The 24-hour rule for enjoying an Indianapolis Colts victory wasn’t in effect Sunday for outside linebacker Erik Walden.
It was more like 24 minutes.
Instead of relishing in the accomplishment of a two-sack game, Walden was looking ahead to Sunday night against the Pittsburgh Steelers at Heinz Field. He was also looking back, broaching a touchy subject about how Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger embarrassed the Colts on the same field last season.
“We got a big game this week,” he said in the locker room. “We know what happened last year, and they do, too. We felt like we kind of got dominated a little bit. It will be a different story this year. You don’t forget it.”
How could anyone forget? The Colts entered confident on a five-game winning streak, but “Big” Ben completed 40-of-49 passes for 522 yards and six touchdowns on Oct. 26, 2014, setting single-season franchise records for completions, passing yards and touchdown passes.
The Steelers often used an extra offensive lineman and provided their passer with maximum protection for much of the game. The Colts struggled to even get close to Roethlisberger, let alone hit him. More time to throw meant extra seconds for receivers to get open. Complicating matters was the Colts losing their best cover guy, cornerback Vontae Davis, in the first quarter.
“It left a nasty taste,” Walden said Wednesday, “then not being able to finish the game, getting hurt. That ain’t like me at all. It’s a game that sticks to you. You never forget it.”
The eighth-year pro suffered a hip flexor injury and missed the next game.
Mention how Roethlisberger didn’t get hit, Walden said, “Oh no, we know that. We’re aware of that. That’s why the outcome was the way it was. It’s really going to start with us outside guys helping our coverage guys because they can’t cover for 10 seconds.”
The Colts and Steelers are both 6-5 entering the primetime matchup, and the question for the visiting defense is still the same: How do the Colts get pressure on a 6-5, 241-pound quarterback who has proven his elite NFL status with two Super Bowl rings?
Defensive coordinator Greg Manusky gave a simple answer for what happened last year.
“We didn’t play good enough. We didn’t coach good enough,” he said Thursday. “We got to play physical. Going to Pittsburgh is always a different atmosphere I would say. Just being on the road, outside, good fans. We got to make sure that we’re on our P’s and Q’s.”
Manusky isn’t going to divulge how he likely needs to get creative in how the Colts blitz the Steelers. It’s fair to say, based on last year, a three- or four-man rush won’t get it done. But blitzing has to be effective in speeding up Roethlisberger’s timing. The Colts will need to disguise their intentions, perhaps showing blitz when dropping back and doing the opposite. They might overload a side at times, sending more defenders than can be blocked.
The Colts had a season-high five sacks in Sunday’s 25-12 home win over Tampa Bay. While that’s encouraging, the pass rush is ranked 28th in sacks per pass play. The defense is ranked 14th in passing yards allowed and 22nd in total yards.
Pittsburgh’s receiving corps is led by arguably the NFL’s best in Antonio Brown, the AFC’s Offensive Player of the Month for November. The three-time Pro Bowl selection had 10 catches for 133 yards and two scores in last year’s game.
This season, Brown is second in the league in both receptions (85) and receiving yards (1,192). Perhaps more telling, he leads the NFL in third-down receptions with 27 for 504 yards — and the latter number is 178 yards more than the next player.
The Steelers’ fourth-ranked offense has other capable wide receivers. Martavis Bryant ties Brown with five touchdown catches. Bryant has caught 27 passes for 509 yards, an 18.9-yard average. Markus Wheaton has 25 catches for 474 yards, a 19-yard average, with two TDs.
“They’re lightning fast,” Manusky said. “They could split a defense. They get up the field pretty good. Good hands. They can catch it in traffic. I think Ben trusts all of them so we got to be on our P’s and Q’s across the board.”
It’s a daunting challenge, especially when considering how much both teams need this game. The Colts are tied with the Houston Texans atop the AFC South Division. The Steelers trail Cincinnati by three games so they’re almost eliminated from winning the AFC North Division. They’re currently on the outside looking in for a wild-card playoff spot by virtue of tiebreaker.
“This is what it’s about,” Walden said. “Can’t beat it.”
Phillip B. Wilson also can be found on Facebook and Google+.