The Pittsburgh Steelers are going head-to-head with the Indianapolis Colts on Thanksgiving night, and to get the low down on the opposition I was able to ask Josh Wilson, editor of SB Nation’s Colts website Stampede Blue, check out the interview below, and be sure to check out Stampede Blue for the latest on the Colts leading up to kickoff.
So Andrew Luck isn't playing. Who in the heck is Scott Tolzien? And what does he bring to the table?
There are a lot of Colts fans right now asking the same question, to be sure. The team signed Scott Tolzien this offseason to be the replacement to Matt Hasselbeck as Andrew Luck's backup quarterback, and the little fans have seen from Tolzien (in the preseason) hasn't inspired confidence. In fact, Tolzien was outplayed by Stephen Morris and by Andrew Luck in training camp and preseason this year, and that added with his lack of experience makes that lack of confidence warranted. He's played in just six NFL games and started only two, with the last one actually coming exactly three years before this Thursday night game. He hasn't been great in that action either and boasts a career TD to INT ratio of 1 to 5. So yeah, not great. The Colts seem to have a lot of confidence in Scott Tolzien, but he's basically a guy that makes you go "meh" as a backup and "uh oh" as a starter. Perhaps he'll prove people wrong and show how he's improved on Thursday night, but I wouldn't count on it.
What are fans thinking as the news of Luck being out circulated around the football world? Are they throwing in the towel on Thanksgiving, or do they feel they have a good chance with Tolzien?
The optimism surrounding the Thanksgiving game from Colts fans isn't great right now, and for good reason. This is a team that has been inconsistent this year, has a bad defense, and has for the most part been carried by the play of Andrew Luck, who has had a very good season overall. So I don't think you'll find many Colts fans thinking the team will win this one. This is a team very dependent upon their quarterback, so when you take him away and replace him with Scott Tolzien there really isn't a ton of reason for optimism either. To win this game the Colts are going to need by far best game of the season from the defense, Frank Gore, the offensive line, and the coaching staff, plus solid play from Scott Tolzien. The odds of all of that happening in the same game are very slim.
Aside from the QB situation, what are the main strengths and weaknesses of the 2016 Colts team?
Well obviously the biggest strength of this team is their quarterback, and Andrew Luck has been having a very good bounce-back season overall. But aside from Luck, there are a number of players who have stepped up - like T.Y. Hilton (who is having a career year), Frank Gore (who is still producing), Adam Vinatieri (who's still as automatic as ever), Pat McAfee (who's still arguably the league's best punter), Erik Walden (who's got a career-high eight sacks), and the secondary. If you have to pick a strength of the defense it's their secondary, as Vontae Davis, Patrick Robinson, Rashaan Melvin, Darius Butler, Mike Adams, and Clayton Geathers make up a good-enough secondary for sure.
When it comes to the weaknesses of the team, we could just group the whole defense together, but more specifically the linebackers are a huge weak spot and have been the group most exploited this year. The outside linebackers struggle to get to the quarterback and the inside linebackers just aren't good. D'Qwell Jackson is still a guy you can win with but he's not great, and the spot next to him has been a revolving door this year. On the offensive side of the football, the biggest weakness is the offensive line. They've been up and down this year, but they're still way too inconsistent to rely on. Rookie center Ryan Kelly has been tremendous this year and left guard Jack Mewhort is a good one, but other than that the line has been very inconsistent and can be exploited.
The Colts, like the Steelers, are 5-5. Is this about what people expected, or is the team underachieving for the second straight year?
I think it's a little bit of both: I think people expected them to look better than they've looked in games, but the 5-5 record isn't too far off what many expected. That might not make a ton of sense, but what I mean by that is that the defense has been even worse than expected and the Colts haven't looked great for large stretches of a number of games this year. I don't think fans expected them to blow a game in the final minute against the Lions or blow a huge lead in the final few minutes to Brock Osweiler and the Texans, but 5-5 isn't too far off of what the record should be talent-wise. They're on a bit of a hot streak right now with back-to-back wins over the Packers and Titans, but that momentum could be halted by the loss of Luck. And really, here's the deal: the Colts should be better than 5-5 right now. At the very least, they should have beaten the Texans, in which case they would be 6-4 and in first place in the division. So there's certainly a lot of disappointment from Colts fans, and I think overall that's been the prevailing feeling for most of the year despite the team being .500.
On such short rest, it is tough to predict a game like this, but how do you see this game shaking out? Feel free to give a prediction if you'd like.
I'll cut right to the chase: without Andrew Luck I don't think the Colts stand much of a chance. I actually use the past two games the teams have played to explain that; in 2014 Luck played against the Steelers and despite Ben Roethlisberger having a crazy game the Colts managed to enter the fourth quarter in a one-score game thanks to Luck, but they ultimately lost. Without Luck in 2015, the Colts lost 45-10. That's kind of my feeling about this game too: had Luck played I still would have picked the Steelers to win but I think it would have been a high-scoring competitive football game. Without Luck, however, I don't expect the Colts to be able to keep up with the Steelers offense (who get to play a weak Colts defense). I'll take the Steelers 38-16.