All I'm hearing today from my students is this: "the Colts are terrible. Why was the game so close?"
The perception that this should have been an automatic win for the Steelers was misguided to begin with. The Colts weren't going to roll over and play dead on Sunday night in their own stadium after two humiliating losses. Most of the in-depth pregame coverage I read this last week was wary of how the game would turn out. The confident people were the ones making the betting lines in Vegas. The Colts are better than their start this season indicates; Peyton Manning isn't their only player. Look up Mike Tomlin's interview last Thursday. He wasn't brash and bragging about what the Steelers would do. He was worried about Mathis and Freeney, and rightly so.
All of this is just to say that the Steelers weren't going to blow out the Colts the way they blew out the Seahawks. They could and should have done better against the Colts, but there was always the potential for this to be a game.
Let's get to this season's trends, both the factors that are on the up and up, and the factors that are holding us back or dragging us down.
Troy's Speed and Deebo's Strength: Our defense found the first turnover of the season, and there's no surprise that it came out of a tandem effort of Harrison and Polamalu. Harrison didn't get to the quarterback as much as we'd like, but he took care of business even while being double-teamed. Troy demonstrated his speed today, spending as much time behind the Colt's offensive line as their back-up back-up QB Painter did. However, judging from Troy's expression in the 4th quarter, what he's going to remember most is whiffing on the Colts' 4th quarter touchdown drive. Polamalu got his hands on the ball three times that drive, but still the defense let the Colts through. Still, Troy's game improved from last week to yesterday night, as it had improved from the week before.
Pass protection. Ben got hit a few times, sure. However, on a number of occasions the offensive line gave him ample time to make some great passes. This didn't last the entire game, nor was it true for every drive; as the line unraveled due to injury (with GIlbert, Legursky, and Scott all leaving the field), so did Ben's protection. However, Mike Wallace had a 144 yard day in large part because of some good pass protection. The team is learning to make do with the personnel available. The two-minute drill that lead to a game-winning field goal should bolster the confidence of Steeler Nation, even if just a little bit.
Big Ben: After some god-awful throws against the Ravens in week one, Ben has been getting back into rhythm. Consider this: even with a non-existent running game, the Steelers kept a lot of drives alive. This was not true in Baltimore. 14 first downs on passing plays means Ben moved the chains with a consistency that he hadn't shown much of yet this season or preseason. This trend means a lot going forward. If the Steelers want to compete against the league's best offenses, they need to continue to manufacture systematic, clock-chewing drives that keep the opposing offense cooling their heels on the bench.
Young Money Crew: If there's a consistent point in the Steelers offense right now, it's Fast Money Mike Wallace. He isn't just a deep threat any more, he's an elite WR who's in synch with his QB and ready to make a variety of plays. Although I'd be happier if I didn't have to add the phrase "regular season" to this, his six consecutive regular season games above 100 yards says a lot. Even with the coverage he has drawn and he's going to draw as the season continues, he's going to continue to make big plays. The best part? The more teams compensate to hold Wallace back, the more big plays we're going to see out of Brown, Ward, and Miller.
Rookie Watch: Marcus Gilbert, we're impressed. Don't let yourself be satisfied with your level of play right now. You've taken a lot of big steps since the draft this year, and are on track to make many more this season.
The Running Game: There are a lot of complaints today in Steeler Nation about the running game. Some are crucifying Mendenhall, some are lambasting the offensive line, and there's the usual crew calling for Bruce Arian's head on a spike. The truth is that none of these three deserve the full blame; they share it. Mendenhall can do better; we've seen it from him, and expect it from him. Our offensive line struggled mightily in the noisy stadium, letting the Colts push them off the line regularly. And while I'm not one to throw all of our struggles at the feet of Arians, I do have two questions: where was Isaac Redman? where are the play calls that punish the Colts for overblitzing?
The Corner Position: Ike Taylor, after being absolutely golden in weeks one and two, almost gave away the game. If Painter hadn't have overthrown a wide-open receiver, the Colts would have stumbled their way into a commanding lead. If we're going to limit Houston's offense next week, we need Ike back in form, and we need Keenan Lewis to look like he belongs out there.
Split Decisions: Manny Sanders. We love what you did in the postseason last year. Now get your damn head back in the game. The next time Ben throws a pick (god forbid), worry a little bit less about the health and safety of the guy picking off your catch, and a little bit more about putting your hands on him. I've seen receivers put less effort in catching balls than you did in dancing around this guy. Next: James Farrior. You got away with quite a hit on Kerry Collins, but expect the league to slap a fine on you this week. Man up, pay your dues, and don't let the frustration of a tight game lead you into bad decisions. Sly Sylvester needs a little more time to develop into a starter, and we're counting on you to be his example and role model until then.
Looking Forward to Next Week:
Don't expect big changes to the offensive line. If a free agent solution had been possible when Willie Colon went down, it would have already happened. I'm guess that Ramon Foster is going to start, and there's going to be some juggling at tackle, depending on how serious Scott's injury is. Foster made some good run blocks against Seattle, though, which might make him the silver lining here. Our tight ends will again be asked to compensate, which will be good for the development of Weslye Saunders. (By the way, Weslye: your face isn't good for catching footballs. Just sayin.)
Expect a better running game. Since our offensive line has improved in other areas over the last three weeks, run-blocking is going to be a priority during the team's preparation this week. Besides, at this point, there's nowhere to go but up.
Expect better run defense. Our unit has a lot of pride in their ability to stop the run, and the 97 yards given to the Colts isn't going to sit well this week.
Expect the Steelers offense to be out on the field for most of the game. The Steeler's best weapon against a high-powered offense is their ability to manufacture long, methodical drives that chew up large amounts of clock. Roethlisberger and Wallace are going to make it happen.
Expect Troy to show up big. Troy's speed and timing have been off, but getting closer every week. Judging from his improvement over the last three weeks, he's set to prove why he's still a contender for Defensive Player of the Year.
More next week after our joust with the Texans. (I'm less likely to be wrong if I write about what just happened, right?)