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Know Thy Enemy: Indianapolis Colts

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There’s nothing the NFL likes more than a good storyline. Oftentimes those stories are forced narratives, exaggerated by the networks to give a game a “hook” for the casual fan. As if Fantasy Football and/or degenerate gambling isn’t hook enough. However, when the Pittsburgh Steelers face the Indianapolis Colts on Sunday Night Football, the story really does write itself.

Ten years ago, the Steelers met the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XL. The Black and Gold were led by a second year starter named Ben Roethlisberger. Seattle was quarterbacked by former back-up Matt Hasselbeck. The Steelers of course went on to win that game, then another Lombardi Trophy a few years later as Ben grew from a game manager to one of the best quarterbacks in football. Hasselbeck played nine more years for Seattle, leading them to several playoff appearances before taking on the life of a journeyman back-up the past five seasons.

On Sunday night, they meet again.

At 40 years old, Hasselbeck is the oldest starting QB in the league. The strange thing is, he’s actually been the Colts’ most effective quarterback this year. Where Andrew Luck has battled injury to post an ugly 15/12 TD-INT ratio, Hasselbeck sports a sparkling 7/2 mark. His completion percentage also far outrates his younger counterpart’s (65% vs 55%) as does his QB Rating and yards per attempt. By every measure, Hasselbeck has been the team’s best starting option to the point many fans believe he should play out the string even if/when Luck is ready to return.

Of course the only statistic that really matters is wins. Hasselbeck has delivered those as the Colts have won three straight games to tie Houston atop the abysmal AFC South. At 6-5, they’re also very much alive for a potential Wild Card berth which puts them in direct competition with the Steelers. What makes this all the more impressive is Hasselbeck has hardly been a veteran game manager relying on his team’s skill players to carry the offense in Luck’s absence. He’s the reason they are winning.

Indy has almost no running game to speak of. They signed Frank Gore over the off-season but he’s provided very little of a rushing attack. They brought in former Houston star WR Andre Johnson and he’s also underachieved badly. The team has basically been led by Hasselbeck, superstar receiver TY Hilton and the emergence of Donte Moncrief in the slot.

Their offense needs to step up because their defense sure isn’t shutting anybody out. Indy ranks in the bottom half of the league against the pass (27th), rush (24th), and total yards (teams average nearly 390 yards per game against them). The team brought in former Eagle Trent Cole to pair at linebacker with All Pro Robert Mathis but that hasn’t panned out as planned. D’Qwell Jackson has been their most consistent pass rusher while safeties Dwight Lowery (4 INTs) and Mike Adams (5 INTs) anchor a secondary that has struggled in coverage.

The Steelers should put up points, especially if Ben is healthy and ready to go. He’s supposedly passed his concussion tests and been practicing normally which indicates it’s all systems go for Sunday night. I’m always a bit leery when concussions are concerned, though, because I’ve guys get scratched at the last minute before. Assuming Ben takes the field, we could be in for another shoot-out.

We’ve had no problems scoring points this season when Ben is in the line-up. A lot of points. The problem is our defense keeps giving up points. A lot of points.

Last Sunday was the low water mark as far as the secondary is concerned. Mike Tomlin hinted at changes but I don’t expect any. He sticks with guys through thick and thin so don’t be shocked if you see Antwon Blake, Ross Cockrell, and William Gay out there as usual. Not to keep beating the drum but with those guys it basically comes down to turnovers. They’re going to give up yards, a lot of yards, but it all works out if the defense can force a couple key turnovers here and there to limit the damage.

Again, I’ve been harping on this for a few weeks now but the importance of this game cannot be stressed enough. We’re hitting the home stretch of the 2015 season and things like playoff position and tiebreakers need to be a concern. The Steelers conference record is 3-4 with a head-to-head loss against another potential WC team (KC) already on the books. A loss to Indy really puts them behind the eight ball. I hate to make grand pronouncements but a loss here and the team almost has to win out to make the post-season. Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that.

Let’s hope history repeats itself.