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Steelers won’t wait long for their chance to make amends

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After sleepwalking through three quarters in Indy, Pittsburgh took care of business in the fourth quarter. Now they’ve got a chance on Thursday night to show they can play a complete game in front of their hometown fans.

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at Indianapolis Colts Marc Lebryk-USA TODAY Sports

The inconsistent performance dogging the Pittsburgh Steelers throughout the first half of their 2017 season resurfaced at Lucas Oil Stadium on Sunday. Only a late rally by Roethlisberger and company avoided a result that, for more than half of the game, looked like yet another dismal replay of Pittsburgh’s notorious road jinx. But as those who know them best predicted, Chuck Pagano’s Indianapolis Colts ultimately collapsed in the fourth quarter, repeatedly ceding field position to the Steelers’ offense and giving them just enough opportunities to secure the win on Chris Boswell’s 33-yard field goal as time expired.

There’s no way to sugarcoat the Steelers’ largely uninspired performance throughout more than half of Sunday’s game. But the Black-and-gold’s upcoming Thursday night matchup with the Tennessee Titans hardly leaves enough time to dwell on the numerous things that went wrong in Indianapolis.

As they say, a win is a win, and nobody cares about style points in the NFL. That’s probably a good thing because there was precious little evidence in the Steelers’ performance in Indianapolis to suggest a team contending for a league championship. When your offense is unable to move the ball against the league’s worst defense, at the same time as your defense allows receivers to run free downfield, this raises valid questions about how Pittsburgh might fare in future matchups versus opponents with realistic shots to secure playoff berths or to advance during the playoffs.

On the other hand, the Colts deserve at least some credit for playing what might have been their best game of the season. Defensively, Indianapolis was well prepared for the Steelers’ offense, while Ben Roethlisberger and company were unable to get untracked until the fourth quarter. The Colts obviously had studied film of the Steelers’ narrow win at Detroit in Week 8 and, for more than half of the game, their offense did a surprisingly good impression of the job that Matthew Stafford had done earlier, exploiting some glaring weaknesses in Pittsburgh’s secondary.

Will Sunday foreshadow Thursday?

We’ll soon find out whether the Steelers’ two most recent games are harbingers of what lies ahead for the Black-and-gold. For quite some time, opponents have been successful in forcing Pittsburgh out of their natural preference for alternating effective running by Le’Veon Bell with deep passes. It’s the Steelers’ notable lack of an effective short- to mid-range passing attack which makes this a rather elementary task for their opponents’ defensive coaches. And for a substantial portion of Sunday’s game, the Colts’ defense succeeded using the very same approach.

As a result, Pittsburgh’s offense appeared genuinely confused about whether they were trying to establish the ground game against the Colts or stretch the field through the air. That’s the kind of indecision which typically yields underwhelming results. When the Titans bring their Dick LeBeau-coached defense to Heinz Field on Thursday night, it’s a safe bet we’ll see another defense fiercely dedicated to forcing the Steelers to play out of character—a role in which they haven’t exactly been star performers so far this season.

Le’Veon Bell was hounded by the Colts’ defense, finishing the game with 26 carries for only 80 yards (3.1-yards-per-carry average). JuJu Smith-Schuster led Pittsburgh’s receivers with five catches for 97 yards. But as for Antonio Brown and Martavis Bryant, their combined receiving total for the game was only 89 yards. For the most part, the Steelers were unable to utilize their most potent offensive weapons against the Colts—and that’s a theme which has been prevalent through the first nine games of the 2017 season.

A lesson of humility

It’s probably better to write the Colts game off as an anomaly, while giving thanks at this time of year for the fact that—so far at least—our turkeys continue to soar like eagles. At the same time, it’s important to realize that, absent some good fortune during their past two road games, Pittsburgh might just as easily be heading into Thursday’s matchup with Tennessee at 5-4 instead of 7-2. Given these circumstances, there’s absolutely no reason for the Steelers or their fans to be cocky in approaching any of the games remaining on the regular-season schedule.

The unvarnished truth is that, in their past two road wins, Pittsburgh hasn’t played anywhere close to the potential suggested by their overall talent level. They’ve struggled mightily to defeat a couple of teams that likely won’t be going anywhere except home when the 2017 regular season winds down. Perhaps most troubling of all, we’re still waiting for the kind of breakout performances that previously we’d come to expect from players like Roethlisberger, Bell and Bryant.

Just maybe, though, the big scare that Pittsburgh and its coaches got from the Colts on Sunday is exactly the kind of humbling experience this team needs to drive it forward. Perhaps what happened in Indy might even prompt the Steelers to reassess their overall offensive strategy—a scheme which now has become so predictable that even the NFL’s statistically-worst defense has shown the ability to stop it.

That’s why Thursday’s matchup with the Titans might turn out to be a watershed event for the 2017 Pittsburgh Steelers. Above all, this game will demonstrate whether the team is capable of bouncing back from a sub-par performance on the road with only three days’ rest (and a banged-up secondary to boot). Should the Steelers rise to the occasion against a very capable Tennessee team, they’d demonstrate exactly the kind of resilience which a champion must have.