Different season, but same objective as the Indianapolis Colts visit the Pittsburgh Steelers Sunday night at Heinz Field.
No. 1, get pressure on Steelers quarterback “Big” Ben Roethlisberger, or he’ll make you look silly. The two-time Super Bowl winner did that with a team-record 522 passing yards and six touchdowns in a 51-34 home over the Colts last year.
No. 2, somehow limit Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown, the AFC Offensive Player of the Month, who torched the Colts with 10 receptions for 133 yards and two scores a year ago.
Do either of those well and the Colts have a chance.
The Colts have won three in a row to get to 6-5, the same record as the Steelers, who are coming off a 39-30 loss at Seattle. The Colts need this game to ensure they stay atop the AFC South Division. They’re tied with the Houston Texans. The Steelers need this game because it’s highly unlikely they’ll win the AFC North Division, being three games back of Cincinnati, and the wild-card playoff route will require a strong finish.
The challenge starts up front, where the Colts’ pass rush failed to sack Roethlisberger the last time but had a season-high five sacks in Sunday’s home win over Tampa Bay. The Steelers used an extra offensive lineman to ensure their passer had time and are sure to employ that blocking scheme again.
“It’s hard enough covering for two-and-a-half, three seconds and when your pass rush works or your blitz patterns work or whatever and the ball is coming out,” Colts head coach Chuck Pagano said Wednesday. “They do a great job running the ball, then they got run action on first and second down and then they’ll max protect on third down and then when things break down and he starts to move around sometimes you got to cover six, seven seconds and it’s never over until that whistle blows or the ball falls incomplete.”
If the Colts get to Roethlisberger, he’s a load to bring down at 6-5 and 241 pounds.
“We got to get as many guys to him, wrap up, roll, do whatever it takes because he somehow seems to shake guys off,” said defensive end Kendall Langford. “He’s strong enough to throw the ball as he’s going down, which he’s done numerous times as everybody knows. It’s definitely a challenge.”
Inside linebacker D'Qwell Jackson, the NFL tackle leader with 111 stops, knows the Steelers as well as anyone. He played for the division rival Cleveland Browns for eight seasons through 2013, which meant two games each year against Pittsburgh.
“They have a great fan base, a great tradition,” Jackson said. “It’s one of those places where there’s a handful of teams out here that you go into that place you know you got to bring your A-game. It’s been no different from them for the past decade, you know you got to bring your A-game. Like I said, the fan base it great. They play that song, I forget the name of it, “Renegade” I believe. It stands out so they have great tradition there and that’s what it’s all about. They win at home and we understand what we’re walking into. (But) I like our odds this year as a team.”
Pro Bowl cornerback Vontae Davis, who was lost to injury in the first quarter of last year’s meeting, will undoubtedly see his share of Brown. While Davis is a proven cover guy, Brown makes a habit of beating the best defenders on a weekly basis. The three-time Pro Bowl receiver ranks second in the NFL with 85 receptions for 1,192 yards. He’s scored five touchdowns this season to boost his six-season total to 33.
“He can run by anybody in this league,” Pagano said.
“It’s going to be a challenge,” Davis said. “This is the best group of receivers that you are going to see in the NFL.”
The Colts will be without their second-leading tackler, inside linebacker Jerrell Freeman, due to a hamstring injury.
When the Colts are on offense, the first priority is to protect quarterback Matt Hasselbeck, who is 4-0 as a fill-in for the injured Andrew Luck. But offensive guard Hugh Thornton is out which means a fifth different O-line starting combination. Lance Louis is expected to get the start, and if so, that means all five O-line starters will be different than in the season's first two weeks. Offensive left tackle Anthony Castonzo will miss his second consecutive game with a knee sprain.
Pittsburgh is traditionally tough at stopping the run and ranks seventh this season. The Colts have struggled to generate a consistent ground game of late — the 24th-ranked rush offense managed just 27 yards on 26 rushes in the last game.
That puts more of the onus on Hasselbeck, who threw a pair of touchdown passes to wide receiver T.Y. Hilton to rally the Colts from a six-point halftime deficit last game. Second-year wide receiver Donte Moncrief had a career-high eight receptions in that game to pass Hilton for the team lead, 52-51.
The Steelers’ Achilles heel has been pass defense. They rank 30th. If the Colts can keep pass rushers off Hasselbeck, it seems a given Hilton and Moncrief among others will get open. Pittsburgh ranks just 21st in sacks per pass play.
“They’re a good defense,” Hasselbeck said. “Dick LeBeau is no longer their defensive coordinator, but it’s still the same defense that they’ve been doing for a long time. It’s very similar. It’s what they believe in, and it’s kind of been a trademark for them as a team. They’ve just been good on D.
“They blitz probably more than anybody else that we’ve seen. That does create opportunities downfield for big plays. They’ve given up some of those, but they’re a good defense. They’re really stout against the run. They’re great at pass rushing. You look at their coaching staff, I mean, those are guys that used to play there in that defense. Everyone in that building, they know what to do. They know the defense, and they’re good at it.”
Special teams could also play a pivotal role. The Colts might have to contend with Brown again as a punt returner. If it comes down to a field goal, the Colts’ Adam Vinatieri has made two game-winning kicks this season to boost his 20-year career total to 26 in the fourth quarter or overtime.
But the winds whipping off the Ohio River the stadium’s open end can make life interesting for kickers.
“It definitely can be tough there, for sure,” said Vinatieri, the NFL’s oldest player at 42. “Any given Sunday, it’s different conditions every time. I’ve been there in a playoff game and it was 60 degrees and sunny out. You don’t expect that in January. Then there are other times where you’re there and there’s snow on the ground. You just never know. You prepare for the worst and hope for the best.”
The Colts’ last win in Pittsburgh was in 2008, and that snapped a winless drought of 40 years in the Steel City. They’re touchdown underdogs this trip.
“America is watching, everyone is going to be watching 'Sunday Night Football,'” Langford said. “It’s a chance to go out there and make a statement against a good Pittsburgh team.”
Phillip B. Wilson also can be found on Facebook and Google+.