Following Pittsburgh’s home defeat to the Bengals last Sunday, the Steelers get an additional day to prepare for their next foe: the Indianapolis Colts. Sitting at 3-7 with only seven games left this year, it’s do-or-die time against Jeff Saturday’s 4-6-1 team.
The Steelers put their seven-game winning streak against Indy on the line Monday night from Lucas Oil Stadium. Although history has been dominated recently from a black-and-gold perspective, these three matchups between position groups and/or players will play significant roles in determining this affair’s outcome.
The Steelers’ IOL vs. the Colts’ DL
Without question, Indianapolis boasts two of the more disruptive interior defensive linemen in the NFL in DeForest Buckner and Grover Stewart.
Buckner, a two-time Pro Bowler, is one of just 11 defensive linemen to play 540+ snaps this year; his 76.6 Pro Football Focus grade is fifth among such D-linemen, while his 33 pressures are second on the Colts.
Further, Stewart has played to the tune of a 75 PFF rating, and he’s tied for the league lead among DL with 31 stops. In his sixth year out of Albany State, Stewart has continued to fly under the radar but consistently shows up with monster disruptive plays like this.
Given Indianapolis’ prodigious interior defensive talent, it falls on the shoulders of Kevin Dotson, Mason Cole and James Daniels to mitigate them as best as possible. Given the foot injury that he suffered in Week 11, Cole did not practice on Thursday; moreover, Cole and Daniels were limited on Friday. Such injuries only make this that much more of an uphill climb.
While Daniels has been relatively steady in both pass protection and run blocking, Dotson and Cole have been rather inconsistent. The three (or their backups) must not only protect Kenny Pickett from pressure up the middle, but also free up some space for Najee Harris.
Alex Highsmith vs. Bernhard Raimann
Highsmith has proven to be one of the better and more refined edge defenders in the NFL this year. The third-year man ranks 15th in PFF grade among edge rushers to see 400 or more snaps, and his nine sacks are tied for fifth in the NFL.
Sure, T.J. Watt draws the bulk of the attention via double teams and chips, but Highsmith has proven that he cannot be left one-on-one. The Charlotte product has four pressures in each of the last two games with Watt and won AFC Defensive Player of the Week after a sensational performance against the Saints.
On the other side of the token, Indianapolis’ left tackle position has been a revolving door in 2022. Initial starter Matt Pryor got the nod in the first five games, but then Bernhard Raimann and Dennis Kelly have each protected the blindside. Since Saturday took over before Week 10, it’s been Raimann’s job to lose.
With Watt opposing Braden Smith, one of the more consistent right tackles in football, Highsmith must impose his will upon the rookie Raimann, getting pressure on Matt Ryan and helping to wrap up Jonathan Taylor.
Levi Wallace/Cam Sutton/Arthur Maulet vs. Michael Pittman Jr.
After a dazzling performance against the Saints’ receivers, Pittsburgh’s secondary struggled mightily against Cincinnati — and particularly Tee Higgins. The 6-foot-4 wideout set a season high with nine catches for 148 receiving yards, besting whichever corner wearing black and gold lined up against him.
The Steelers will face another big-bodied receiver this week in Pittman, who quietly has posted 67 catches for 678 yards. The USC alum found success against Darius Slay and James Bradberry a week ago, notching six receptions for 75 yards.
Presumably without Ahkello Witherspoon for the seventh game this year, it is incumbent on Wallace and Sutton to stop the 6-foot-4 receiver as much as possible. Also, given that Pittman runs 26.3% of pass snaps from the slot, Maulet may be lined up against him on occasion — in which case, one should probably expect some slot fades.
The Steelers held Pittman in check during his rookie season, limiting the WR to three catches for 38 yards in 2020. If Pittsburgh wants to emerge victorious on Monday night, a similar performance will need to be in order.