There have been two games that stood out in the late season schedule as arguably the most important for Indianapolis to earn a playoff berth.
The first was at home against the Tennessee Titans, a game marred in part by COVID-19 and also by injury. Starting left tackle Anthony Castonzo left early in the game after suffering an MCL sprain in his right knee. Last week against Houston was his first full game since Week 11 — playing every offensive snap. In that same game, DeForest Buckner and Denico Autry were unable to play due to COVID-19 restrictions, and starting linebacker Bobby Okereke missed the game with an ankle injury.
The outcome wasn’t surprising under the circumstances but just how glaring those big losses were was difficult to fully predict. The Titans had their way with the short-handed Colts defense all game and Castonzo’s absence was extremely noticeable on offense.
The second is the game that will be played this afternoon. Earlier this season, the matchup against a hot Pittsburgh Steelers team was likely marked down as a presumed loss by many fans. It’s not that fans didn’t or don’t believe the Colts can win, it was more about playoff scenarios and figuring what Indy’s odds might be. Little did Colts fans know earlier this season, the Steelers games is crucial in that it presents not only an opportunity to all but guarantee a playoff berth in 2020, it also could have implications for the AFC South championship. With the Titans and Colts tied at the top and Tennessee facing a tough Green Bay Packers team, an Indianapolis win could give them the advantage as they head into a final matchup against the struggling Jacksonville Jaguars.
The Steelers have been a mess the last few weeks and look vulnerable. Enter injuries and COVID-19 once again.
Castonzo will miss another game with an ankle injury he suffered during practice this week. Starting right tackle Braden Smith, who has been as worthy of a Pro Bowl nod as any offensive lineman in the league this season, will also miss the game on the COVID-19 list. The Steelers are vulnerable but their greatest strength is on the defensive line.
Defensive tackle Cameron Hayward was named to the Pro Bowl (laughably DeForest Buckner was not) and pass rusher T.J. Watt is a front runner for Defensive Player of the Year. If the Colts are forced to move All-Pro left guard Quenton Nelson to left tackle in this game, Hayward could have a dominant game. If they choose to leave a backup lineman to man the edges, Watt could have a multi-sack game and disrupt the Colts’ offense.
Timing has been horrible with this year, that’s for sure, and that makes this game all the more important. A win today, under these circumstances, would send a message to the rest of the league and might be what it takes to steal the AFC South back from the Titans. It could mean home-field advantage early in the playoffs — which matters for the Colts beyond crowd noise because playing in an indoor arena can help remove weather from the equation.
Ben Roethlisberger is not the kind of quarterback you want sitting in the pocket untouched. He has two Pro Bowl offensive linemen in front of him who will be tasked with limiting DeForest Buckner on the interior. He is not a mobile quarterback but is built like a tank, making him hard to tackle in the pocket.
With all that said, Roethlisberger is likely a future Hall of Fame quarterback and he has proven throughout his career that he can eat a defense alive if he has a clean pocket. He has plenty of weapons to make that possible, with JuJu Smith-Schuster and rookie Chase Claypool near the top of his list. Former Colts tight end Eric Ebron will face his former team for the first time since he left in free agency and he too has started to heat up in the second half of the season.
With that said, Indianapolis will not have to chase Roethlisberger all over the field like they have had to with athletic quarterbacks like Deshaun Watson, Ryan Tannehill, and Lamar Jackson since Week 9 of this season. In fact, Roethlisberger is the least-mobile quarterback the Colts will have faced since Nick Foles in Week 4. If they can collapse the pocket, they should be able to cause disruptions, and deflected passes or rushed decisions could lead to turnovers.
Win the Turnover Battle
Speaking of turnovers, there may not be a game where the defense will need to carry a bigger load than this one. Indianapolis hasn’t had a particularly high profile offense for much of the season and the last thing the Colts should want to see at this point is Philip Rivers feeling that he needs to put the team on his shoulders and try to beat Minkah Fitzpatrick deep. There is every likelihood that the Colts will have to use the quick-release passing game and ground game, control the ball, and be efficient with each drive to give the defense time to catch its breath.
The defense can do itself a favor by getting off of the field through turnovers. Forced fumbles, interceptions, it really doesn’t matter. If this defense can take over the game as it has in key moments in five of the last six weeks (all wins) the Colts could upset the Steelers and grab their first win in Pittsburgh since 2008. If the defense fails to create turnovers and/or fails to have one of the unit’s best games of the season, it’s hard to imagine Indianapolis flying home victorious.
Open the Playbook
Now is the time for Frank Reich to open up whatever bag of tricks he has been saving. Without his starting tackles on offense, there is every reason to expect that Philip Rivers will be under duress and that he will need to get the ball out of his hands quickly. Reich will be tasked with finding a way to dictate the game and keep Pittsburgh’s defense off-balance.
Expect that Nyheim Hines could be rather active in this game. This is in part due to the fact that Indianapolis is playing an opponent that will likely keep pace on the scoreboard but also because arguably no receiver on the team is more effective in the quick-release short-passing game than Hines. Can Hines or Jonathan Taylor find success running the ball without their bookend tackles?
If Reich can find a way to scheme rushing lanes and to set up the Steelers’ defense to be susceptible to daggers downfield when the game is on the line; if the Colts makeshift offensive line can keep Cam Heyward and T.J. Watt from taking over the game; Indianapolis can come out victorious.