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Proficiency on offense is the Steelers’ goal on Sunday against the Colts

The Steelers have a tall task ahead of them in Week 16, but the road to victory goes through the offense.

Denver Broncos v Pittsburgh Steelers Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images

This week we are previewing the contest between the Indianapolis Colts (10-4) and the Pittsburgh Steelers (11-3) at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh. The Colts come into the game having won five of their last six while the Steelers have lost three in a row, most recently to the Belhaven Middle School JV team Cincinnati Bengals.

The state of the Steelers

The state of the Steelers has been diced and sliced ad nauseam the past few days. Here at BTSC, Geoffrey Benedict chronicled Ben Roethlisberger’s ugly Monday night performance against Cincinnati here. I broke down their broader offensive woes here. And Anthony DeFeo opined on the general state of the team here. There has been no shortage of coverage chronicling the ills of your favorite football team.

Never in my time as a fan or an observer of the NFL can I recall an 11-3 team that evoked such a bleak outlook heading towards the post-season. The Steelers have clinched a playoff birth, need to win just one of their final two games to claim the AFC North and possess one of the top defenses in the league. And yet they’re being talked about more like a contender for the top overall pick in the draft than one for the Lombardi Trophy. To be fair, Pittsburgh has played more like the New York Jets this past month than a true contender. But teams have limped down the stretch only to catch fire in the playoffs before. The 2008 Arizona Cardinals lost four of their final six regular season games before rallying to meet the Steelers in Super Bowl 43. The 2012 Baltimore Ravens closed the season by dropping four of five yet won Super Bowl 47. The 2017 Philadelphia Eagles were 11-2 when starting quarterback Carson Wentz was knocked out for the season with a knee injury in a week fourteen contest against Dallas. They were written off as contenders only to rally behind backup Nick Foles to win their first Super Bowl. Teams have been down this road before.

But, really, have they? Have any of those teams started so masterfully — 11-0, a consensus top three team in the league, a lockdown defense, an offense averaging over 30 points per game — only to fall so far? It’s not that the Steelers are experiencing a bad stretch of football. Those things happen over the course of a long season. It’s that they have been BAD, and I’m not talking about Bryan Anthony Davis. On offense, the Steelers are averaging 265 yards and 16 points per game the past three weeks. Both numbers are the worst in the league over that time. They have converted 11-41 third downs. They are -4 in the turnover department. Ben Roethlisberger has completed less than 20% of his throws that have traveled more than ten yards beyond the line of scrimmage. On defense they are so beat up they are playing a safety they cut last season as their starting Mack linebacker. That kind of bad.

The situation has deteriorated so dramatically that odds-makers in Las Vegas have installed the Colts as 1.5-point favorites for this game, which, again, is in Pittsburgh in which the Steelers have the superior record and can clinch their division. That says it all as far as confidence in the Steelers is concerned.

Depressed yet? Well, at the risk of sounding like a Pollyanna, I’m going to do my best in the next few paragraphs to cheer you up or at least provide reasons for optimism. Here goes.

The Steelers have weathered losing streaks before. In 2016, they dropped four in a row and, at 4-5, were written off as contenders. Then they ripped off seven straight victories to close the regular season. Their streak got to nine games with playoff wins over Miami and Kansas City before an injury to Le’Veon Bell early in the AFC Championship game derailed their chances against the New England Patriots.

In 2018, they dropped three late-season games in a row before rallying to win the thrilling “Jaylen Samuels” game at home against New England. Their odds of winning that contest without a proven running back in the lineup seemed about as great as their chances at home on Sunday against Indy. And yet they found a way.

Last year, they opened on a three-game losing streak, lost Ben Roethlisberger for the season and then rallied to win eight of ten. They ran out of steam at the end of the year, dropping their final three games. Then they opened this season by winning eleven in a row. The Steelers under Mike Tomlin have experienced losing streaks. They have also found ways to pull things together and get hot again.

The past, unfortunately, is not necessarily prologue and this Steelers team does not look or feel like one on the verge of turning things around. They have injury issues, performance issues and scheme issues. But they have surprised us before with their resiliency, especially in “us-against-the-world” situations like the one they face at present. I am not predicting a dramatic turnaround but I won’t be shocked if they somehow win on Sunday. In the dying days of one of the strangest, most bizarre and unpredictable years in human history, anything seems possible.

The state of the Colts

The Colts are playing very good football right now, particularly on offense. Since losing 24-10 to Baltimore in early November, they have averaged 32 points and just under 400 total yards per game. They are running and throwing equally well. They are also protecting the football. Indy has turned it over just three times in the past six games and has a turnover differential of +8 in that stretch.

Like Pittsburgh, the Colts have an older quarterback in 39 year-old Phillip Rivers who is no longer the gunslinger he once was. Rivers remains efficient, however. He has completed 68.2% of his passes for 22 touchdowns and 9 interceptions. Indy has surrounded Rivers with something Ben Roethlisberger lacks, namely, a proficient rushing attack. Impressive rookie Jonathan Taylor (842 yards, 7 TDs) is a powerful inside runner with track speed in the open field while change-of-pace back Nyheim Hines can both run (79-319, 3 TD) and catch (53-412, 4 TD). The Colts may look to isolate Hines on Steelers’ linebacker Avery Williamson on option routes the way Cincinnati did with Giovani Bernard. Hines will be a tough assignment for Williamson should Indy do so.

On the outside, Rivers likes to get the ball to veteran receiver T.Y. Hilton, who has 50 catches on 79 targets. Indy spreads the ball fairly equally among Hilton, Zach Pascal and Michael Pitman Jr. They also mix a trio of tight ends into the passing game, with Mo Alie-Cox, Trey Burton and Jack Doyle combining for 71 catches.

The thing that really makes Indy’s offense go, however, is their offensive line. The Colts have a top-5 unit led by perennial Pro Bowler Quenton Nelson, who is considered by many to be the best guard in the game, and left tackle Anthony Castanzo. The line has been great at protecting Rivers — they are yielding the second-fewest sacks in the league, behind only the Steelers — but Indy is also allowing Rivers to throw the football down the field much more than Roethlisberger. Indy’s 7.6 yards-per-pass average ranks 9th in the league while Pittsburgh, at 6.2, is 31st.

The Colts do not have a lot of big names at the skill positions but they are balanced, proficient and distribute the ball well. They can both run and pass block up front and they don’t turn the ball over much. The result is that they don’t beat themselves with mistakes and they have the ability to take what a defense is giving them. Given how limited Pittsburgh’s offense has become, that seems luxurious to Steelers’ fans at the moment.

Defensively, Indy ranks fifth in the league against the run, 17th against the pass and seventh overall. They are 11th in points allowed and 16th in sacks. They are led by linebacker Darius Leonard, whose 109 tackles rank 11th in the league, and their corners, Kenny Moore and Xavier Rhodes, have combined for six interceptions and 22 pass break-ups. They are a solid if not spectacular unit.

Really, though, this game is more about the Pittsburgh offense than the Indianapolis defense. The template for defending Pittsburgh has been well-established the past few weeks: crowd the line of scrimmage, disrupt the routes of the receivers and make the Steelers try to throw the ball down the field. The GIF below perfectly illustrates that strategy: the corners press and jam, the backers barely drop and the guys up front rush without hesitation. It’s a defense practically daring them to throw deep:

The Steelers did take more deep shots last week then they have recently, but as you can see in this chart from NextGen stats, they were unsuccessful completing them. Roethlisberger went just 1-14 on throws beyond ten yards from the line of scrimmage.

Roethlisberger seems to have lost his touch on the deep ball. But, with better game-planning, the Steelers should be able to open up the intermediate throws that are essential to loosening a defense. With linebackers now sitting at six to eight yards from the line of scrimmage in their drops, Roethlisberger either has to throw really short, which he’s done abundantly, or throw over their heads, at which he’s struggled. A better play-action game would pull the backers closer to the line and those intermediate windows should get bigger. If there’s one thing I would like to see Randy Fichtner assert on Sunday, whether Roethlisberger likes it or not, it’s the play-action game. The Steelers need to do it more whether it works or not. Invest more reps in it, whatever it may be, and if the immediate results aren’t great try it again in a different form. There’s really no other way to back a defense off, short of Roethlisberger suddenly finding his touch on the deep ball again. That seems unlikely to happen. Creating opportunities via play-action, then, could be the key to victory on Sunday.

If the Steelers do win, they will clinch the AFC North. That will be worth celebrating. More so, they need to find their rhythm again to provide some hope for the playoffs. That, more than anything, is the real mission against Indianapolis.