Updated: Dec 27, 2020
The Steelers can clinch the AFC North with a win over the Indianapolis Colts on Sunday or a Cleveland Browns' loss to the New York Jets (extremely unlikely). The Steelers can also clinch the AFC North if both they and Cleveland tie their games (again, extremely unlikely). The Colts at 10-4 are currently the No. 6 seed in the AFC and are behind the Tennessee Titans in the AFC South standings, as the Titans hold the tiebreaker. The Colts can clinch a playoff spot with a win over the Steelers coupled with a loss or tie by the Baltimore Ravens to the New York Giants. The Colts have won five of their last six games and are coming into Heinz Field with a three-game winning streak. The Steelers are on a three-game slide and it's been like pulling teeth for the offense to score points.
After scoring 24 points or more in each of their first 10 games of the year, the Steelers haven't scored 20 points in four consecutive games. The last time that occurred with Roethlisberger as a starter was in 2004 (Weeks 11-14), which was his rookie season with the team. The Steelers scored 69 points during those four weeks in 2004. The Steelers have scored 68 points in their last four games, so it's the lowest amount of points scored in four straight games in Roethlisberger's career.
- The Steelers also had just 40 total yards of offense and two first downs in the first half against the Cincinnati Bengals on Monday night, along with turning the ball over three times that spotted the Bengals 17 points. The Steelers have had just one touchdown drive on their opening possession this season and that was against the Tennessee Titans in Week 7. Before that, they didn't have an opening drive touchdown since Week 15 of 2018 against the New England Patriots. The Steelers have had a three-and-out on their opening possession in four straight games and haven't scored a single offensive point in the first quarter since Week 10 against the Bengals. Joe Haden had a pick-six in the first quarter against the Baltimore Ravens in Week 12. That's it. The Steelers have to get off to faster starts if they want to make any noise in the postseason. It needs to start on Sunday against Indianapolis.
- The Steelers are 25-6 all-time against the Colts and have won six straight games against Indianapolis, last losing in 2008. The Steelers under Mike Tomlin are 6-1 against the Colts and Ben Roethlisberger is 6-2 in his career against Indianapolis, including a 21-18 playoff win over the Colts in the 2005 Divisional Round game. In Roethlisberger's last four games against the Colts (2014-2017), he has completed 97 of 139 passes (69.8%) for 1,343 yards, 15 touchdowns, one interception and has a quarterback rating of 133.5.
- The spread for the Steelers-Colts game is currently even and the over/under is 43 points, according to Oddsshark.com. The Colts are 10-4 straight up and 8-6 against the spread this season, and the Steelers have gone 0-3 straight up and against the spread in its last three games, per Oddsshark.com. The Steelers are 15-1 straight up in its last 16 home games against the Colts, and the over is 5-2 in Pittsburgh’s last seven games against Indianapolis.
- The Steelers' run game has not been successful since the beginning of November, rushing for 48 yards or fewer in six of their eight games leading up to the Steelers-Bengals game this past Monday night. Thanks to the efforts of Benny Snell Jr., the run game was better against Cincinnati. Snell rushed for 84 yards on 18 carries (4.7 average) and a touchdown. As a team, the Steelers rushed for 86 yards on 23 carries (3.7 average). The run game still needs to improve, but 86 yards on the ground is definitely serviceable compared to what they rushed for against the Washington Football Team (21 yards) and Buffalo Bills (47 yards) in the weeks before.
"I saw it coming a little bit of the week practice, it coming because Benny Snell is a competitor. He didn’t want to be denied," offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner said about Snell's performance on Monday night. "He brought a lot of energy and juice to that game, and I felt like we were more consistent running the ball. We still had our pitfalls. We had a third-and-1 and we didn’t make it. When we can hit situational football at 100 percent, then you are going to be more times than not winning games. Situationally is where the run game has to really keep coming whether it is red zone, whether it is short yardage, whether it is goal line, that type of thing."
The Steelers will be tested against a stout Colts' run defense, who allows 98.1 yards rushing per game, which ranks fifth in the league. They have the best run defense in the AFC. The Colts have standout players at every level of their defense. linebacker Darius Leonard is one of their playmakers on the defensive side of the ball. The two-time Pro Bowler leads the team in tackles with 112 and has six tackles for a loss. Leonard also has two sacks, two forced fumbles, five passes defended, two quarterback hits and two fumble recoveries this season.
The Colts have three players with 7.5 sacks each -- defensive tackle DeForest Buckner, defensive end Justin Houston and defensive end Denico Autry. Buckner is second on the team in tackles for a loss (8) and leads the team in quarterback hits (24). Buckner has been outstanding for the Colts this year after being traded by the 49ers this offseason. It was a real surprise that Buckner wasn't named to the Pro Bowl. Buckner, who stands at 6-foot-7, 295 pounds, had three sacks last week against the Houston Texans.
- The Colts are tied for first in the league in turnover differential at plus-12 with 24 takeaways and 12 giveaways. The Colts have not turned the ball over in their last three games and the Steelers have not forced a turnover in two games during their three-game losing streak -- against Washington in Week 13 and on Monday night against the Bengals. Cornerback Kenny Moore II leads the Colts in interceptions with four. The Colts' defense has 15 interceptions this year, which ranks fifth in the league. The Colts overall have a top 10 defense in the league, but their weakness is in the secondary. The Colts allow 334.1 passing yards per game, which ranks 17th in the league. Indianapolis has allowed an average of 424 total yards in their last four games.
- Against the Bengals on Monday night, Roethlisberger completed just one pass on 13 attempts that traveled 10-plus yards and that was the 23-yard touchdown pass that he threw to Diontae Johnson in the third quarter. According to NFL’s Next Gen Stats, Roethlisberger has completed 4 of 24 passes over his past two games and is 15 of 47 over his past four games on passes to targets at least 10 yards beyond the line of scrimmage. Roethlisberger has had just four completions this year that have gone for 40 yards or more. Roethlisberger's deep ball is clearly off this year and the last two games have been especially concerning with underthrown passes when he went deep.
"He’s capable of making all of those throws or we wouldn’t want to even put him in a game plan," Fichtner said of Roethlisberger's deep ball. "Matter of fact, the first throw of the night was something he had talked about two or three days earlier, just a concept off the move, a little play-action that type of thing. We have been working on trying to develop more play-action and more opportunities for chunks down the yard. I’ve always said I love the group of wide receivers because I believe we can throw short and run long. It may not be long enough. You have to keep hunting the chunk play. It’s awful hard to go 13-play, 14-play drives and score. A lot of things have to be going right, and you can eliminate some of those issues just by getting chunks. We are going to keep pushing that envelope. One of these games and hopefully this week, you will see a few of those completions and realize we just moved the ball from the 20 to their 40."
Roethlisberger ranks 31st in yards per pass attempt (6.2) and leads the league in pass attempts (559). Baltimore put out the blueprint on how to stop the Steelers' quick rhythm dink-and-dunk offense in Week 12 and Washington, Buffalo and Cincinnati have followed suit. Safeties have been playing closer up to the line of scrimmage knowing that Roethlisberger likes to get rid of the ball quickly on short distanced passes. If Roethlisberger can't turn things around and be able to throw deep, the offense is in big trouble with the run game being as bad as it has been this season.
- Roethlisberger is 3-3 in his career in games against his 2004 draft counterpart Philip Rivers, all of which came when Rivers was the signal-caller for the Los Angeles Chargers (formally based in San Diego). Roethlisberger led the Steelers to a 35-24 win over Rivers' Chargers in the 2008 Divisional Round game. Rivers, 39, is in his first year in Indianapolis and has played pretty well completing 68.7% of his passes for 3,735 yards and has a 22-9 touchdown-interception ratio, along with posting a 99.0 quarterback rating. Rivers has played especially well as of late, throwing for six touchdowns and no interceptions in his last three games. In all three of those games, Rivers has had a quarterback rating over 100.
- Rivers has a lot of weapons and has done a good job of distributing the ball to numerous targets. The Colts have eight players with over 200 yards receiving, which is the most in the league. They also have six players with 30 receptions or more. Rivers' favorite target is wide receiver T.Y. Hilton, who has 50 receptions and leads the team in receiving yards with 650, along with four touchdowns. All four of Hilton's touchdowns have come in the last four games and has recorded 348 yards on 21 receptions (16.6 average) during that span. Running backs Jonathan Taylor and Nyheim Hines have been productive pass-catchers as well. Hines has a team-high 53 receptions for 412 yards and four touchdowns and Taylor has 35 receptions for 298 yards and a touchdown. When it comes to running the ball, the rookie Taylor is the main back with 842 yards rushing on 184 carries (4.6 average) and seven touchdowns. Taylor has rushed for 80 yards or more in his last four games and has three rushing touchdowns during that span. Hines has rushed for 319 yards on 79 carries (4.0 average) and three touchdowns. As a team, Indianapolis has rushed over 100 yards in seven of their last eight games. The Colts have a balanced attack and have been putting up a lot of points recently, unlike the Steelers' offense. The Colts have scored 26 points or more in each of their last six games.
"Philip Rivers is a coach on the field. I have a little bias toward him a little bit because I’ve known him for a long, long time," defensive coordinator Keith Butler said. "Actually, I’ve known his dad for a long time. He grew up in North Alabama, same place I did, and I recruited when I coached college down there in Memphis. I recruited North Alabama, and his dad was a high school football coach. Philip knows the game. He’s been growing up on the game all of his life. He’s very sharp. He does a good job at reading the secondary, getting them in best offensive play they can be in based on the defense or what he sees from the defense. That to me is always the challenge with him. It’s kind of a head game football game that we have to play against him. We have to show him one thing and play another thing, and he will figure it out sometimes.
"He gets him into the right running game. They have a good running back. He uses them well. It’s a challenge for us. This is, to me, the last three teams we played, I think this is the better football team of all of them just watching them play the offense and defense together. It’s a good team. It’s going to be a challenge for us to play these guys and to win this game."
- The Colts have one of the best offensive lines in the league, allowing just 16 sacks this year, which ranks second in the league, just behind the Steelers' 12 sacks given up. The Colts' offensive line is led by left guard Quenton Nelson and center Ryan Kelly, who both were named to the Pro Bowl this year.
“All you have to do is turn on the film. It doesn’t lie,” Butler said about the Colts' offensive line. “Our guys know the type of guys we are playing against. They accept the challenge. That’s the thing I like about our guys, especially up front. They’re very highly competitive. They don’t like to lose.”
The Colts' offensive line is highly talented, but they haven't seen a pass rush like the Steelers this year, who lead the league in sacks with 47. I guess you can say the same for the Steelers' pass rushers, but Indianapolis will be without their two starting tackles on Sunday -- right tackle Branden Smith was placed on the reserve/COVID-19 list on Friday and left tackle Anthony Castonzo (knee/ankle) was downgraded from questionable to out on Saturday.
“I just think this group is a really cohesive unit together, and they work well off each other, especially in the run game when they have guards pulling around the edges," T.J. Watt said of Indianapolis' offensive line. "They have a great rapport with each other, I think the quarterback (Rivers) has a great understanding of where those guys are going to be and vice versa, so I just think collectively they have a great unit.”
Nelson is not only a Pro Bowler, but he has been named first-team All-Pro in the last two years. He's one of the best guards in the league and it's not often that he gets overpowered, but he did last year when the Steelers played the Colts. In the second quarter, Heyward bull-rushed Nelson into quarterback Jacoby Brissett, and Nelson fell on Brissett's left knee, which sidelined him for the rest of the game with a sprained MCL. Brian Hoyer replaced Brissett and would have led the Colts to a win if Adam Vinatieri didn't shank a 34-yard field goal wide left with 1:11 remaining in the game. The Steelers would hold on to win, 26-24. The bull rush by Heyward on Nelson in the second quarter wasn't the only play that he dominated. There were several plays where Heyward just physically overmatched Nelson. It should be an interesting battle in the trenches with Heyward and Nelson on Sunday, as I'm sure Nelson remembers his poor performance from last year.
"We get to play against one of the best o-lines in the league. We just came off a loss. There’s a lot to look forward to in this game," Heyward said. "I love to be able to play against great talent. We’ll get to it this weekend."
Vince Williams came off the reserve/COVID-19 list on Wednesday and he couldn't come back to the defense soon enough. Inside linebackers Avery Williamson and Marcus Allen played pretty well against the Buffalo Bills in Week 14, but you can tell the defense really missed Williams on the field on Monday night when the Bengals rushed for 152 yards.
"It means we have a leader in the linebacker corps that has been doing it for a while," Minkah Fitzpatrick said on Williams returning. "Avery (Williamson) and Chico (Marcus Allen) did a great job while they were out there. Vince has been running this defense for a long time. It's good to have him back. He is communicating well. Things are just a little more fluid when you have a guy that has been there for a while."
Williams' play on the field isn't the only thing that will be welcomed, as his leadership and communication skills are superb.
"A voice, definitely. Communication is going to help us," Butler said on Williams coming back. "The guys who have been in there have done a pretty good job of communicating, but Vince is a little more confident in what he's doing. The people around him are a little more confident in terms of what we are doing with him in there and stuff like that. It's going to help us for sure."
- On Saturday, inside linebacker Marcus Allen (stinger), outside linebacker Ola Adenyi (shoulder) and kicker Chris Boswell (groin) were downgraded from questionable to out for Sunday's game. Running back Anthony McFarland Jr. did not practice on Friday due to an illness and is questionable for Sunday. The Steelers also announced on Saturday that they've signed linebacker Tegray Scales to the 53-man roster. In addition, the team elevated kicker Matthew Wright to the 53-man roster from the practice squad and waived offensive lineman Derwin Gray. Wright will make his second start this year, as he filled in for Boswell in Week 13 against Washington when Boswell was out with a hip injury.
Along with getting Williams back, running back James Conner and offensive lineman Kevin Dotson will both play against Indianapolis after missing Monday night's game due to injuries they suffered against Buffalo the week before. Conner had a quadriceps injury and Dotson was dealing with a shoulder injury.
For the Colts, other than Smith and Castonzo ruled out for Sunday's game. Defensive end Al-Quadin Muhammad (ankle) is listed as questionable.
It was announced on Saturday that the NFL fined right tackle Chuks Okorafor $10,000 for shoving Bengals' cornerback Mackensie Alexander late out of bounds after Alexander picked off Roethlisberger's pass in the second quarter of Monday night's game, according to Tom Pelissero of the NFL Network.
Following the interception, Alexander high-stepped down the sideline, which Okorafor took issue with and shoved him into the Bengals’ bench area. Alexander was also fined $10,000, but it wasn't because of the high stepping. Alexander taunted JuJu Smith-Schuster after a pass breakup in the second quarter.