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The Steelers have a clear path to beat the Colts, but it won’t be easy

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The Steelers will look to record their first win against a team with a winning record in week 9.

Denver Broncos v Indianapolis Colts Photo by Justin Casterline/Getty Images

This Sunday the 3-4 Steelers face the 5-2 Indianapolis Colts, and while their records are significantly different, the teams behind those records have some real similarities.

Both teams lost a franchise QB this season, the Colts lost Andrew Luck to retirement in the preseason, and the Steelers lost Ben Roethlisberger to injury in Week 2. Both team’s offense is currently anchored by their offensive lines that are playing well, but don’t look quite as good as last season. Both teams lean heavily on a RB drafted on day 2 of the 2017 draft, both have #1 WRs that have dropped about 50% of their per game production without their star QB, with T.Y. Hilton dropping from 90.7 to 60.0 yards per game, and JuJu Smith Schuster dropping from 89.1 to 63.3 yards per game.

As for the teams? So far the Colts have a point differential of +7 through their first seven games, while the Steelers are +5 also in seven games. While that +7 is actually the worst point differential in the AFC South the Colts are winning that division, while the Steelers rank 2nd in the AFC North in both differential and record. But consider also that the Steelers are an overtime loss to Baltimore away from leading the AFC North, and you can see that the Steelers could be in almost the exact same situation.

And that is the difference, the Steelers are losing close games to good teams, and the Colts are winning close games against not so good teams, so while the Steelers have a 2 point, 3 point and 4 point loss to teams that outside of those games are 16-4, the Colts have two 2 point wins and a 3 point win against teams that are 7-14. The crazy thing about the Colts is their largest margins of victory are against the two best teams they have faced, beating the Chiefs by six and the Texans by 7, while they have losses to the Chargers and Raiders, who outside of those wins are 4-9.

Against teams that have a .500 or worse record the Colts are 3-2 with a point differential of -6. The Steelers, on the other hand are 3-0 against .500 or worse teams with a +43 point differential.

That sounds good until you add in that the Steelers are 0-4 against teams with a winning record and have a -39 point differential in those games while the Colts are 2-0 against winning teams with a +13 point differential.

The Colts right now are pulling off what the Steelers have so frustratingly done in the past, beating really good teams and then playing down to lesser competition.

The Colts come across as a team that can’t do much of anything, and then show spurts of brilliance.

The Colts average 5.3 yards per play, ranking 22nd in the NFL, and only 0.1 yards per play ahead of the Pittsburgh Steelers. But they also rank #1 in the NFL with 10 drives with 12+ plays, and they’ve scored on every one of those drives. The Colts have the highest average number of plays on their scoring drives of any team in the NFL, averaging 9.4 plays per scoring drive.

That’s a lot of plays per drive, and when you look through game logs you see it, of the Colts 29 scoring drives, 12 were 75+ yard drives, that’s a touch back or farther to go. They have 11 scoring drives of less than 50 yards.

The Steelers on the other hand have 28 scoring drives with 6 eating up 75+ yards, and 15 of less than 50. The Steelers have 6 scoring drives of less than 10 yards.

The Colts offense is based on running the ball (5th highest run% in the NFL) and short passes (they rank 23rd in yards per completion). They win by finding the weaknesses in your defense and attacking them. If you look at defensive targets for Colts opponents you can see that they pile on when they find a player they can beat, whether it’s linebackers or slot corners they will go after that weakness and keep the ball moving. Almost all of their big plays come with a lot of yards after a missed tackle, and they don’t turn the ball over or give up many sacks, ranking 9th in both turnover rate and sack rate. They do have weaknesses though, they aren’t a good deep ball throwing team, and they rank 21st in the league at converting 3rd down and 7+ to go. Add to that that they don’t average a lot of yards on first or second down and it becomes clear that if a defense can get a no gain or a loss on first or second down they should be able to get the Colts off the field.

The offense fans have wanted the Steelers to have since Ben went down is the offense that the Colts are successfully running and winning with. This will be a big test for the Pittsburgh Steelers, who in their first game with Tuitt on IR were able to use 5 LBs and 1 DL a decent amount as they took the lead.

The Steelers defense will have their hands full with the run and short pass offense that the Colts execute at a high level. If they are going to win this game the Steelers offense will have to score and take away the Colts strength of eating clock (4th in time of possession per drive) with an strong commitment to running the ball.

If the Steelers cannot score early to put pressure on the Colts, the Colts will wear down the Steelers Tuitt-less front 7 and set up short play-action passes and dominate both the clock and the score.

It seems like a broken record to say the offense needs to step up and be closer to league average than they have been, but in this game the Colts will not be playing into the Steelers hands with deep passes and opportunities for turnovers. The Colts opponents have a total of 4 drives that started in Colts territory this season, the Steelers offense has been averaging 2 drives a game that start in their opponent’s territory.

Either the defense will have to find ways to stop the run game and create turnovers against a team that other teams haven’t been able to do either against, or the offense will have to find a way to score points on longer drives.

I expect the Steelers to be incredibly aggressive in week 9, with a lot of blitzing and loading the box, relying on their DBs to keep the colts from breaking big gains. If that works, look for the Steelers to take an early lead and if they can get it to multiple scores, they will win the game. If they can’t, and the offense isn’t able to put together longer scoring drives this game could end up ugly and frustrating.

My prediction? The Steelers defense plays great early, but the offense can’t get it going, and repeated long drives wear down the defense and the Colts win 24-10. Hopefully I’m wrong.