Pittsburgh's struggles in pass protection are well documented and were given a national stage in Week 9's Monday night game against the Redskins.
The Steelers suffer from suspect blitz pickups and the fact that starting left tackle Marvel Smith has missed the last three games only exacerbates the situation. It is very possible that he will not be available for Sunday's game and that Max Starks, a right tackle by trade, will again get the start in Smith's place.
RT Willie Colon
Starks was unable to beat out current right tackle Willie Colon in the offseason and had not seen much action until Smith went down with an injury in Week 5. He's a massive player at 6-feet-8 and 345 pounds, but has poor recognition skills, has a tendency to overcommit, and has a poor track record against speed rushers like Dwight Freeney.
For Freeney's part, though, he does not appear to be the same explosive player that he was prior to sustaining a Lisfranc injury last season and registered only an assisted tackle in the New England game.
Conventional wisdom would say to leave a tight end or running back in to protect and assist Starks by chipping Freeney, but the Steelers may leave Starks one-on-one with Freeney until he proves he can get to the quarterback.
On the other side, Colon is a much more talented run blocker than he is in pass protection, which is where Robert Mathis and Raheem Brock should have more success rushing the passer. Tight end Heath Miller is doubtful for this game, so look for Pittsburgh to keep reserve Matt Spaeth tight against the formation to help out.
The interior of the offensive line lost starter Kendall Simmons to injured reserve, but backup Darnell Stapleton has played well in his stead on the right side. Center Justin Hartwig and left guard Chris Kemoeatu, as well as Stapleton, are all better attacking the line of scrimmage in the running game than protecting it in the passing game, but Eric Foster, Daniel Muir, and Keyunta Dawson will not be asked to create much pressure, just hold their own against the maulers on the inside when the Steelers hand the ball off.
Against the larger, more physical lines of Tennessee, Jacksonville, and Baltimore, it was imperative for the defensive line to hold the point of attack and allow the linebackers and safeties to flow to the ball.
Against this offensive line, gap discipline should be tossed aside in favor of gap penetration, as Pittsburgh runs a high number of trap plays and fullback is not Carey Davis' natural position, so there will be natural gaps and seams created for Foster, Dawson, and Muir to run through in pursuit of the ball carrier.
Although this looks like an easy matchup for the Colts pass rush, it is not nearly as vaunted as it has been in previous seasons and failed to get to Matt Cassel in Week 9, even though the Patriots quarterback had been sacked 29 times through seven games, the same number of times Steelers quarterbacks have been sacked through eight.
In order to take full advantage of this line's poor protection and recognition skills, the Colts need to blitz early. This will force Pittsburgh to keep more men in the formation to block and allow Indianapolis to subsequently back off in the second half, leaving seven men to cover three or four.
Miller's injury is not a huge blow to the passing attack, since he only has 21 receptions for the season, but his absence does take away a great deal of Pittsburgh's potential to work the intermediate middle of the field and places that responsibility squarely on the shoulders of Hines Ward.
WR Hines Ward
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Ward is a reliable target, has been to a number of Pro Bowls, and is widely regarded as the best blocking receiver in the NFL. What he is not, however, is a man that can single-handedly exploit the Colts over the middle if they make that area — and Ward — a point of emphasis on defense.
Two assumptions can be made when playing the Pittsburgh Steelers offense: They are going to try to run the ball and they are going to try to throw the ball over the top. Generally, they go to Holmes and Washington on fly or delay routes off of play action, so Bob Sanders and Antoine Bethea must be cautiously aggressive when pursuing the ball carrier.
Holmes is involved in some slants, skinny posts, and bubble screens and is dangerous in the open field — he also handles punt return duties — so Indianapolis should have Bethea creep towards the line of scrimmage to cover quick passes to his side of the field. This leaves Sanders out of the box, but still keeps eight men in there in order to stifle the run.
Tim Jennings, Nick Graham, and Keiwan Ratliff did an excellent job of guarding against the short and intermediate passing game of the Patriots and it will be up to them to once again excel in that area, though the return of Dante Hughes and the possibility, however remote, of Kelvin Hayden being available, takes a good deal of the pressure of these three young corners.
The most important thing will be for the secondary to not allow the Steelers receivers to get behind them.
Willie Parker returned to action last week after missing four games with a knee ailment, but is back on the injury report with a shoulder issue and did not practice on Wednesday.
If he is unable to go, Mewelde Moore filled in quite well as his replacement during those four games and should be able to step back into the lineup without any dropoff.
Strangely, though, it may actually be better for the Colts if Parker is able to play, since they held him to 29 carries for 102 yards and zero touchdowns over the course of two games in 2005. While it's true that different personnel were involved, the Colts and Steelers are two of the most stable organizations in football and the rosters and schemes have not changed considerably since that point.
The point is that Parker is not as effective against faster defenses, since he is more quick than fast, is very impatient, and needs to be able to get to the corner in order to make a defense pay.
Defenses like the Colts can usually shut Parker down, because they have a great deal of speed on the perimeter to take away the edge, a penetrating defensive line that can get to him before he gets started, and talented safeties that can cover a lot of territory and compensate for anything the front seven gets wrong.
Some combination of Tyjuan Hagler, Freddy Keiaho, and Clint Session need to work with Sanders and Bethea to cut off all avenues that lead outside and funnel Parker between the tackles, where Foster, Dawson, Muir, and Brackett can take care of him. In the event that Parker gets past the front seven, Sanders and Bethea need to double back and clean the play up.
Moore is far less explosive and dangerous a player, but is also far more consistent and reliable and is a better receiver out of the backfield. However, he lacks that big-play ability that makes Parker so appealing to offensive coordinators and unnerving for defensive coordinators.
Ben Roethlisberger missed practice on Wednesday with a shoulder injury and his status is currently listed as day-to-day. He proved to be very ineffective against Washington on Monday night, finishing 5 for 17 with 50 yards and an interception with no passing touchdowns, though he did have a touchdown on the ground.
QB Ben Roethlisberger
Byron Leftwich — with whom Colts fans are very familiar — fared much better in the second half, going 7 for 10 with 129 yards and a touchdown and leading Pittsburgh on two touchdown drives to put the game out of reach.
Roethlisberger has a much deeper understanding of the offense, but Leftwich is healthy. Leftwich has a longer release, but tends to get rid of the ball faster than Roethlisberger. The two men have comparable arm strength. Roethlisberger has been more accurate throughout the course of his career, with a completion percentage of 62.5 and a passer rating of 90.9, compared to 58.6 and 80.3 for Leftwich.
They are very similar passers. Roethlisberger entered the league only a year after Leftwich, and both have the ability to run the vertical aspect of this offense. Roethlisberger has had a more stable career by far, however, has won more games, been more consistent, manufactured more game-winning drives, and won a Super Bowl.
If the Steelers simply need someone to run the offense and not make mistakes, Leftwich is a better fit. The fact of the matter, though, is that this game will probably come down to the final minutes and whether or not Roethlisberger is behind center if that happens is going to determine the winner. For that reason, the Colts should hope that Roethlisberger is not available on Sunday.
The red zone. The Colts have allowed opponents inside their 20-yard line 28 times thus far this season, but have given up only 11 touchdowns for the third-best success percentage in the league. The Steelers have made 21 trips to the opponent's red zone and scored 15 touchdowns.
The number of trips allowed and the number of trips made combine for a very distressing reality. In what has been a season full of close games, the difference between 1-7 and 4-4 for Indianapolis has been their ability to score touchdowns in this part of the field on offense and force field goal attempts on defense.
Trends show that the Colts will let the Steelers move the ball inside the 20, but the X-factor will be whether or not an allegedly soft defense will bend, but not break against a power-oriented offense.