Mike Tomlin likes to say "It's a five-star matchup because we're in it."
In Andrew Luck, the first pick of the 2012 draft, the Colts possess a quarterback who, according to veteran Steelers cornerback Ike Taylor, "has an arm like Aaron Rodgers, is athletic and mobile like seven (Ben Roethlisberger) and he studies like Peyton Manning."
And in Roethlisberger, the Steelers possess a quarterback who "is a future first-ballot Hall of Famer," according to Colts coach Chuck Pagano, a former defensive coordinator with the Baltimore Ravens.
"You turn on the tape and he doesn’t look any different," Pagano said. "He looks better than in my years at Baltimore and having to go against Big Ben. He is doing a great job and it seems like he is getting better with age."
If that's true of Roethlisberger at age 32, than it must be true that his team has been in decline since he used to consistently win such five-star matchups.
Roethlisberger has a career record of 32-26 when going up against quarterbacks who are currently ranked among the top 25 in all-time passer rating. One of the great shootouts in Heinz Field history involved Roethlisberger out-dueling the quarterback with the all-time best career passer rating, Rodgers, in a 37-36 Steelers win in 2009. That put Roethlisberger's record against the aforementioned top 25 at 24-14.
But since then, Roethlisberger, who stands ninth on the list with a career rating of 92.8, is only 8-12 against those elite quarterbacks. And if Cincinnati Bengals quarterbacks Carson Palmer and Andy Dalton (ranked 19th and 20th) are eliminated from the equation, Roethlisberger is only 2-9 in such "five-star matchups" since the end of the 2009 season.
Of that 2-9 record, Roethlisberger has led the Steelers to wins over teams quarterbacked by Tom Brady (6th) and Cam Newton (16th), and lost to Rodgers, Manning, Philip Rivers, Tony Romo, Brady (twice), Drew Brees, Matt Schaub and Jay Cutler. The win over Newton this season occurred on the road but wasn't nearly as impressive of an accomplishment as the win over Brady in 2011, which occurred at Heinz Field.
That's how long it's been since Roethlisberger has outdueled a truly elite quarterback. And that's where Luck's headed in only his third season.
Luck's 1,499 passing attempts left him one attempt shy of qualification for the list, but he can make a quantum jump into that top 25 at Heinz Field against a young Steelers defense that's still trying to find its legs this season.
The Steelers are 15th in yards allowed per game and 16th in points allowed per game. That's not where Dick LeBeau's accustomed to seeing his defense ranked, but this defense lacks some necessary LeBeau ingredients: rushing and covering.
The Steelers have only 10 sacks this season, and also lost No. 1 cornerback Taylor to a broken forearm in the third game of the season. Nickel back William Gay has done an outstanding job as Taylor's replacement, but Cortez Allen has been replaced as the No. 2 corner by Brice McCain, who'll start his second game for the Steelers today.
The Steelers' defense will also be without nose tackle Steve McLendon (shoulder) and reserve safety Shamarko Thomas (hamstring). Inside linebacker Ryan Shazier -- this year's No. 1 draft pick -- is expected to play for the first time since Week 3, but he split time on the first team this week with Sean Spence.
Last year's No. 1 pick, Jarvis Jones, who was beginning to show pro pass-rush ability, remains on the IR-Designated for Return list with a broken wrist. He's been replaced by the platoon of Arthur Moats and James Harrison.
Veteran receiver Reggie Wayne has been ruled out with an elbow injury and will likely be replaced by Hakeem Nicks, the former New York Giant who signed with the Colts as a free agent but has caught only 17 passes for 141 yards and two touchdowns.
The Colts might also be without their leading rusher, Trent Richardson, who is questionable with a hamstring injury. Richardson has rushed for 358 yards, but at a 3.5 average. Backup Ahmad Bradshaw has rushed for 336 yards at a more robust 4.8 yards per carry.
The Colts have allowed only 11 sacks this season, but the Steelers hope to take advantage of a young Colts interior that includes rookies at guard and center and second-year man Hugh Thornton at the other guard.
Roethlisberger will face a Colts defense that ranks third in yardage allowed and fourth in points allowed. The Colts have done most of their defensive damage at home, though, where their fourth-ranked sack unit has piled up 16 of their 21 sacks.
With last year's NFL sacks leader Robert Mathis out for the season with a torn Achilles' tendon, the Colts have been led in sacks by Bjoern Werner (4) and Cory Redding (3). Those two won't get any help from their noisy home dome crowd, but could take advantage of the loss of right tackle Marcus Gilbert, who suffered a concussion last game and would be replaced again by Mike Adams.
The Colts' fourth-ranked pass defense has been led not only by their pass rush, but by the play of cornerbacks Vontae Davis and Greg Toler. However, the Colts allow 4.6 yards per rush, 26th in the league, and are 22nd in red-zone defense.
Those are just the kinds of holes Roethlisberger can exploit in this quarterbacking duel.
While Luck is riding high with a 65.9 completion percentage, 7.7 yards per attempt, a 19-7 TD-INT ratio, and a 100.8 passer rating, Roethlisberger isn't too far behind. He's also completed 65.9 percent of his passes, and is averaging 7.4 yards per attempt, has a 10-3 TD-INT ratio, and a 96.0 passer rating.
Roethlisberger may be a few years older than Luck, and may not have Luck's supporting cast, but he does have 99 wins in his 149 starts.
Not only would a win today put a much-needed notch on Roethlisberger's gunslinger belt, it would be his 100th. Luck, meanwhile, summed up the so-called duel with a chuckle and some class.
"It’s always weird talking about playing the other quarterback because you don’t," he said with a laugh. "You never do. You play the defense. But I have a bunch of respect for Ben. I know when I was a rookie I watched a lot of Steelers tape to try and learn Bruce Arians’ offense and ended up watching a lot of Ben and the things he does, did (and) still does. Amazing, great football player."