Steelers Opponent Preview: The Indianapolis Colts
Charles LeClaire photo, USA Today
As I contemplated Sunday’s game I found myself wondering if the Colts’ fanbase screams as loudly about the Colts vs. Pittsburgh as Steeler fans holler about the Patriots. No matter how well the Steelers are doing, it seems the only thing a great percentage of the fanbase is interested in discussing is how [insert defensive/offensive/special teams scheme name here], which was successful in beating that week’s opponent, was nonetheless not going to get it done against New England.
It took me back to the horrifying day back in September of 2011. I had obtained tickets to the Steelers/Ravens tilt at M & B Bank Stadium at vast expense so that my son-in-law and I could watch a Steelers game. (He was keen to see one live, and it was the only game within driving distance during their visit from Wales.)
Some of us had been mocking the Ravens when we read, at some point during the previuos off-season, that the Ravens’ brain trust had hired a consultant to help the Ravens figure out how to beat the Steelers! Hah, hah! The joke was definitely going to be on them, as the Steelers had a proven, veteran team and the Ravens had a bunch of newbies and no-names, besides a few players that were old frienemies—Joe Flacco, Ray Rice, Ray Lewis et al.
As you may recall, the joke was on Steeler Nation as the Ravens put up 37 points on the Steelers’ vaunted defense and held the offense to seven. Not what we were expecting. But what this goes to show is, if you want to beat a given team badly enough, you can devote a lot of time and resources and build a team which is built to do so. Which, I believe, is what many wanted to see the Steelers do.
The Ravens had good cause for this. The path to the Super Bowl mostly ran through Pittsburgh then. So how did it work out for Baltimore?
Pretty well, at first. They went 12-4 that season, beat the Steelers twice, won the division, won their first playoff game (vs. the Texans,) and lost the Conference Championship, to New England. The following season they went 10-6 (splitting the series with the Steelers,) won three playoff games, including against the Patriots, and won the Super Bowl. Very satisfactory, if you are a Ravens fan.
Since then, it hasn’t been quite such smooth sailing. 2013 they went 8-8. 2014 they went 10-6, which was only good for 3rd in the AFC North, beat the Steelers in the Wild Card round, and lost the divisional round to the Patriots. That has been the high point of the years since the Super Bowl win. In 2015 they went 5-11, in 2016 they were 8-8, and as we know they are 4-5 this season.
This may seem entirely beside the point in a preview of a game against an opponent from another division altogether. My point is, some teams just match up well with other teams, either through happenstance or because they are built this way. In recent years, one of those teams for the Steelers has been the Colts.
Through the years, beginning in 1957, when the Baltimore Colts first played the Steelers, there have been 28 games between these two teams. The Colts have won six of them. If we confine the data to when the Colts moved to Indianapolis (1984), out of 17 games the Colts have won three of them. The last four times these franchises have played, the Steelers have won the games, by a total score of 147 to 71. A couple of those losses were during what we know in retrospect was a rebuild of the Steelers.
The road to the Super Bowl doesn’t typically run through the Steelers for Indy. Only two of those 17 games were in the post-season. Admittedly, both were losses. Both years (1996 and 2006) the Steelers were Super Bowl bound.
So what is it that makes a given team a good (or poor, according to viewpoint) matchup? In the case of the Colts, you have to acknowledge they often weren’t very good teams, at least during the last four games. 2011 was their “Suck for Luck” year. In both 2015 and 2016 they ended the season 8-8.
On the other hand, in 2014 the Steelers put up 51 points on the Colts, a team who ended with an 11-5 record and made it all the way to the Conference Championship before being embarrassed by the Patriots.
You might protest that the game in 2015 was quarterbacked by a combination of Matt Hasselbeck and Charlie Whitehurst, and in 2016 by Scott Tolzien. 2011 was the year Peyton Manning was done for the year. And I would counter with a list of some of the less-than-stellar quarterbacks to whom the Steelers have lost. And note that the 2014 game was quarterbacked by young phenom Andrew Luck, before he was quite so beaten up, and while he managed to put up 34 points, the Steelers put up 51. Not a very Steeler-like score, I might add. Any given Sunday and all that, but somehow the Steelers have had the Colts’ number for rather a long time.
So what is it about the Colts that seems to bring out the best in the Black and Gold? And more to the point, will it continue to do so on Sunday? I can’t answer either of those questions. But I can speculate a bit.
I googled “When is the last time the Colts had a top-five offensive line?” and, after hysterical laughter from my iPad, I discovered the following:
During Andrew Luck’s 70 career starts, there have been 35 different offensive line combinations. This nugget of information was in an article written last summer, about how perhaps the Indianapolis O-line was finally going to achieve some continuity.
Unfortunately, I didn’t actually get an answer to the question as posed. So I went to my favorite sites for such issues, Football Outsiders and Pro Football Focus. Let’s begin with the former, as I can look up information for previous years (unlike the annoying new format PFF uses that confines you to information about the current season.)
- 2011: Ranked 25th in run blocking and 18th in pass protection.
- 2014: Ranked 16th in run blocking and 7th in pass protection.
- 2015: Ranked 27th in run blocking and 16th in pass protection.
- 2016: Ranked No. 2 (!) in run blocking and 28th in pass protection.
And how about this year? Has the Colts’ line achieved the continuity they sought? I don’t know, because without looking up all the game books for this season I can’t find out. But Football Outsiders (hereafter FO) currently ranks them 25th in run blocking and 32nd in pass protection, so either they’ve had a lot of injuries (and I do know one of their guards was put on IR in the middle of October) or the guys they have aren’t very good. (Since you’re probably wondering, PIT is No. 9 in run blocking and No. 1 in pass protection, and that’s without Marcus Gilbert for the last however many games.)
Let’s see how Pro Football Focus views their players. I’m guessing they aren’t particularly enamored of the line, but you never know:
According to PFF, by far the best players on the offensive line are the two tackles, LT Anthony Castonzo and RT Joe Haeg. (The grade for the latter is 72.5, and for Castonzo is 80.4.) The middle of the line is quite dreadful, if PFF is to be believed. The best grade is Ryan Kelly’s 38.2. The guards are in the low 30s. I foresee Javon Hargrave playing a lot of snaps on Sunday. [PFF notes that he has 13 pressures this season when lined up at NT, the most in the league.
Let’s stick with the offense for the moment and see what else they’ve got. According to FO, their overall team offense ranks 29th in the league—30th in passing, 21st in rushing. However, they have played a lot of good defenses—they are No. 3 in terms of the cumulative DVOA of the defenses they have played. (The Steelers are No. 1 in that category. And while I’m at it, the Steelers offense is ranked sixth in the league, 5th in passing offense and 8th in rushing.)
The Colts have a good running back (Frank Gore,) a very good receiver (T.Y. Hilton,) and a good tight end (Jack Doyle.) Back-up QB Jacoby Brissett is playing well also. But they don’t have much of a threat behind those three, other than RB Marlon Mack. But when the best grade on the offense is that of the left tackle, that’s not a recipe for a lot of offensive success. (At least it never worked for Cleveland.)
On to the defense. The (more or less) breaking news on the defensive front is that CB Vontae Davis has been released by the Colts. This news isn’t as good for the Steelers as you might think, because he’s played rather poorly the last couple of seasons, due to numerous injuries. He will be having surgery now, apparently.
Defensive DVOA (remember lower is better:)
- Team defense: 11.9% (No. 27) [Pass rank No. 25, Rush rank No. 21.]
- Defensive Line: Run blocking: No. 19, Pass protection No. 26. They have 18 sacks on the season.
And since you probably want to know the updated Steelers numbers, they are:
- Team defense: -14.3% (No. 4) [Pass rank, No. 5, Rush rank No. 9.)
- Defensive Line: Run blocking: No. 5, Pass protection No. 4: 26 sacks.
PFF opinions: By far the strength of the team, according to them, is in their defensive players, especially along the front. The right side of the line is particularly strong, with RCB Rahaan Melvin, DE Johnathan Hankins, and our old friend, NT Al Woods, all grading above 80. The weak side of the defensive front is definitely the left side, with DE Hassan Ridgeway and LCB Pieere Desir grading in the 40s. While LOLB Barkevious Mingo has improved a good deal, the inside linebackers are not good. SS Matthias Farley is very good, but FS Darius Butler has apparently not impressed.
PFF also just published a mid-term look at all 32 teams’ defensive success against late down passing. You’ll be interested to hear the Steelers sit at No. 3, right behind the Eagles and the Broncos, allowing a 32.6% conversion rate. The Colts are more generous, allowing a conversion rate of 46.2, good for 29th in the league, right behind the Browns.
Well, taking it all together—history, current makeup and ranking of the teams, individual matchups—it all looks as if the men in black (or more likely, white) and gold should be able to win this game, especially as the Colts haven’t, as far as I know, hired a consultant and rebuilt the team to beat the Steelers.
There are naturally plenty of Steeler fans who think they should win it by a lot, or else they’re bums. And of course we know that they can theoretically win it—the question is, will they? Get back to me Sunday evening and I’ll let you know.
Update: Apparently Stephon Tuitt is working hard to be back on the field, as demonstrated here:
And speaking of injuries, I completely forgot the injury report. Here it is:
For the Steelers, the only two players on the injury report were James Harrison, who hasn’t practiced yet this week, with a back injury. Too much heavy lifting? And Mike Mitchell practiced both Wednesday and Thursday but was limited.
The Colts’ list is longer:
Limited were T.Y. Hilton (groin) and CB Quincy Wilson (knee). So far DT Henry Anderson, WR Kamar Aiken and OLB John Simon have not practiced.
Aiken is their slot receiver and Simon is their starting OLB. His backup is Barkevious Mingo, and that’s who PFF has for the matchup. He’s been playing well. Oddly, Anderson doesn’t even show up on the depth chart, and he’s been replaced by Johnathan Hankins, who has played very well. We know about Hilton. Wilson is a back-up.