Without Andrew Luck in the lineup, you would think the Indianapolis Colts would struggle. What has actually happened is the Colts have actually thrived with Matt Hasselbeck under center to the tune of back-to-back wins with the 40-year-old quarterback slinging the pigskin around.
The Colts now head into Heinz Field to play the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday Night Football, and there are a lot of variables which could impact this matchup. I was lucky enough to sit down with Josh Wilson of Stampede Blue (SB Nation's Colts website) to talk about the different variables of this matchup, from the other side of the fence.
For the best coverage of this huge AFC matchup in prime time, from the Colts' perspective, be sure to check out Stampede Blue for the best Colts coverage around.
The Colts are on a hot streak without Andrew Luck under center. In fact, the team looks a lot better without Luck, as strange as that may sound. What are the main differences you see with Matt Hasselbeck at the helm, and what has been working that wasn't working early on in the season?
I think some of the biggest things is that the Colts have kept it simple and played to Matt Hasselbeck's strengths. He gets the ball out very quickly, which has helped the offensive line in turn. The offense has run a shorter passing game (though opening it up a bit more last week), going for more high-percentage passes relying on Hasselbeck's quick release. And then last week against the Buccaneers, the Colts relied very heavily on play action passes, something that led to a lot of success. So I think it's probably as simple as this: the Colts have played to Hasselbeck's strengths, have benefited from his quick release, and have benefited from a consistently turnover-free quarterback (two interceptions in 150 attempts).
To be completely honest, the Matt Hasselbeck-led offense hasn't been much better at all than the Andrew Luck-led offense, besides for one key area: turnovers. The turnover issues that have plagued the Colts all year (and particularly Luck) have made the offense appear a lot worse, and the thing that they have benefited from with Hasselbeck in the game is more consistency (something that Luck hasn't had much of this season). If you look at the game that Luck played against the Broncos, however, it's clear that was the best the offense has looked, considering they were facing the number one defense in football, and a big key to that was the lack of turnovers and added consistency from their quarterback. That consistency is the biggest thing they have lacked from Luck this year, and that's something that Hasselbeck has helped to provide.
The Colts and Steelers are both 6-5, how is Indianapolis viewing this matchup, as Pittsburgh is certainly viewing it as a must-win game to keep their AFC Playoff hopes alive and well.
This is unquestionably a huge game for both teams. Basically, here's the deal for the Colts: they are currently in control of their own destiny when it comes to winning the AFC South. They are tied with the Texans at 6-5, but they currently hold the head-to-head tiebreaker. So if the Colts continue to win (especially in their December 20 rematch with the Texans in Indianapolis), they will win the division. If they win the AFC South, this game likely wouldn't have a ton of impact for them, as they would almost certainly be locked into the number four seed. But, as already mentioned, the Texans are also 6-5 and tied with the Colts atop the division. If they could manage to win the AFC South (they'd likely need to beat the Colts in order to do so), then this game is HUGE for the Colts from the standpoint of wild card seeding. If it comes to that point (with Houston winning the division), the Colts and the Steelers would likely be among the biggest competitors for a wild card spot, which could make this early-December matchup a crucial one.
Pittsburgh is a team who can score a lot of points with the myriad of weapons at their disposal, can the Colts win in a shootout, and how will Indy approach slowing down the Steelers' offense?
With Matt Hasselbeck at quarterback (and Adam Vinatieri as their kicker), the Colts can certainly score some points, but if they get into a shootout with the Steelers, they probably won't stand much of a chance. That's why it's particularly important for this team to come up with some key stops and not fall behind big early on. If you remember last year when Ben Roethlisberger threw for approximately a million yards on the Colts, Indy fell behind 35-10 at one point, but Andrew Luck stayed the course and brought the team back to within one score entering the fourth quarter. Now, the Steelers still wound up winning big in that game, but my point is that Luck was good enough to keep the Colts in the game for a while despite the Steelers putting up a ton of points. I don't anticipate that being the case with Matt Hasselbeck and this offense.
That puts more pressure on the defense, of course, and the unit has actually been playing well recently. This weekend, though, provides the biggest test since playing the New England Patriots, and they'll have an incredibly tough task in slowing down the Steelers' passing offense. The problem that the Colts will face is this: it's dangerous to leave your cornerbacks alone on islands with the Steelers receivers, but it's equally as dangerous to leave Ben Roethlisberger in the pocket with plenty of time. The Colts' pass rush has not been good this year, and if they can't pressure Roethlisberger, it will make it even harder on their cornerbacks. So we could very well see the Colts get creative in generating pressure while also trying to find the balance of providing adequate help in the secondary. That's what makes this such a tough matchup for the Colts' defense: they have talented players at spots, but they can't always put things together like they need to against a very good offense like Pittsburgh's.
Earlier this season, there were a lot of experts suggesting Chuck Pagano's seat was heating up. Has his recent success silenced those rumors, or is there more to this story than what is on the surface?
There's a lot more going on than just wins and losses, that's for sure. Basically, there have been numerous reports about tension between Pagano and the front office (general manager Ryan Grigson), along with numerous reports about Grigson overstepping his responsibilities into the area typically reserved for coaches. Owner Jim Irsay has apparently allowed this to fester beyond the usual disagreement between GMs and coaches to a point where it's not a very good situation. Furthermore, Irsay only offered Pagano a small one-year extension this past offseason - a clear sign that Irsay isn't sold on Pagano as the guy to get the Colts to the Super Bowl. So that's the backdrop to the situation in Indianapolis (ok, it's a lot more complex than that, but that's a brief summary), and now you get to the on-the-field aspect of things. Pagano has plenty of faults as a coach, and a lot of the blame for some of the struggles this year has fallen on the shoulders of the coaching staff (deservedly so, in most instances). I don't think anything is ever as simple as a "Super Bowl or bust" season, as there is so much variable that can go into the playoffs and reaching the Super Bowl, but Pagano will likely need a strong finish to this season (including a strong push in the playoffs and perhaps a win over the Patriots, the team the Colts have built to beat) in order to save his job.
I think that Pagano deserves a lot of credit for keeping this team together, as the players absolutely haven't given up on him yet (typically a sign of a coach who is sure to be fired) and the Colts have weathered a rough start and the loss of their starting quarterback to keep winning and stay atop their division. They are 4-0 with their backup quarterback, something that is very impressive and a testament to Pagano's ability to lead this team and keep them together. So I think there's a legitimate case to be made for Pagano if his team continues to win despite the circumstances and win a playoff game or two, but at this point I still think it's most likely that Pagano won't be around next year with the Colts.
How do you see this game playing out, and who do you like to win this Week 13 game? If you feel obliged to give us a prediction, it is always great for discussion!
To keep it simple, I think the Colts might be able to keep this one somewhat close, but I don't think a Matt Hasselbeck-led offense will be able to outscore a dangerous offense like the Steelers have. I do think that the Colts will be able to put up some points, so if the defense can step up and come away with some key stops, this one could go either way. But I'm just not convinced at all in the Colts' ability to slow down Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers offense enough. So I'll take the Steelers to win this one, 35-24.