Steelers’ Opponent Preview: Colts Fresh Out of Luck?
Let me clear the air first—the title is a play on words, given that Andrew Luck has entered the concussion protocol after suffering a concussion in Sunday’s game. While it is possible he will be back on Thursday night, it isn’t terribly likely. Thus the Steelers are probably going to face journeyman backup Scott Tolzien.
This being the case, let’s take a look at him, since I don’t believe he’s exactly a household name. Tolzien has been in the league since 2011, when he went undrafted and was picked up by the Chargers. They released him after the preseason, and the 49ers picked him up off waivers. He remained there as the No. 3 QB for two years, which means he was on the roster for Super Bowl XLVII. He was released prior to the following season and picked up by Green Bay.
It was in Green Bay that he saw his entire career’s worth of game action thus far. After Aaron Rodgers was injured in 2013, Seneca Wallace, former Cleveland Browns quarterback, started the next game. After he was injured Tolzien finished the game and was given the next start. He also started the following game but was pulled for Matt Flynn partway through.
Although Tolzien had some pretty decent looking stats (he is particularly accurate with long passes) he showed an unfortunate propensity to throw the ball to guys in the wrong-colored jersey. During his 91 career attempts thus far he has thrown one touchdown pass and five interceptions. He also has a rushing touchdown in six career attempts, netting 52 yards.
Oddly, he has never played for the Browns. But the Colts signed him to back up Andrew Luck this season, and if their depth chart is to be believed there is no one at all behind him. They do have two young quarterbacks on their practice squad, and I presume they will activate one of them if Andrew Luck can’t play.
Life won’t be particularly easy for Tolzien, or so we as Steeler fans hope, because, like the Browns, the Indianapolis offensive line has not done a good job protecting their quarterback. How bad have they been? Well, according to Football Outsiders, they are No. 31 in pass protection. They have given up 33 sacks, which is the most in the league. There is, however, an AFC North team with a worse sack rate than the Colts, and it isn’t the one you think. No, it is the Bengals, believe it or not. In case you’re wondering, Pittsburgh is No. 3 in pass protection, just behind the Raiders and the Giants.
But there always seems to be bad news in this sort of equation, and that is that the Indy line is quite good at run-blocking. Far better than Pittsburgh, at least according to Football Outsiders. Indy ranks 5th in the league in run blocking, compared to 20th for the Steelers. Given the combination of an inexperienced quarterback and an offensive line whose strength is run blocking, I would guess we will see a lot of running plays on Thursday night.
And who will Tolzien likely be handing the ball to? None other than Frank Gore, who seems to be having a great season, although Football Outsiders likes him better than Pro Football Focus does. But we’ll have to hope that the newly rejuvenated Steelers run defense, who held Isaiah Crowell, a back who is having a better season than Gore according to both FO and PFF, to 10 yards, will continue to look like that on Thursday. (The CLE backs combined for 22 yards total.)
But what about the Colts’ defense? Well, again according to Football Outsiders, it sucks. It is No. 31, and only overtaken slightly in ineptitude by the Detroit Lions. They rank 30th against the run and 32nd against the pass. The Cleveland defense looks pretty stout in comparison, at least against the pass—it’s Cleveland’s run defense that drags them down. They are actually No. 13 against the pass.
None of this means terribly much, of course. The Steelers ought to be perfectly capable of going to Indianapolis and putting up a ton of points. But we’ve seen them make back-ups and journeymen look like the next Tom Brady. Somehow I don’t think that’s going to happen, though. Somehow or other Cameron Heyward’s IR status seems to have galvanized the defense.
I watched the press conference after Sunday’s game when they interviewed James Harrison, and he made a very curious comment. He said, when asked what the difference was in Sunday’s game for the D, that everybody was “playing selfish.” I think he must have realized by the looks of incomprehension surrounding him that he hadn’t gotten his point across, and explained that everybody just worried about their own job and took the responsibility for that alone.
Which is really fascinating, I think, and could explain a lot about why this season’s defense has looked so sloppy and even chaotic at times. If everyone felt they were worrying not just about their own task but that of the guy next to them, I think it would be likely to produce just what we’ve been seeing. The players perhaps appeared unfocused because in fact they were hyperfocused—just on too many things.
The Steel Curtain of old and the 21st century run of excellent defenses were so good because they were together for so long. Everybody knew what everybody else was doing, and if you did have to throw a young guy into the mix it wasn’t so bad when everyone else was more or less on automatic pilot. Or that’s my theory. I have no idea whether it is correct, but it would also explain why it’s taken so long to rebuild a system predicated on familiarity and experience.
And on a somewhat related note, another thing I gleaned from a combination of the press conferences and Jim Wexell was the incredulity of the players when as after the Cowboys loss whether Tomlin was losing the team or whether there was dissension in the locker room. In every case the answer was an emphatic “No!”. Here’s what Maurkice Pouncey told Jim Wexell:
“…trust me, the team’s cool. Everyone respects and loves the coaches here. We all go to battle. We all win together and when we lose we all lose together. That’s how it goes. Everyone wants to make different type of problems and start other type of stuff and that’s not it at all. We’ve just got to win football games. Simple as that.”
The “everyone” Pouncey was talking about was the fans, or what he tactfully called the “public.”
I generally don’t do predictions, and I’m not about to try with this game. But given how well the Steelers have typically played against the Colts (only three wins in 26 games between the team since they moved to Indianapolis in 1984, although two of those wins have been in the last six matchups starting in 2005) and given that the Steelers have scored 96 points in the last two games (although both were at Heinz Field) I’m cautiously optimistic. I have to admit, though, on the whole I think I might feel more comfortable if Luck was the quarterback. These wild cards are always unsettling…