INDIANAPOLIS – Areas of interest in the Indianapolis Colts’ Sunday meeting with the Pittsburgh Steelers in Heinz Field.
- Kickoff: 1 p.m.
- Broadcast: CBS4.
This could be so simple. The Colts clinch a playoff spot Sunday if they snap their six-game losing streak against the Steelers and either the Miami Dolphins lose Saturday night to the Raiders in Las Vegas or the Baltimore Ravens lose at home Sunday to the New York Giants. Easy as that.
Lose in Pittsburgh, though, and things could get dicey. Unless, of course, the Dolphins crap out in Vegas. In that scenario, the Colts clinch at least a wild-card spot with a season-ending win at home over Jacksonville.
Still on the table in the top-heavy AFC is the possibility of finishing 11-5 and not making the postseason. The Colts could join the 2008 New England Patriots and 1985 Denver Broncos as the only 11-5 outfits since the NFL went to a 16-game schedule in 1978 to miss the playoffs if Miami and Baltimore win their last two games and also finish 11-5.
The AFC South remains within reach, but only if the Colts finish with a better record than Tennessee. The Titans would hold the tiebreaker (better record within the division).
The Colts have won seven of their last nine and put themselves in position to return to the playoffs for just the second time in six years. But there’s still work to be done.
“We’ve talked about playing meaningful games in December, controlling our own destiny,’’ coach Frank Reich said. “And as long as we’re winning that’s what we’re doing. The way to control your own destiny is to take care of your business day-to-day.’’
This went from bad to worse in 24 hours. Friday, right tackle Braden Smith was placed on the reserve/COVID-19 list. Saturday, left tackle Anthony Castonzo was ruled out with his knee/ankle injuries.
Reich insisted the team had considered its various options, but none are even remotely ideal considering those options must deal with a Steelers’ defense that leads the NFL with 47 sacks and loves to test protection schemes with numerous blitzes. T.J. Watt has placed himself in the discussion for Defensive Player of the Year honors on the strength of 13 sacks and 40 quarterback hits, both league highs.
The issue is how drastic are Reich and his staff in compensating for the losses of Castonzo and Smith?
One possible combination is sliding All-Pro left guard Quenton Nelson to left tackle and inserting J’Marcus Webb at right tackle. Nelson took a handful of snaps at left tackle against the Raiders after third-stringer Chaz Green struggled when he temporarily replaced Castonzo. In that scenario, perhaps rookie Danny Pinter starts at left guard.
The Colts’ active tackles heading into the game: Webb, Green and Will Holden. Yikes.
Did we mention the Steelers lead the league with 47 sacks?
Sunday’s game might redefine what constitutes a deep pass. It might be three hours of dinking and dunking if each team is unable to keep its QB1 out of harm’s way.
The Steelers have allowed a league-low 12 sacks, but Ben Roethlisberger nonetheless has dealt with season-long pressure. According to NFL game books, he’s been hit 63 times and the passing game has suffered as a result. Roethlisberger has averaged 7.6 yards per attempt and 12 yards per completion during his Hall of Fame-worthy career. He’s been conscious of getting rid of the football quicker this year and is averaging 6.2 yards per attempt (31st in the league). He’s had just 39 completions that have picked up at least 20 yards, tied for 17th.
Roethlisberger’s targets in the passing game also have suffered. They’re averaging 9.4 yards per catch, 24th in the NFL. Remember when JuJu Smith-Schuster was a big-play threat? He averaged 15.8, 12.8 and 13.1 yards per catch with a long of at least 76 yards in his first three seasons. In year 4, he’s averaging a pedestrian 8.2 with a long of 31. One of the Steelers’ pleasant surprises has been Notre Dame rookie Chase Claypool, who’s averaging 13.5 yards on 53 receptions with a team-high eight TDs.
The Colts should be able to keep Roethlisberger from patting the football and looking deep. They rank in the middle of the pack with 33 sacks, but DeForest Buckner, Justin Houston and Denico Autry form a potent triumvirate with 7.5 sacks each.
Rivers, meanwhile, likely will have to speed up his internal clock. His protection has allowed just 16 sacks – 2nd-fewest to the Steelers – but that’s a meaningless stat with Castonzo and Smith out. If Rivers’ protection is leaky, he’ll have to counter by making liberal use of running backs Nyheim Hines and Jonathan Taylor and tight ends Jack Doyle, Trey Burton and Mo Alie-Cox.
In a game that figures to lack offensive pop, it’s imperative for Rivers to take the shots when they’re there, but avoid the big mistakes. Indy hasn’t suffered a turnover in three straight games, but the Steelers are 2nd in the league with 25 takeaways and 1st with 17 interceptions.
Rookie on a roll
Speaking of Taylor, Sunday would be an ideal time to ride his hot hand. Instead of forcing Rivers to limber up his 39-year old right arm in the face of expected pressure, let’s see how Taylor holds up against Pittsburgh’s No. 8-ranked run defense. The Steelers are allowing just 104.6 yards per game and 4.1 per attempt, but allowed 152 in Monday’s 27-17 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals.
Taylor enters the game on a serious roll. He’s rushed for 414 yards on 71 attempts (5.8 per carry) with three TDs in his last four games. He’s the first Colt back with at least 80 yards in four straight games since Joe Addai in 2007. The last to hit that level in five straight: Hall of Famer Edgerrin James in 2005 (13 straight).
After a quiet start to his rookie season, Taylor’s strong finish has him in position to eclipse the 1,000-yard mark. He needs 158 yards in the last two games.
Nothing figures to come easily Sunday. A reliable run game would certainly help.
Big test for Hot Rod
Rookie Rodrigo Blankenship has set team rookie records with 125 points and 38 PATS, and needs two made field goals to surpass Raul Allegre’s mark (30 in 1983). He’s converted 29-of-32 field goals and missed only two of his 40 PAT attempts.
Now comes Heinz Field.
“I’ve heard a lot about this stadium amongst others that are a little bit challenging for placekickers and punters to have success in, but I’m up for the challenge,’’ Blankenship said.
Special teams coordinator Bubba Ventrone has intimate knowledge of the trappings of Heinz Field. He’s a native of Pittsburgh and played four seasons AFC North rival Cleveland.
“For whatever reason, it’s a harder stadium to kick in than most,’’ Ventrone said. “There is a big open end to the stadium and the percentage of kicks, the success rate to go that way is significantly lower than going the other to the closed end.’’
The playing surface has routinely been panned by players and weather/wind can be an issue. Sunday’s forecast is for temperatures in the low 40s.
Since Heinz Field opened in 2001, opposing kickers have converted a lackluster 79.2% of their field-goal attempts. That’s the 5th-worst percentage in any stadium over that stretch.
And it’s doubtful anyone needs reminding how the Colts’ last field-goal attempt in Heinz Field ended up. With 1:14 remaining and the Colts trailing 26-24, Adam Vinatieri yanked a 43-yard attempt wide left. That was the infamous “laces’’ kick, which saw holder Rigoberto Sanchez fail to spin the laces away from Vinatieri.
Blankenship had several opportunities to kick in the cold this week at the Indiana Farm Bureau Insurance Football Center, and will be extra diligent during pregame work Sunday.
“It’s just a matter of getting a feel for it once I get out there on Sunday,’’ he said. “It’ll be a little bit of a new experience, but I’m just going to prepare how I always prepare and just trust that I’m going to be hitting a good, pure ball.’’
Just to remind everyone. The Steelers lead the overall series 24-6. They’ve won 20 of 23, including six straight. The Colts are just 2-15 in Pittsburgh: in 2008 with Peyton Manning and in 1968 when Earl Morrall and a great defense (three interceptions returned for TDs) outdueled Dick Shiner and Kent Nix.
And the winner is
Steelers 23, Colts 16. This is why they invented the delete key on the laptop. We had this one in the Colts’ win column – Colts 27, Steelers 23 – before the news of Smith AND Castonzo. Maybe Reich and his staff are able to come up with a workable patchwork o-line and Rivers remains effective. Maybe Roethlisberger and the Steelers offense is as broken as it appears. Maybe Hot Rod is able to knock down some long-distance field goals in a bad environment if the offense stalls. But that’s too many maybes.
You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.