INDIANAPOLIS – The dry spell could’ve – should’ve – ended in week 9 of last season.
But it didn’t.
Instead, the Pittsburgh Steelers’ dominance of the Indianapolis Colts continued. Like that dull ache deep in your bones.
It remains all too fresh for Darius Leonard.
“I’ve still got a nasty taste in my mouth from last year,’’ the Pro Bowl linebacker said on a Thursday Zoom conference call. “I felt like I cost the team.’’
The Steelers won 26-24 at Heinz Field, but a strong case could be made they simply took what the Colts gave them. They tightened their series stranglehold – six straight and 20 of 23 overall; the Colts have won once in Pittsburgh in the last half century – but only after Indy did so much wrong and suffered an injury to Jacoby Brissett that ultimately would lead to a death spiral following a 5-2 start.
“It definitely sucks,’’ Leonard said. “I still have that nasty taste. I know what it felt like on the plane, people coming up to me, you know? That’s a feeling that you don’t want to feel again.
“That mindset now (is) ‘I’ve got to win in Pittsburgh.’ I’m hungry to get back out there and hopefully come out with a victory.’’
We’ll get to Sunday’s meeting shortly. It pairs the surging, 10-4 Colts, who’ve won three straight and seven of nine, against the reeling, 11-3 Steelers, who’ve lost three straight and risk losing the AFC North to the Cleveland Browns.
But first, the most recent meeting is worth a quick review. It included:
Brissett spraining the medial collateral ligament in his left knee early in the second quarter when Steelers’ defensive tackle Cameron Heyward bull-rushed All-Pro guard Quenton Nelson back into Brissett.
Backup Brian Hoyer completed the drive with an 11-yard touchdown pass to Jack Doyle for a 10-3 lead, but was victimized on the Colts’ ensuing drive. In position to push the lead to 17-3 – first-and-10 at the Steelers’ 20 with 2:36 remaining – Hoyer again targeted Doyle at the goal line only to have safety Minkah Fitzpatrick jump the route and return the interception 96 yards for a touchdown.
Hoyer tossed three TDs in his first appearance as a Colt, but had the pick-6 and lost a fumble on one of the four sacks he suffered that led to another Pittsburgh TD.
Leonard having a hand in 10 Steelers’ points. With 7 seconds remaining in the first half and Pittsburgh at its own 47, he was penalized for unnecessary roughness for arriving late and whacking Vance McDonald on the end of a 5-yard reception. Instead of the half ending with the Colts in front 16-10, the 15-yard penalty allowed Chris Boswell to convert a 51-yard field goal.
“The last play before the half I get a stupid penalty and cost 15 yards and they kick a field goal,’’ Leonard said. “We lost by (two) points and if you don’t have that three points going into halftime, we win that ballgame.’’
Leonard drawing another unnecessary roughness flag on Pittsburgh’s first drive of the third quarter. After JuJu Smith-Schuster pulled in a short pass from Mason Rudolph, he and Leonard began hand-fighting as Smith-Schuster was heading out of bounds. Leonard gave him a shove as they crossed the sideline.
“I still think that’s questionable,’’ Leonard argued.
Aided by the 15-yard penalty, the Steelers completed an 11-play drive with Rudolph’s 7-yard TD to McDonald for a 20-16 lead.
Adam Vinatieri yanking a 43-yard field goal wide left with 1:14 remaining. It was the notorious “laces’’ miss. Instead of spinning the football with the laces pointing away from Vinatieri, holder Rigoberto Sanchez left them facing his kicker.
It all added up to yet another loss to the Steelers and another failed business trip to Pittsburgh. The Colts are 2-15 in the Steel City: a 24-20 win in 2008 with Peyton Manning and a 41-7 victory in 1968 at Pitt Stadium with Earl Morrall and a defense that returned three interceptions for touchdowns.
Problems in Pittsburgh
The NFL’s last unbeaten team finds itself in a deep funk. After an 11-0 start, the Steelers have lost three straight and looked lost in the process.
The defense ranks 2nd in total yards allowed (297.9) and scoring (18.9), leads the NFL with 47 sacks and is 2nd with 25 takeaways, including a league-high 17 interceptions.
The offense? It’s an absolute mess. Everything shouldn’t be dumped at Ben Roethlisberger’s feet, but that’s a good place to start. Social media has been killing him.
“I don’t blame them,’’ Roethlisberger said. “When you play like poo, you should get talked about like that. I need to play better.’’
During the Steelers’ slide, he’s completing just 57.8% of his passes and averaging 220.7 yards per game, 8.9 yards per completion and 5.2 yards per attempt. In last Sunday’s 27-17 loss at Cincinnati, Roethlisberger endured arguably the worst half of his Hall of Fame-worthy career: 7-of-16, 19 yards, one interception.
But Pittsburgh’s offensive issues transcend its 38-year old QB1. The run game has been hit-and-miss, mostly miss. It ranks 31st in yards per game (88.9) and per attempt (3.7). The Steelers have rushed for more than 100 yards as a team just once in the last nine games, and that was a 106-yard outing at Jacksonville.
The lack of a reliable run game has been an issue since the last time Le’Veon Bell worked alongside Roethlisberger in 2017. That year, Pittsburgh ranked 20th in the league, but it hasn’t approached that level with James Conner and Benny Snell Jr.
Considering their physical, smash-mouth reputation, it’s nothing short of amazing the Steelers have fielded the NFL’s worst rushing attack since the start of the 2018 season: 98.4 yards per game, 3.9 yards per attempt.
With Roethlisberger struggling – a sub-100 passer rating in five straight games for the first time since 2012 – and the running game impotent, the offense has been held to 20 points or fewer in four straight games.
If the Colts’ 7th-ranked defense is able to exploit those issues, Pittsburgh’s offensive might enter historical territory. The last time the Steelers were held to fewer than 20 points in five straight games: 1969. That was Chuck Noll’s first season as coach and Pittsburgh finished 1-13.
No matter what the Steelers’ issues might be, the Colts are taking their normal approach. They’re worrying more about themselves than the opponent.
“We just basically look at the tape and we try to diagnose what they are doing well and then what we can do to take advantage of any situation,’’ coordinator Matt Eberflus said. “But obviously we know the history of Ben and what he’s done in the past and the first 11 games, what he operated as.’’
Roethlisberger’s success against the Colts is well-documented. He’s 6-2 as a starter, including the AFC Divisional round game in 2005, with 19 touchdowns and eight interceptions. In consecutive blowouts in 2014-15 (51-34 and 45-10), he completed 64-of-88 (72.7%) for 886 yards, 10 touchdowns, no interceptions and a 142.6 rating.
Forget the past, insisted Leonard.
“We control what we can control, just playing great defense,’’ he said. “You don’t look at what they are doing. That’s how you get lost in the sauce and that’s when things go bad when you start worrying about other teams.
“You do exactly what you can do. That is controlling every play, playing 110% and getting 1% better every play. As soon as you start looking across, then you put names out there, that’s when you start messing up.’’
You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.