There’s a lot of chatter about ageless veterans in the league now. The Pittsburgh Steelers seemingly have two of them in linebacker James Harrison and running back DeAngelo Williams. Common logic dictates that both of these players should not be effective in their roles due to their age, but both have been integral on both sides of the ball. Williams has shouldered the load offensively for a team that has desperately needed help in the backfield since All-Pro running back Le’Veon Bell’s injury. Harrison has been a consistent player, setting the edge and providing in the pass rush in a rotational role.
The Indianapolis Colts have their own ageless wonder in quarterback Matt Hasselbeck. A quarterback who has not yet lost this season.
Hasselbeck, at age 40, has been a bastion of stability under center for the Colts this season. As great a young quarterback as Andrew Luck is, his struggles and turnovers have put the Colts into a situation where they are battling with the Houston Texans for the AFC South, a division in which they should dominate. Hasselbeck’s play has led the Colts to a 4-0 record under him, but has done more than simply manage games and limit turnovers.
This is a game that I’ve had marked down for a long time and not only because I expected an offensive fireworks show. At the time, I did not realize that this game had become a sort of must-win for the Steelers, as a loss puts them squarely behind three teams in the AFC Wild Card race. If the Steelers are to win, they must do something they did not do against the Seattle Seahawks a week ago — rely heavily on wide receiver Antonio Brown.
Key Match-up to Watch for Offensively
Wide receiver Antonio Brown vs. cornerback Vontae Davis
*Ben Roethlisberger vs. Ben Roethlisberger, too
This seems like it’s the preview every week, but for a team that is lacking one of the best weapons in football, highlighting the league’s best receiver becomes necessary.
Simply put, Brown needs to win this match-up consistently. This is a game that Brown can not afford to be taken out of if the Steelers hope to remain one of the teams competing for the 6th seed by season’s end.
Cornerback Vontae Davis is exceptionally skilled and coming off of a great 2014 season, but has not been the lock-down cornerback this season as he was prior. Brown is coming off of a game that looked like a throwback to the Michael Vick-era, posting pedestrian numbers against a secondary he should have been a threat against. Cornerback Richard Sherman once again showed why he is one of the leagues best defensive backs, but Brown and the offensive gameplan made things easy for Seattle. This mistake can not be replicated against a Colts team that struggles in pass defense.
This is the ideal match-up for this team. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger loves the deep ball and has two of the biggest weapons in football to hit downfield. Martavis Bryant is poised for another big game and has the ability to be the yin to Brown’s yang against the Colts. I don’t remember the last the the Steelers had two receivers go for over 160 yards each, but this is the best opportunity they’ll have all season.
The gameplan heading into Sunday is simple, but it should be effective – launch the ball deep. Markus Wheaton was thoroughly impressive against the Seahawks, producing effectively in his slot receiver role. I expect a more quiet game from Wheaton against the Colts as both Bryant and Brown will likely take the top off of this defense and exploit a secondary unable to play with elite receivers.
Williams may be ageless, but much like against the Seahawks, his role will be reduced. The Colts’ defense may struggle to stop the run, but the offensive gameplan all season long has been to get the ball into the hands of their playmakers, and this game will be no different. Expect another solid day from the veteran running back, but nothing that jumps off of the stat sheet. Maybe we’ll see him crush another linebacker/defensive end this week. Those are always fun to watch.
Finally, and perhaps the most important match-up offensively for this team, will be Roethlisberger against … Roethlisberger. Uncharacteristically of late, Roethlisberger has been missing open targets and, with more frequency than before, has been under throwing receivers, allowing cornerbacks to make come up and make plays on the ball on throws which should be touchdowns. Many are going to attribute this to the injury which may or may not be the case, but Roethlisberger needs to clean this up immediately. This team is staring down the possibility of having many of their remaining games be “must-win’s”. More stable play is needed from their leader under center.
Match-up to Watch for Defensively
Cornerbacks Antwon Blake and Will Gay vs. wide receivers T.Y. Hilton and Donte Moncrief
The cornerbacks on this team are bad. I haven’t been shy in reiterating this all season long. I refuse to let myself go onto another long-winded rant about the current state of the secondary. Mostly because everyone reading this is aware of just how bad things are.
But once again, the secondary is going to be highlighted in a game here. The pattern is simple — the Steelers’ offense operates at a level that few teams can keep up with. This was the gameplan going into Seattle, but turnovers and poor showings from key members of the offense doomed it from the get-go. Expect a similar gameplan here.
The offense is going to turn things into a shootout, and in doing so, the Colts are going to have to try and keep up offensively. Wide receivers T.Y Hilton and Donte Moncrief have been productive when Hasselbeck is under center, producing with greater efficiency than under Luck. This secondary is prone to be exposed by any receiver, really, but the deficiency in talent is exposed more than usual when playing against smaller, faster receivers. Throw in Andre Johnson on the boundary and this is a team that is going to expose the lack of talent on this defense with ease.
I wish I could highlight this match-up in a more positive light, but it boils down to hoping Blake can limit the damage on the boundary and Gay not be exposed in the middle of the field by the quick Moncrief.
There is a potential for positivity, however. Mike Tomlin has opened the door for cornerback Brandon Boykin to see playing time this week, but where he would line-up is unclear. Cockrell saw no defensive snaps on Wednesday which opens the door for Gay to bounce to the outside and allow Boykin to play in the slot against Moncrief. While a minor win, this secondary will take all of the wins it can get.
SCORE PREDICTION AND PARTING SHOTS
The Steelers don’t drop must-win games. While Hasselbeck’s story has been a good one for the league thus far, his streak ends this week. The constant onslaught of deep balls by Roethlisberger to Brown and Bryant pose a threat to this defense that they haven’t quite seen yet. The Steelers’ offense bounces back in a big way …
Steelers 38 – Colts 27
• This one, at least on paper, should be a “easy win”. I’ve never agreed with the term as it’s incredibly difficult to win games in the NFL, but this is a mismatch for the Steelers.
• I’ve written at length about how porous the secondary truly is, but it cannot be understated how important it is for Boykin to see extended reps in this game. If he performs well in the Nickel role, expect this role to be expanded to a starting role.
• In this same vein, I’m left to wonder what role the team sees defensive back Doran Grant having on this team. The knock coming out of college for Grant was his lack of top-end speed, but is still a respectable 4.4 corner. If the team does not see him as a cornerback on this team, a potential move to strong safety may be in the cards for Grant. He’s a physical, aggressive defensive back with the potential to lay the wood when necessary. Grant also excels in zone and doesn’t allow the “easy catch”. It remains to be seen how effective Grant can be in the box, but this is a potentially coachable deficit. The prospect of it happening is exciting to say the least.