In two games (coming in each of the past two seasons), the Steelers have racked up 1,161 total yards, 96 points, and 58 first downs while converting 61.5% of third down attempts. Ben Roethlisberger in those two games has completed 72.7% of his passes for 886 yards (10.1 yards per attempt), ten touchdowns, and zero picks. Antonio Brown has caught 18 passes for 251 yards and four touchdowns in those two games while also adding a 71-yard punt return in last year’s contest. In short, you’d have a hard time finding a team that has dominated the game offensively as much as the Steelers have in the past two meetings.
In 2014 the Colts were playing in Pittsburgh with Andrew Luck at quarterback, and Luck somehow managed to lead Indy’s offense to enough points to keep it a one-score game heading into the fourth quarter, though the Colts would ultimately lose 51-34. Last year the Colts were playing in Pittsburgh without Andrew Luck at quarterback (Matt Hasselbeck got the start) and struggled all-around, losing 45-10.
This year the game will be in Indianapolis, but the Colts will once again be without Andrew Luck, who has been ruled out with a concussion. In his place it will almost certainly be Scott Tolzien starting, whose last previous start will have come three years ago this Thursday. In his career, he has played in six games and started two and has completed 61.5% of his passes for 721 yards and one touchdown with five interceptions and has also added eight rushes for 52 yards and a touchdown. He was the Colts’ choice this offseason to replace Matt Hasselbeck as Luck’s backup, and on Thursday night he’ll be thrust into center stage on a primetime holiday game against a team that can score points.
The Steelers have been up and down this year, however, as they’re 15th in points scored per game (23.8) and 12th in yards per game (364.4), while they’re 12th in points allowed per game (21.5) and 22nd in yards per game allowed (363.6). They’re 5-5 and haven’t been as great as many expected, but they’re still a team capable of scoring quite a few points. Ben Roethlisberger has completed 64.6% of his passes this year for 2,524 yards and 20 touchdowns with seven picks; Le’Veon Bell has rushed for 579 yards and two touchdowns while averaging 4.5 yards per carry; and Antonio Brown has caught 77 passes for 907 yards and seven touchdowns. The Steelers have an offense that is capable of scoring points in bunches, and though they’ve been somewhat inconsistent this year they face a very favorable matchup against a Colts defense that has been bad this year and that will be without Clayton Geathers (and possibly without Vontae Davis, who even if he does play will likely be hindered by his ankle a bit). So it’s best to assume that the Steelers will be able to score quite a few points on this Colts team.
That shifts the pressure to the offense, which for the first time this year isn’t encouraging news for the Colts. With Scott Tolzien under center the Steelers will likely crowd the line of scrimmage to try to stop Frank Gore,who is having a good year, having rushed for 642 yards and four touchdowns (he’s also caught 28 passes for 201 yards and three scores). Last year with Andrew Luck out, Gore averaged just 3.4 yards per carry as opposed to averaging 4.1 yards per carry with Luck in the game. That’s indicative of the fact that opponents stacked the box trying to stop Gore, and we should expect the Steelers to do the same this week. That shifts the focus to Scott Tolzien and dares him to beat the defense, and it’s very questionable if he’ll be able to. He’ll need as much help as he can get from the supporting cast, meaning Frank Gore, T.Y. Hilton, Donte Moncrief (if he plays), Phillip Dorsett, Jack Doyle, Dwayne Allen, the offensive line, and Rob Chudzinski (and Adam Vinatieri, too).
Ultimately, I don’t think many people would have picked the Colts to win this game even if Luck was playing, but he would have given them a clear chance and could have put up quite a few points on the scoreboard. Since I fully expect the Steelers to score points I think for the Colts to win they’ll need to score quite a few themselves, and with Scott Tolzien at quarterback I’m not expecting that to happen. On a primetime Thanksgiving night game the best thing to be thankful for as Colts fans might be the halftime recognition of Tony Dungy and Marvin Harrison, as there’s a chance the game itself could get ugly.
Predicted Score: Steelers 38, Colts 16