The slumping Pittsburgh Steelers will try to avoid falling off a cliff when rolling out the red carpet for the visiting Indianapolis Colts. Merely a few weeks ago, some were pondering if the Steelers would finish the regular season with an undefeated record. Now, they’re staring at the real possibility of losing the AFC North division after dropping their last three consecutive games. They hope a return to Heinz Field will yield more desirable results against another likely playoff contender in the Colts.
Rivers quietly turning back the clock
The old man still got it.I’m obviously talking football years with the Colts’ now 39-year-old quarterback Philip Rivers, who has quietly put together an impressive season. He has essentially taken a team that missed the playoffs with a 7-9 record last season to 10-4 and vying for an AFC South divisional title. The eight-time Pro Bowler has thrown for 3,735 yards, 22 touchdowns and nine interceptions. That’s nothing to just overlook.
The Colts have won their last three games, including a 27-20 win at home over the Houston Texans last week. Rivers turned back the clock once more against the Texans with a signature game-winning drive that broke a tie late in the fourth quarter.
With the division now in reach, the Colts need to continue to win games to give themselves a chance of finishing ahead of the Tennessee Titans. That means they’ll need to go on the road to Pittsburgh and knock off a desperate Steelers team on Sunday.
The Colts are ranked seventh in the league in total defense with their strength coming along the front-seven. That unit is pressuring quarterbacks and holding opposing running backs to an average 98.1 yards per game. The Steelers haven’t been able to run the ball consistently with James Conner in and out of the lineup. So a powerful defensive front could put Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger on an island where he’s expected to drop back and win with his arm.
That method of madness typically leads to disaster, and the Colts will be looking to capitalize on it in this game.
The offensive line for Rivers will have their work cut out in keeping the hounds from the Steelers off their quarterback. Pittsburgh currently leads the league with 47 sacks this season with at least 31 of those sacks coming at Heinz Field. They’re an aggressive unit constantly looking to cause chaos and disruption in the offensive backfield. If the offensive line can hold its ground, Rivers will have opportunities to get after the Steelers’ second-ranked pass defense.
What happened to the Steelers?
A complete meltdown would be an understatement when describing what happened to the Steelers on Monday night against the Bengals.It was as ugly of a performance as can be against a Cincinnati team that looked dead in the water upon arrival. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger finished the game with only 170 passing yards, one touchdown, one interception and a 15.1 QBR. Star wideout JuJu Smith-Schuster danced on the Bengals’ logo before he was held to 15 receiving yards. Tight end Eric Ebron and fullback Derek Watt left the game early with injuries.
There was a whole lot of ouch to go around for the Steelers 27-17 loss.
They are now seriously in jeopardy of dropping the division to the Cleveland Browns. If they lose to the Colts on Sunday, they’ll basically be playing the Browns for the division title in Week 17. That adds an extra layer of importance to this game. The Steelers also need to get a win to build a little confidence heading into the playoffs.
It’ll be tough to do with running back James Conner still listed as questionable. Benny Snell didn’t do a bad job of filling in against the Bengals, but the team could use Conner’s versatility against a stingy Colts defense. Opposing teams are only averaging 334.1 total yards per game against Indy. That doesn’t leave many opportunities for the Steelers to consistently move the ball.
Coach Mike Tomlin must keep balance as the central part of the game plan. Even if the offensive backfield isn’t producing as expected, he can’t allow this game to devolve into Roethlisberger heaving up passes on every down. The Colts won’t wow you with their sack statistics, but they are still clearly capable of generating pressure up front with guys like DeForest Buckner, Justin Houston and Denico Autry. All three have 7.5 sacks on the season.
No team has been better than the Steelers in generating a pass rush. They need TJ Watt to take over the game on the defensive side of the ball and turn Rivers back into a turnover machine. The Colts’ quarterback is simply too good and experienced to feel comfortable with him working in a clean pocket.
It won’t help matters that defensive end Stephon Tuitt, the Steelers’ second-leading sack artist, will be questionable to play in the game. The team might also be concerned about kicker Chris Boswell, who is currently dealing with a groin injury.