How Close Did the Steelers Come to a Championship, Part 2b: More on the Offense

AB goal post

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

In Part 1 I speculated upon the quarterback position for the Panthers, the Broncos and the Steelers. In Part 2a I looked at several games between two of the three teams to see how their offense fared against common opponents. In this post I will compare the one opponent all three teams played in 2015—the Indianapolis Colts.

The Colts are not the ideal team for such a comparison. After playing quite poorly for weeks, being out with an injury, and eventually being pulled and IR’d, quarterback Andrew Luck was primarily replaced by the rather veteran Matt Hasselbeck, although he too was injured at the end of the season.

But really, we’re most interested in the Colts’ defense. It wasn’t terrific, but it was decent, unlike their offense for much of the season. Had they not played in a weak division it is hard to imagine they would have won half their games.

This time we are going to compare all four defenses. Because there is a lot of data it is easier to look at on charts and tables. The first table is the standard metrics I’ve been using: Points Given Up per Game, Total Sacks, and Total Takeaways (interceptions + fumble recoveries.) The chart which follows shows where the teams ranked during the regular season. (I’ve put them into the chart as negative numbers so that higher is better, which is an easier way to look at it.)

Defense TableDefense, NFL Stats

The chart below gives the ranking for all four teams in six Football Outsiders metrics. First is Total Defense (which they adjust for strength of opponent and such-like). The second and third points are rankings of the defensive line in pass and run defense. The final three are how well the defense defended the other team’s top receiver, tight end, and running back. I think you will find a few unexpected things in there vs. the Steelers: Defense, Football Outsider

One thing I suppose no one would find surprising is that the defensive backfield for the Steelers struggled against top receivers, moreso than even the Colts. The interesting thing to contemplate, given the point of this series, is that perhaps the Panthers would have proven to be a very good matchup for the Steelers, in that they don’t have a WR1 equivalent. Their top-rated wide receiver, according to Pro Football Focus’s player grades, is our old friend Jerricho Cotchery. They rated him No. 31.

As far as Greg Olsen, the tight end who more or less took over the WR1 role for Cam Newton, he was ranked No. 5 by PFF, two slots below Tyler Eifert, whom the Steelers managed pretty well. And just to fill out the picture, Carolina running back Jonathan Stewart was ranked No. 7, two slots below our own DeAngelo Williams. And I believe there is at least the possibility Williams could have played.

Let’s take a quick look at the individual games:

The Indianapolis Colts @ the Carolina Panthers (Week 8,) vs. the Denver Broncos (Week 9) and @ the Pittsburgh Steelers (Week 13)

The only win for Indianapolis was the one home game vs. the Broncos. Both Carolina and Denver played the team with Andrew Luck at the helm—Pittsburgh drew the Matt Hasselbeck card. Which, given the way things were going for Luck was probably not an advantage. The Colts were 2-5 in games quarterbacked by Andrew Luck—the only other team he beat was the Titans, who were 3-13 on the season. With Hasselbeck at quarterback, on the other hand, the Colts were 6-3.

Final scores:

Colts 26, Panthers 29 (OT); Colts 27, Broncos 24; Colts 10, Steelers 45


Colts/Panthers: (from

Carolina (7-0) earned its 11th consecutive regular-season win and took a two-game lead over the Atlanta Falcons in the NFC South.


The Panthers didn’t make it easy on themselves.

Luck, limited to 40 yards passing in the first three quarters, threw two touchdown passes in the final 7:11 of regulation and led the Colts (3-5) to a tying field goal in the final seconds. The Panthers could have won it with 2 seconds left, but Kuechly dropped a potential interception in the end zone, and Vinatieri kicked a 24-yarder for the third of his four field goals.

Newton was 16-of-35 for 248 yards with two touchdowns and one interception. He also ran for 41 yards.

Luck finished with 231 yards passing, two touchdowns and three interceptions, which gives him an NFL-high 12 this season. Luck refused to discuss a report that he has been battling rib injuries in addition to a shoulder problem.


Playing in a steady rain, the Panthers’ defense put the clamps on Luck while jumping to a 10-0 lead.

Newton threw an interception and fumbled on the Colts’ 3-yard line, but he rallied late in the third quarter. After leading 10-6, Newton threw touchdown passes to Olsen and Philly Brown to give the Panthers a 23-6 lead.

Broncos/Colts: (from

Andrew Luck finally reverted to his old form Sunday — and the Colts finally looked like the team everyone expected.

Now they just have to keep playing this way.

Luck threw two touchdown passes and set up Adam Vinatieri for a tie-breaking 55-yard field goal with 6:13 left, giving the Colts a 27-24 victory over Denver that ruined Peyton Manning’s homecoming.

Denver’s quarterback heads into next week’s game against Kansas City with 71,836 career yards; Brett Favre had 71,838.



Denver closed to 17-7 on Omar Bolden’s 83-yard punt return on the last play of the first half. Manning started the second half with a 64-yard TD pass toEmmanuel Sanders and the Broncos tied it on a 29-yard field goal fromBrandon McManus.

But they never got the lead.

“We dug ourselves a hole in the first half and showed a lot of character getting out of that hole,” coach Gary Kubiak said. “We just weren’t able to close the deal after battling our way back. They (Colts) finished it, we didn’t.”

Colts/Steelers: (from

The Steelers showed how much fun the next four weeks might be with a 42-10 pounding of the Colts, as Ben Roethlisberger and the offense displayed their playoff form, Jeremy Fowler writes.

Then again, they typically do against the Colts. Brown caught eight passes for 118 yards and two scores and added a 71-yard punt return for a touchdown in the final minutes for the Steelers (7-5).

Martavis Bryant hauled in four passes for 114 yards and a score, andDeAngelo Williams added 134 yards rushing as Pittsburgh shook off a slow start to dominate the Colts (6-6) over the final three quarters.

“I just feel a chemistry growing between us on offense,” Roethlisberger said. “Things just seem to be working.”

Indianapolis, not so much.


Matt Hasselbeck threw for 169 yards with a touchdown and two interceptions before leaving in the fourth quarter because of neck and shoulder pain. The Colts remain tied with Houston for the lead in the AFC North.

“I give credit to the Steelers,” Indianapolis coach Chuck Pagano said. “They played well in all three phases.”

The Colts went three-and-out to start the second half and the Steelers effectively entered the competitive portion of things when Roethlisberger found Bryant with a rainbow down the right sideline. Bryant chased it down and simply ran away from a pair of Indianapolis defensive backs on his way to a 68-yard play that put the Steelers up 18. Indianapolis’ last best shot to get back in it came later in the quarter, but Hasselbeck was chased to the sideline and threw incomplete on fourth down at the Pittsburgh 14.

Brown finished the Colts with two more scores, a 5-yard reception 49 seconds into the fourth quarter before adding the fourth punt return touchdown of his career.

You can also read my game recap here.

QB rating:

Newton didn’t play particularly well, although as the game recap notes he did just enough. His QBR was 33.9, his NFL Passer rating 76.8. He threw two touchdowns with one interception and had 10 rushing attempts for 41 yards, along 248 yards (16 of 35 attempts).

Peyton Manning didn’t play badly, especially according to ESPN’s QBR, with a 71.0 rating. His NFL Passer rating was almost the same (78.6), presumably because of the two interceptions to go with the two touchdown passes. He was 21 of 36 attempts, with 281 passing yards.

Roethlisberger had his second-best game of the season, with a QBR of 95.9 and an NFL Passer rating of 126.4, not surprising with his four touchdowns and no interceptions. He completed 24 of 39 attempts for 364 yards. He also had one rushing attempt for 13 yards.



The Panthers had a good day on the ground, with a total of 140 yards, including the 44 from Newton. Jonathan Stewart added 82 yards and a touchdown.


The Colts absolutely stoned the Broncos’ rushing “two-headed monster”—C.J. Anderson rushed for 34 yards, Ronnie Hillman for one. Neither had a touchdown.


Given how well Ben was playing (and how poorly the Colts were playing) the Steelers didn’t really need a rushing attack. But DeAngelo Williams ran for 134 yards anyhow, and the Steelers ended the day with 158 yards.

Injuries, Colts Defense:

It makes sense to look and see what, if any, important defensive players were missing for each game. Here’s the deal:

Week 8 @ Panthers:

Nate Irving (starting ILB) did not play. Backup S Winston Guy did not play, but he played very few snaps all season.

Week 9 vs. Broncos:

Nate Irving was still out. There were no other defensive injuries of apparent consequence.

Week 13 @ Steelers:

Starting Safety Mike Adams had missed the previous two weeks but played in this game. Irving was back, but starting ILB Jerrell Freeman was out. Those were the only significant defensive injuries.

The injury list for the Colts was definitely longer than it had been a few weeks before, and the offensive line was down a couple of starters. But it’s worth noting that this was also the case for the Steelers. So in terms of the defense, at least, the three games were quite equivalent in terms of injuries.


For what it is worth, there is no doubt the Steelers played the best game against the Colts. While they were playing the Colts’ backup QB, Hasselbeck had in fact played better in 2015. Not only did he win more games, his completion percentage was higher than Luck’s—60.9 vs. 55.3. He had a slightly better touchdown to interception ratio—9 to 5 vs. 15 to 12. His ratings for the season were a good bit higher—84.0 vs. 75.9 NFL Passer rating, 55.1 vs 47.6 QBR. He played fairly close to the same number of snaps—256 to Luck’s 293—so this is over a good sample size.

There’s no way to not conclude that, at least against this opponent, the Steelers looked like the best team by far.

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