Weekly Matchup Preview: Indianapolis Colts vs. Pittsburgh Steelers

This is the third of 16 articles that I will post throughout the season, previewing the Colts' upcoming matchup.  I'll attempt to analyze some strengths and weaknesses of both teams, a few areas to focus on, and a couple of key individual matchups.   Overview:  Ouch, last week was rough.  For some Colts fans, Sunday's 27-19 loss to the Cleveland Browns was a low point for this franchise – at least when put in perspective with the rest of the Peyton Manning-era.  Although we're just two weeks into the 2011 season, it's hard to imagine this Colts' team winning more than a handful of games with Manning out of the lineup.  Meanwhile, the Pittsburgh Steelers rebounded from their week 1 loss to the Baltimore Ravens with a 24-0 victory over the Seattle Seahawks.  The matchup between the Colts and Steelers is Sunday night's featured game, and will be on national television (NBC) with opening kickoff scheduled for 8:20 pm (ET).

Pittsburgh Steelers

Strengths:

  • Defense.  Despite giving up 35 points to the Baltimore Ravens in week 1, the Steelers have allowed the second fewest yards in the league.  They finished 2010 in the exact same position, and were 8th best in the league with 44 sacks.  The Steelers' secondary only finished 11th best in the league last year against the pass, but their front seven were dominant against the run – giving up only 63 rushing yards per game (2nd best in the league allowed 90+ rushing yards).  Although OLB James Harrison isn't 100%, there's still enough firepower on defense to give any team trouble.
  • Total Offense.  Statistically speaking, the Steelers' offense is just an average unit, but the numbers don't do them justice.  Ben Roethlisberger has established himself as one of the league's elite quarterbacks, and the Steelers are consistently one of the league's better running teams.  Roethlisberger excels at using his feet (and size) to extend pass plays outside of the pocket, but may be slowed by last week's knee injury.
  • Forcing Turnovers.  Last season, the Steelers had the 2nd most takeaways in the league, and finished with a +17 turnover differential.  Although they've yet to force a turnover this season, Colts' QB Kerry Collins has turned the ball over 4 times through two games.  You do the math.

Weaknesses:

  • Offensive Line.  The Steelers' offensive line gave up 43 sacks in 2010, 2nd most in the AFC, and have already given up 6 sacks through just 8 quarters of football in 2011.  The team placed starting RT Willie Colon on injured reserve following their week 1 loss, and will be starting rookie Marcus Gilbert in his place.  The Steelers' line will have the daunting task of blocking Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis Sunday night.
  • Taking care of the football.  Ben Roethlisberger has turned the ball over 9 times in his last 4 games dating back to last season's playoffs.  Rashard Mendenhall has fumbled twice in his past 3 games, including a costly one in last season's Super Bowl loss to the Green Bay Packers.  If the Steelers continue to turn the ball over, it may keep this game competitive.
Indianapolis Colts
Strengths:
  • Forcing Turnovers.  I've been sticking with the turnover theme throughout this analysis, and the Colts must force multiple turnovers on Sunday (and win the turnover battle) to remain competitive.  Their defense has forced 5 fumbles (recovered 3) and have intercepted 2 passes through just 2 games of the 2011 season.  Look for the Colts' defense to be very active around the ball Sunday night.
  • Rushing the Passer.  With Peyton Manning sidelined for the foreseeable future, Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis are the 2 most important players in uniform for the Colts.  The duo is off to a slow start in 2011, recording just 6 total tackles and 2 sacks through two games.  Look for them to apply constant pressure in the Steelers' backfield, especially against a sub-par offensive line.
Weaknesses:
  • Stopping the Run.  I know, I know – the Colts are only allowing 3.6 yards per rush so far this season, but they've allowed the most rushing yards in the AFC, and Peyton Hills' 24-yard TD run late in week 2 cost the Colts any chance at winning that game.  They must shut down Rashard Mendenhall and turn the Pittsburgh Steelers into a 1-dimensional offense.
  • Offense.  The Colts have managed to score just 26 points in their first two games of the season.  To put that into perspective – 10 teams are averaging more than 26 points per game.  And over half of the Colts' points (14 of them) have come in garbage time.  Kerry Collins and the Colts' offense must find a way to score points against the Steelers' stingy defense.
  • Special Teams.  Through 2 games, opponents are averaging 42 yards per kickoff return, and 28.6 yards per punt return against the Colts – both staggeringly high numbers.  So much for the new kickoff rule favoring the Colts.
What to Watch For:

  • Coaching.  Both Mike Tomlin and Jim Caldwell are Tony Dungy-disciples: which one would you rather have as your head coach?  Steelers' Defensive Coordinator Dick Lebeau is one of the league's best defensive minds, especially at formulating blitz packages.
  • As mentioned earlier, the Colts pass rushing duo must be able to pressure Roethlisberger into multiple sacks and possibly a few turnovers.  This will be a particularly important matchup given the state of the Steelers' offensive line.  I expect the Steelers to line up in a lot of two TE formations, and keep their RB's in on pass plays to help chip against Freeney and Mathis.
  • Will the Colts be able to run the football?  The Colts have been relatively successful running the football in 2011 – 40 carries, 174 yards, 4.4 ypa.  And while the Steelers have given up over 100 yards per game on the ground so far this season, I don't expect that trend to continue very long.
  • Turnovers.  I'm beating this point to death because I believe the turnover battle will be the most important factor in Sunday night's game.  The Steelers turned the ball over 7 times in their season opener – and lost 35-7.  In week 2, they didn't turn the ball over once, and won 24-0.  The Colts' 4 turnovers have cost them 20 points through the first 2 weeks.  Not only must the Colts take care of the football on offense, their defense must force the Steelers into some costly mistakes.
  • The Colts' Offensive Line.  As mentioned earlier, Dick Lebeau will throw all sorts of blitzes at the Indianapolis Colts.  Anthony Castonzo has looked impressive in his first 2 starts, but everyone else along the offensive line has been disappointing.  Manning was able to make up for below average pass protection, Kerry Collins cannot.  The tackles in particular will have their hands full with the Steelers's OLB'ers – James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley.
Final Thoughts:  I expect this to be a very difficult game for the Indianapolis Colts.  The Steelers are an elite team, and one that the Colts don't match up well against – with or without Peyton Manning.  First and foremost, the Colts must stop the run on defense and correct their special teams coverage units.  If the defense can get a few stops early in the game, it will have the players, and fans, believing that they can win Sunday night.  I expect Lucas Oil Stadium to be rowdy and lively, hopefully the Colts' players can feed of that energy.  The longer they remain competitive, the better shot they have of pulling off the upset – hey, crazier things have happened.
Kyle J. Rodriguez

About Kyle J. Rodriguez

A film and numbers guru, Kyle writes about the NFL and the Indianapolis Colts for Bleacher Report, Draft Mecca and The Football Educator, and is a co-founder and associate editor of Colts Authority. Kyle also is a high school sports reporter for the MLive Media Group in Michigan, covering high school sports across the state.

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