After finally getting the monkey off their back by winning the Super Bowl, it appeared that the Indianapolis Colts would be following a pattern similar to other recent winners. They would struggle the next season then see head coach Tony Dungy retire so he could return to the NFL after a few years with a much more lucrative contract. The offense would still be the heart of the team but they’d eventually seek to replace some of their aging skill position stars with younger and cheaper alternatives. The first part held true but the others didn’t as Dungy continues to coach the team and the Colts are still sticking with the Manning-Wayne-Harrison Trifecta.
Despite competition from an improving Tennessee squad and usually tough Jacksonville, the Colts managed to maintain superiority in the AFC South last year. This year, however, they stumbled out of the gate and are currently behind the eight-ball being stuck behind a Titans team which remains undefeated. Barring a monumental collapse, it looks like Indy’s only hope for a playoff spot will be as a Wild Card. They currently sit at 4-4 meaning realistically they can only afford two more losses for those hopes to remain realistic. Otherwise, this may very well be the swan song season for many of the old guard as Dungy, DE Dwight Freeney, and probably WR Marvin Harrison are nearing the end of their run.
STEELER DEFENSE vs. COLTS OFFENSE
I’m sure we all know the “no huddle” offense the Colts use as the sight of QB Peyton Manning waving, signaling, hopping on one leg, doing the hokey pokey and turning himself around is one sadly familiar to Steeler fans. One of the beauties of Peyton’s ability to audible is that it allows the Colts to run a pretty simple scheme if the players can understand the audibles. They usually keep the WR’s in the same positions with Harrison out wide right, Reggie Wayne out wide left, and Anthony Gonzalez or Dallas Clark in the slot. Occasionally, if they get in some tight games and the offense can’t get going they’ll start motioning the receivers to see if they can fool the defense but this is essentially an offense that believes that Peyton can get them into the right play and then they can just out execute the opponent.
Obviously, this puts the onus on Peyton Manning to make the whole machine run. You can directly attribute Indy’s early season struggles with Manning’s sub-par play. He had two knee surgeries this off-season and missed the entire preseason. He came back rusty, out-of-synch with his receivers, and badly immobile. Peyton was never to be confused with Kordell Stewart but with today’s pass rushers, you need to have some niftiness in the pocket or you’ll never complete a pass. One of the reasons Manning was one of the most durable QBs of this generation is he was always mobile enough to avoid the big hit. His knee better be healed because with the most vicious pass rush in the NFL flying in at him from every angle, he better be able to duck and cover or he will take a beating.
Another of the issues that the Colts had was that Peyton was more or less the team’s O-Coordinator. While he usually calls the right play, he had some problems that your typical O-Coordinator has, particularly with falling in love with the pass. Unfortunately, the Colts didn’t have anybody in place to “veto” some of Peyton’s play calling and get him into the run. The year they won the Super Bowl, Peyton finally realized that the Colts needed to run the ball in the red zone because teams like the Patriots were looking for the pass in those situations. Again, the problem with the team this year is every one of their backs has missed time due to injury.
They should have Joseph Addai this week. He’s a vicious runner who catches passes well and got better and better in pass protection. He’s probably one of those guys that will be underrated for awhile given the small market city he plays in which is already occupied by the big stars. Then again, he’s going against the Steeler D which absolutely positively won’t let anybody run the ball on them anywhere ever. So I’d like to say they should utilize him but I don’t think he’s going to be able to do much of anything this week.
If Harrison’s knee is healthy, he’s one of the best WRs in the game. Big “if” because it appears that injury still nags him to this day. Reggie Wayne went from outstanding #2 to really the Colts top WR now. Wayne is extremely fast and has great hands which are a rare combination. Anthony Gonzalez did struggle with his route running and learning the audibles, but still ranked first in the league in DVOA for WR’s. Gonzalez took the Brandon Stokely third/slot receiver slot. He’s a good one although he gets a case of the dropsies here and there. TE Dallas Clark frequently lines up as a wide receiver. He’s deadly on screen passes although he can run deeper routes if they see a mismatch they can exploit.
I was worried last week about S Tyrone Carter replacing Ryan Clark but it really didn’t seem to matter. CBs Ike Taylor and Deshea Townshend completely shut down the Redskins wideouts although I think the Colts are a bit more talented and have a better QB getting them the ball. Of course, that won’t matter much if he’s flat on his back which is where I expect the Blitzburgh D to put him many times on Sunday.
STEELER OFFENSE vs. COLTS DEFENSE
Two guesses. Tampa 2/Cover 2 used here as that is the pet defense Dungy has loved since his days down in Tampa. A love he passed on to one of his protégés, a charismatic young man by the name of Mike Tomlin.
The Tampa 2 can be a good scheme with the right personnel although it is a pretty conservative defense outside of Dungy’s love for stunting his D-Line. The D-Line’s priority is to get to the QB and then worry about the run later. This appears to be the lucky week for the Colts as Pothole Willie Parker injured his shoulder on Monday and will not play. We still have the best bargain basement RB ever, Mewelde Moore, to shoulder (*groan*) the load. Can Moore keep up his string of impressive relief performances?
S Bob Sanders is the Troy Polamalu of their defense; the player who makes the whole thing work. In fact, he’s probably even more valuable as Troy takes the Steelers from very good to great but Sanders is singly responsible for making a below average defense decent. He’s constantly getting injured, though which makes me think maybe some day he’ll learn how to tackle correctly instead of trying to spear everybody.
Despite the Colts taking the mold of a typical Cover 2 defense (small in size, big on speed), this was an extremely physical defense in 2007 and it started with the attitude of Sanders and the rest of their physical defensive backs. Of course, the Steelers receivers know a thing or two about physical play so it should be interesting to see who blinks first when they get smacked in the mouth. I’m sure Herr Goodell has a bowl of popcorn and his dvd player ready to comb through the game tape to look for more ways to fine the Steelers.
If Dwight Freeney is healthy and returns to his old form, then their D-Line is a force to be reckoned with since Freeney is so tough to stop. Problem is that he suffered a bad foot injury and the way I understand it, it’s not too big of an issue if you’re very young but at Freeney’s age he’s unlikely to ever be the same. Ed Johnson was a hell of a find as he was a full season starter despite being undrafted. Raheem Brock had a pretty solid year as well.
The big question for the Steelers will be who will be behind that porous offensive line running for their life when the clock is started on Sunday. As of posting this, the question is very much up in the air. Ben Roethlisberger hasn’t practiced all week although he is reportedly going to take some snaps on Friday. If he doesn’t feel like his arm is about to fall off, they’ll probably give him the start although I still think that’s a huge mistake. Big Ben is significantly down this year from last in every significant statistical category. He’s clearly not right. Will one week off make a huge difference? I don’t know. But if you know a guy is injured and even question a little how effective he’ll be, I don’t see the point in letting him start. Byron Leftwich isn’t a long-term solution by any means. However, this game against this opponent this week, he very well might be our best chance for victory.