Editor's Note: Been very pleased with this weekly series from Simon, but I must briefly interject here. There's absolutely nothing wrong with the five players mentioned below -- all are worth keeping an eye on, and all five will play an important role in whether or not the Steelers win their first road game of the year to improve to 2-1. But that said, with this particular Colts team, the Steelers have one thing and one thing only that they need to get right in order to have a great shot at winning: that's the play of the offensive line on the fast track, domed environment of Lucas Oil Stadium. If the Steelers o-line can communicate and keep Ben Roethlisberger from taking huge hits and potentially turning the ball over as a result, Sunday night's game should be no problem. It's hard to say which offensive lineman is most important, but it's got to go to either Maurkice Pouncey who's in charge of communication along the line, or one of the two offensive tackles who theoretically will have the hardest time hearing from their respective decisions. We'll get into that before game time on Sunday night more thoroughly. Carry on.
-Michael B. -
It's back to business for your 2011 Pittsburgh Steelers. After being embarrassed by the Ravens in their first regular season game, the team bounced back with an impressive performance against the Seahawks that resulted in a 24:0 shutout. Yes, the offense could have scored even more points, but the gist remains: This year's Steelers aren't quite as bad or over the hill as some in the media made them out to be.
By dominating Seattle on Sunday, the team avoided what it has often been criticized for - playing down to their competition by letting an inferior team hang around until the end. From the opening kickoff, the players left little doubt about who would leave Heinz Field with their first victory of the season. Now, the Steelers will travel to Indianapolis in hopes of repeating this dominance against a similarly weak opponent on Sunday night.
The Colts, one of the league's worst teams? They certainly look the part after losing star quarterback Peyton Manning indefinitely due to continuing neck problems. Pro Bowl talent such as defensive end Dwight Freeney and wide receiver Reggie Wayne demand respect from any opponent, but Manning's injury shows how crucial he was to the Colts' success. Without him, the team lost 34:7 after being down 34:0 at halftime to the Houston Texans and fell 27:19 to the Cleveland Browns after failing to score a touchdown until only 24 seconds were left in the game.
Now, the Steelers come to town in what was supposed to be one of the NFL highlights in September, but is now expected to be just another blowout with Pittsburgh being favored by 10.5 points. Therein lies a possible trap that the Steelers have to and should avoid, provided these Five Players to Watch step up and play at the top of their game.
5. Ike Taylor, Cornerback, #24, 9th Year
When fans and media complain with regularity about the suspect Steelers secondary, they aren't talking about Ike Taylor. The 31 year old cornerback shuts down the best opposing receiver with regularity, playing his part in many strong defensive performances of the Steelers in recent years. This year is no different, as Taylor held newly acquired Ravens deep threat Lee Evans and Seattle #1 receiver Mike Williams to a combined 1 reception for 9 yards. His strong performances validate the front office's decision to resign him this offseason, ensuring that the shut down corner would remain with the franchise for at least four more years.
On Sunday night, Taylor will face his toughest test of this young season. Reggie Wayne will pay him a visit, the five time Pro Bowler (3x All Pro) who has terrorized secondaries around the league for years. Taylor may still have nightmares from when the two teams last met, a regular game in 2008 during which he tipped a pass right into Wayne's hands who ran it in for a 65 yard touchdown. Undoubtedly benefiting from an all-pro quarterback in Peyton Manning, Wayne is coming off seven consecutive 1,000 yard seasons. His receiving statistics may not stick out as much with Kerry Collins under center, but in two games the veteran wide receiver racked up a respectable 172 yards and is once again on pace for a 1,300+ yard season. Collins won't impress with gaudy passing numbers but if Taylor lets Wayne get open, the Steelers' chances of winning or even blowing out Indianapolis go down exponentially.
4. Rashard Mendenhall, Running Back, #34, 4th Year
During their week 2 win against Seattle, the Steelers showed a refreshing commitment to the run that many had been clamoring for in recent weeks. Running backs Rashard Mendenhall and Isaac Redman combined for 115 yards and 2 touchdowns, consistently moving the ball to create long, sustained drives. They did so against a decent run defense that had just held San Francisco running back Frank Gore to only 2.7 yards per carry the previous game. As a result, the Steelers dominated time of possession 38:44 to 21:16, a margin that will most likely win any game.
After his solid game against the Seahawks, Mendenhall will need to step up even more against Indianapolis to help his team. The Colts defense is best known for its pass-rushing defensive ends Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis, who threaten to attack an inconsistent Pittsburgh offensive line all night. At the same time, the undersized Colts defense has had problems against the run in recent years, ranking 24th or below in opposing rushing yards per game in 2009, 2010, and the first two games this season. Last Sunday brought a painful reminder of how quickly Ben Roethlisberger can get injured by the pass rush, and keeping the defense honest with a good running game is absolutely crucial to both his health and the Steelers' chances to win. Mendenhall's first 100+ yard game of the season couldn't come at a better time than this Sunday night.
3. LaMarr Woodley, Outside Linebacker, #56, 5th Year
2. Mike Wallace, Wide Receiver, #17, 3rd Year
Just a few short weeks ago, Steelers wide receiver Mike Wallace boldly proclaimed his goal of breaking the NFL single-season receiving record of 2,000 yards this season. Shortly thereafter, animated discussions about whether or not his goal was realistic sprung up on BTSC and other sites, questioning whether the young star could effectively deal with constant double teams and consistent productivity every week. Not helping Wallace was his reputation of being a "one-trick pony" as Tomlin called him, running past secondaries on deep routes but struggling to get open underneath. Then came a quiet preseason, and I was among many worrying about his progress this year.
Of course, his underwhelming preseason was followed by two impressive performances against the Ravens and Seahawks, proving me completely wrong. With his 126 yard outing against Seattle, Wallace extended his streak of consecutive 100 yard games to five. Included were an impressive grab for a 53 yard reception and a short touchdown reception on a fade, combined with a variety of short and intermediate routes that were refreshing to watch. Mike Clay from Pro Football Focus points out Wallace's maturing process into a more complete receiver by evaluating the depth of his targets: while #17 was targeted for gains of more than 20 years down field on 31% of his 2010 receptions, only 1 out of 21 targets so far have gone that distance in 2011. In other words, the young deep threat is getting more and more involved in the short and intermediate offense of the Steelers, focusing on moving the chains with regularity rather than picking up big chunks of yardage every now and then. This could significantly help Pittsburgh against the Colts, whose defensive strength is a ferocious pass rush from Freeney and Mathis. Roethlisberger might not have time to wait for Wallace to get downfield; if the young receiver can get open underneath, he presents a great opportunity for Ben to get the ball out quickly and move the chains with regularity.
1. Ziggy Hood, Defensive End, #96, 3rd Year
With news quickly spreading that Brett Keisel's PCL strain is likely to keep him out of Sunday night's game, Ziggy Hood will get yet another chance to start along the defensive line and endear himself to his teammates and fans. The young defensive end started nine regular season games and three playoff games in relief of Aaron Smith last year and didn't miss a beat as the Steelers defense secured its place among the best rushing defenses in NFL history, allowing just 62.8 yards per game and 3.01 yards per carry. In addition to helping stop the run, Hood also established himself as a serviceable pass rusher by recording a sack in three consecutive games late in the 2010 season.
On Sunday night, the 2009 first round pick will likely move from the left defensive end position to the right, starting alongside Smith instead of for him. Some on this site have suggested that Hood may indeed be better suited for the right side, which generally requires less responsibilities against the run and more against the pass. He will get a chance to prove this theory true on Sunday, when he goes up against an interior offensive line of the Colts that has actually been decent in run blocking. Against Cleveland, running backs Joseph Addai and Delonte Carter combined to rush for 109 yards and a respectable 4.2 yards per rush, with the majority coming in the first 2 1/2 quarters when the game was still reasonably close. If Ike Taylor plays his usual self against Reggie Wayne and LaMarr Woodley ensures that Dallas Clark is needed for pass blocking, the Colts run game will be their only reasonable chance for a win. But if Hood shows up and shows that he can replace The Beard as adequately as he replaced Aaron Smith last season, he could play a large part in rendering that part of the Colts offense ineffective as well.
The Pittsburgh Steelers are considered heavy favorites against the Colts, and a strong performance from these Five Players to Watch will be crucial in improving to a winning record for the first time this year. Of course, other players need to step up as well. The offensive line particularly on the outside faces a steep task against a talented defensive line, and will have to be on top of their games to keep Ben Roethlisberger upright. On the other hand, the inside linebackers need to cover well to ensure that Kerry Collins doesn't have any easy passing outlets in pressure situations. But if these five players win their respective match up, Pittsburgh should have little trouble winning the game and covering the 10.5 point spread.