Steelers Opponent Preview: the Indianapolis Colts
It would be a lot easier to write this preview if we a better idea of what Colts team we would be seeing on Sunday. Just for starters, who will be quarterbacking them? Will Andrew Luck be removed from the injured list and (hopefully) rusty? And for that matter, if he is back is this the 2015 Luck we will see or a reversion to better times?
And if Luck doesn’t play, are the Steelers really better off with Matt Hasselback at quarterback? I realize that several years ago Hasselback was merely old, not mummified, but I seem to recall that the Hasselback everyone was assuming would be a pushover actually rather embarrassed the Steelers when quarterbacking the Titans, beating the Steelers 26-23. And he’s scarcely been dreadful in relief of Luck—he has a 64.7 completion percentage, seven touchdowns to two interceptions, and a 94.4 cumulative passer rating. Those numbers actually look considerably better than Andrew Luck’s 55.3 completion percentage and his nearly one to one touchdown to pick ratio (15/12).
Let’s just plunge ahead and see what we can see with what we know.
History of the Matchup:
The team started off as the Baltimore Colts in 1953 and went to Indianapolis in 1984. During the course of their history they have played the Steelers 26 times, 11 times when they were the Baltimore Colts and 15 times as the Indianapolis Colts.
During these years the Steelers have mostly owned them—the overall record is 6-20. Strangely, given how bad the Steelers were in 1957, the first match between these two clubs was a Steelers win, 19-13. The Steelers didn’t have another win until 1974 when they beat the Colts 30-0. Since 2000 the Steelers have played the Colts six times, winning four of them, including last year’s glorious 51-34 victory.
Hopes were high for Colts fans at the beginning of the season, and the thinking was that a team which finished 11-5 for the previous three seasons and advanced one round further in the playoffs each of those years might be Super Bowl bound this year.
It isn’t just for the Steelers that things seldom work out the way we assume at the beginning of the season, and the Colts are now 6-5, same as the Steelers. Of course, they could still end up 11-5 if they don’t lose a single game between now and January 4th.
The Colts have three division games left, two of them at home. They have already beaten each of those teams, for a 3-0 division record, but just barely in the case of the Titans and Jaguars, (by two and three points respectively) and by a touchdown in the case of the Texans. They also play @ Miami in Week 16. So if they can beat the Steelers this week one can see 11-5 as a real possibility.
But their 6-5 record isn’t quite as rosy as it looks. They began the season 0-2, and were 3-5 and the half season mark. What happened to this glorious season?
It began with Andrew Luck playing considerably less well than we are accustomed to. He was in and out with injuries, and was pulled after Week 7:
A dcotor in Indianapolis told Stephen Holder of the Indianapolis Star the injuries that Luck’s fighting are like that of a car crash and “not very common.”
“We most commonly see this kind of injury associated with motor vehicle crashes or motorbike crashes,” said Dr. Lewis Jacobson, chief of trauma at St. Vincent Trauma Center in Indianapolis. He did not treat Luck. “We do see about a half-dozen per year related to contact sports. It’s just not very common.”
But something was off well before this. In an article on USA Today Sports published on October 2nd, author Chris Chase pointed out some uncomfortable stats:
- 1. Andrew Luck has the worst quarterback rating in the NFL, almost five points below Ryan Mallett. If you double Luck’s 65.0 rating, he’d still be 5.4 rating points behind Aaron Rodgers.
- 4. If you combined the interception totals of Tom Brady, Eli Manning, Andy Dalton, Nick Foles, Drew Brees and Ben Roethlisberger, Luck would still have more.
- 7. Including the playoffs, Luck has had five straight games with multiple interceptions. He had only had nine such games in his career prior to the streak and only once in back-to-back regular season games.
- 8. In his last five playoff games, Luck has nine touchdowns and 11 interceptions.
An excellent Washington Post article from Tuesday of this week shows why Matt Hasselbeck is more successful this season than Andrew Luck was, and why the defense is even improved with him at the helm:
Avoiding turnovers, avoiding sacks, converting third downs and taking what the defense gives you are all tactics that keep the ball in the hands of your offense. This is the key difference between the two Colts quarterbacks.
Hasselbeck doesn’t push the ball down the field nearly as often…The 40-year-old gets the ball out of his hand quickly with an average time to attempt of 2.32 seconds compared to Luck’s 2.67 seconds. That, combined with his veteran decision making, means that in the same offense Hasselbeck has an accuracy percentage over 10 points higher than Luck’s at 76.2 and Hasselbeck is making turnover worthy throws almost half as often at only 2.3 percent of his attempts. The result of more completions and fewer turnovers is obviously a more efficient offense.
It’s not a surprise that Hasselbeck’s addition to the starting lineup has resulted in widespread change in the look of the offense, but it’s no coincidence that the defense has looked considerably better in the games Hasselbeck has started. Fewer drives means fewer opportunities for the opposition to score. Fewer turnovers and fewer three-and-outs means worse starting field position for the opposition
Who votes for playing the high-risk/moderate reward quarterback instead of the low-risk guy? Sign me up. The Steelers defense is going to have a better chance to get to Luck than Hasselbeck, and we saw last Sunday what happens when they can’t get to the quarterback. (Although Russell Wilson is, at least this season, a distinctly better quarterback than either of the Colts’ choices.)
I expect you don’t require proof, but just for interest, here are the Colts games for the year with some info on each one:
I went back through the NFL.com Game Center for each week to find these numbers, and found something quite delightful as well.
The video on the game page for the Falcons game wasn’t quite like the usual 1 minute highlight reel. It began with these words: “With their quarterback and kicker a combined 82 years old, the Colts felt like a throwback to another era.”
The video then went black and white, and the only sound was an old-school piano piece, rather like what they used to use for cartoons in the good old days. There was no commentary, only comments a la the old silent movies, with descriptions of the play to come such as this: “Perhaps my two hands will steady my forward pass.” It’s well worth a click and a minute of your time. You can see it here.
Hasselbeck may be old, but as we all know old age and treachery will always beat youth and enthusiasm. Well, perhaps not in the NFL. But assuming Hasselbeck is the quarterback the Steelers would be well-advised to take care.
As we look at the chart above there are several things to note. The first is, while Luck has 12 interceptions in seven games, Hasselbeck isn’t immune either, giving up two in the Atlanta game. And the sack rate wasn’t as different as I expected either. Luck was sacked 16 times in seven games, Hasselbeck eight times in four games. So hopefully there are some opportunities there. But this is not an awful sack rate for the Colts’ offensive line by any means—the Steelers have two more sacks.
But enough about the quarterbacks. Let’s look at the rest of the team.
Here are the Football Outsiders rankings:
- Pittsburgh: № 3, last week № 4
- Indianapolis: № 25, last week № 24
- Pittsburgh: № 4
- Indianapolis: № 27
- Indianapolis: № 10
- Steelers: № 17
Football Outsiders Individual rankings of offensive players:
- Ben Roethlisberger: 653, (№ 6)
- Matt Hasselbeck: 144
- Andrew Luck: -73 (№ 28)
Hasselbeck doesn’t have enough snaps to be ranked, but he would be right around № 20, equivalent to Eli Manning, if he did. The only three players with a worse score than Luck’s are Colin Kaepernick (-200), Nick Foles (-347), and Peyton Manning (-387.) How have the mighty fallen from their seat…
- Antonio Brown: 307, (№ 1)
- Donte Moncrief: 120, (№ 25)
- Markus Wheaton: 72
- Martavis Bryant: 62 (№ 41)
- T.Y. Hilton: 22 (№ 49)
- Andre Johnson: 14 (№ 52)
Wheaton doesn’t have enough touches to be ranked, but would be equivalent to Marque Colston at № 37.
- Heath Miller: 31 (№ 16)
- Dwayne Allen: 3 (№ 24)
- Coby Fleener: -44 (№ 39)
- DeAngelo Williams: 94 (№ 11)
- Frank Gore: -3 (№ 27)
Ahmad Bradshaw shows up in the 18-95 attempts column, and at a -33 would grade out right near the bottom. Not that it matters, since they had to put him on IR this week.
Pro Football Focus ranks Gore № 57 out of 69 RBs. Indianpolis’s running game is ranked № 26 in the NFL, compared to № 8 for the Steelers.
It’s sort of a chicken-and-egg problem. Is the Colts’ offensive line not blocking well, thus preventing Gore from running well, or is he overly dependent upon the line because of age and consequent slowness? Here’s what Fox Sports reported::
Twenty-four hours after the Indianapolis Colts’ 25-12 win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Coach Chuck Pagano was asked if the centerpiece of his ground game was healthy. Gore was on the field for 69 percent of the offensive snaps – his heaviest workload in nearly two months – and spent much of the day running into a brick wall. He finished with 24 yards on 19 mostly futile carries.
“He’s like everybody else,’’ Pagano said. “He took some shots (Sunday). He’s beat to crap.’’
That not only sums up Gore but the running game as well.
Since the strength of the Steelers defense is in stopping the run, one can hope this will continue to be the case on Sunday.
Is the poor performance of the receivers due to the quality of the quarterbacking, or are they not doing their quarterbacks any favors? Prior to the season Bucky Brooks of NFL.com ranked the Colts’ receiver corps as the third-best in the NFL, behind only Denver and Green Bay:
Long story short, the Colts seemingly have an answer for every defensive tactic an opponent can throw at their diverse aerial attack.
Brooks’ other two choices (it was a top five ranking) were Detroit and the New York Football Giants. Just for kicks, I checked Football Outsiders to see where those offenses were ranked at this point in the season. Here they are:
- Total Offense: Green Bay, № 7; Detroit, № 21; Giants, № 22; Colts, № 25; Denver, № 26.
- Passing Offense: Green Bay, № 5; Detroit, № 17; Giants, № 19; Colts, № 20; Denver, № 29.
Which tells us precisely what such pronouncements are worth back in August. The fact that only a single one even made it into the top five is pretty funny.
I had a look at the Catch Rate on Football Outsiders for the receivers from both teams, and it was pretty interesting. They say they “cannot yet fully separate the performance of a receiver from the performance of his quarterback. Be aware that one will affect the other.” But here is what they have:
- Antonio Brown: 67%
- Donte Moncrief: 63%
- Markus Wheaton: 56%
- Martavis Bryant: 49%
- T.Y. Hilton: 50%
- Andre Johnson: 49%
The best receiver in the league with a reasonable number of targets is Danny Amendola of New England, with an amazing 82% catch rate. Next is Doug Baldwin, who as we know to our cost catches most of what comes his way, with a 78% catch rate. All together there are 12 receivers in the top 65 FO ranks who have a better catch rate than Brown’s, a few of them pretty low-rated. So catch rate isn’t everything. But as we can see it isn’t a specialty of the IND receivers.
I was happy to see the Colts don’t appear to have an elite tight end. (For the record, Pro Football Focus likes Fleener a lot better than Football Outsiders does, although they don’t consider him to be elite either.) Next up:
The rankings are:
- Indianapolis: № 15
- Pittsburgh: № 16
Pittsburgh and Indianapolis traded places last week.
- Cincinnati: № 17
- Pittsburgh: № 19
- Pittsburgh: № 9
- Indianapolis: № 12
The defenses have 30 sacks (Pittsburgh, tied for 5th in the league) and 19 sacks (Indianapolis.)
The Wednesday injury report listed 11 Colts players who did not practice. Four of them, however, were veteran days off—Andre Johnson, OLBs Robert Mathis and Trent Cole, and CB Vontae Davis.
Here’s what Thursday’s report looked like:
For the Steelers, Heath, Sean Spence and Will Allen were still out. I’m guessing they will also be out for the game. Frankly, I think that Robert Golden has looked better than Allen lately, but Heath is a big loss.
Matt Spaeth is still struggling with the knee but was a limited participant, as was Martavis Bryant (hip.) If I had to guess I’d say both will play.
Mike Mitchell, Ryan Shazier, Ben Roethlisberger and James Harrison were full participants and we can assume they will play unless they experience a setback.
For the Colts, eight players did not practice, although two of them were probably illness, since it said “not injury related.” Those two are D’Qwell Jackson and Greg Toler. I would guess they will both play.
Of the other six, LT Anthony Castonzo and QB Andrew Luck are the biggest names. Their center, Khaled Holmes, also didn’t practice, nor their RG Hugh Thornton. That’s three-fifths of the offensive line starters. That would be quite a blow if they can’t play. I can’t imagine we’ll see Andrew Luck, as he surely won’t play without practicing most of the week. And if I were Coach Pagano I wouldn’t dream of playing him again until the offensive line is pretty healthy.
The other two players are starting LB Jerrell Freeman, with a hamstring, and WR Phillip Dorsett.
Safety Mike Adams had limited participation, and CB Vontae Davis was a full participant, as were all the AARP holdouts from Wednesday.
The money appears to be on the Steelers at this point, and it looks like a good matchup, even on the road. But as we know there can be many a slip twixt the cup and the lip. Here’s hoping they keep the cup on target. After all, if they are even going to have the chance to compete for a Cup in the post-season, they are going to have to win pretty much from here on out. Would I destroy Indianapolis’ hopes in favor of Pittsburgh’s? You bet your sweet bippy I would! But frankly, in the AFC South, the Colts have a lot more wiggle room. Let’s hope it makes them complacent…