The Pittsburgh Steelers took on the Indianapolis Colts in a nationally-televised game on a beautiful late afternoon at Heinz Field and delivered one of the greatest offensive performances in franchise history. Ben Roethlisberger threw for 522 yards and six touchdowns leading the Steelers to a massively-entertaining 51-34 victory over the AFC South leaders. The Steelers played an almost perfect first half offensively scoring touchdowns on their first four possessions and adding a pick-six by William Gay to take a 35-20 lead. The Colts, who came in on a five-game win streak, cut the deficit to eight, 42-34 late in the third quarter, but the Steelers added a safety and then sealed the game with a 12-play, 67-yard drive that ate up 7:20 of the fourth quarter. The drive, maybe their most impressive of the season, was capped by a gutsy call on 4th-and-inches as Roethlisberger thew an 11-yard touchdown pass to Heath Miller.
The Steelers ended up dominating time-of-possession holding the ball for 39:43 against a Colts team that was tops in the league in that category and they put up 639 yards in total offense, the third highest in team history. The win raises their record to 5-3 in a crowded AFC North where all four teams are over .500 and sets up a big matchup Sunday night against the 5-3 Baltimore Ravens on an evening where Joe Greene’s jersey is going to be retired at halftime.
Special teams player Ross Ventrone left with a hamstring injury in the second half and did not return. Le’Veon Bell suffered an ankle injury in the first half but returned to the game.
Marcus Gilbert, Steve McLendon, Ike Taylor and Shamarko Thomas were all inactive due to injury. Rookies Martavis Bryant and Daniel McCullers were active for the second time.
*Ben Roethlisberger was superb. After a string of uneven performances Ben delivered arguably the best of his career against a defense that ranked among the top five in the NFL in a number of statistical categories and was coming off a dominating shutout of the Bengals last week. Roethlisberger set career and franchise records in completions (40), yards (522) and TDs (6). He finished with a 150.6 passer rating and 99.0 QBR. He became the first player in NFL history to have two 500-yard passing games and tied for 4th on the all-time list. On passes at least 15 yards down the field, Ben was 8-for-11, 209 yards and 2 TDs. That’s the second highest completion percentage on deep throws in the last four years. Ben’s numbers might have been even better if not for a couple drops in the second half. It is hard to imagine a quarterback playing a better game—except he got his pooch punt blocked at the end of the first half. The win marked his 100th win in his 150th career start, only the fourth QB ever to accomplish that feat. Last week I said this team will go where their quarterback takes them. If their quarterback plays like that, he’s going to take them far.
*Antonio Brown is the best receiver in football and continues to demonstrate it weekly. Much has been made about his now 24-game record of 5 catches and 50+ yards receiving, but it speaks to his amazing consistency over the past two seasons. And Brown only seems to be getting better. He was targeted 13 times in this one and finished with 10 catches, 133 yards and two touchdowns. Each week he adds to the highlight reel and this was no exception. He made an amazing one-handed catch for an 8-yard touchdown in the second quarter and then added a 47-yard catch and run for another less than four minutes later. On the season he now has 60 catches for 852 yards and 7 TDs and is on pace to top the 110 catches, 1,499 yards and 8 TDs he put up last year. Phenomenal.
*The Steelers wide receivers opposite Antonio Brown put up huge numbers as well. With defenses having to focus on Brown the production from the rest of the group has been underwhelming. Not against Indy. Martavis Bryant has been a sensation in his first two games. He caught two red zone TDs in this one and was particularly impressive high-pointing a 2-yard TD catch early in the third quarter. He finished with five catches for 83 yards. Markus Wheaton made his presence felt for the first time since an early drop in the Jacksonville game a month ago as he caught all five targets for 56 yards and a TD, the first of his career. As a group the Steelers other four receivers had 13 catches, 188 yards and 3 TDs.
*The Steelers offensive line gave Ben great protection. Roethlisberger regularly had four or five seconds to stand in the pocket and find his receivers and wasn’t sacked for the first time in his last twelve games despite 49 dropbacks. Offensive line is the hardest position to judge without watching the film, but the group did an excellent job handling the Colts blitz package. Mike Adams did a solid job at right tackle starting in place of Marcus Gilbert in his first start of the season.
*LeVeon Bell. Stud. 24 carries, 92 yards. 6 catches 56 yards. 148 total yards from scrimmage. Bell has put up 100 yards from scrimmage in each of the first eight games. Right now there isn’t a better all-around back in the NFL.
*Heath Miller. Warhorse. Miller had 7 catches for 112 yards and the game-clinching TD. Nothing was more fun than watching Miller catch the ball in the open field on a busted coverage and chug toward the end zone. Would he make it? Would he make it? Would he make it? Alas, he was run down at the four after a 49-yard gain, the third-longest of his career. Miller became the third Steeler to reach the 500 catch mark in his career.
*The Steelers red zone problems have been well-documented. They went 5-for-6 in this one. That will quiet the critics at least for another week. They possessed the ball for 39:43 against a Colts team that led the NFL with almost 37 minutes of possession coming in.
*There wasn’t much that went wrong offensively in this one but the Steelers did turn the ball over twice. Darrius Heyward-Bey caught a 16-yard pass from Ben in the third quarter, and after going to the ground and not being touched, got up and immediately had the ball knocked out by Darius Butler. Darius-on-Darrius crime? On the Steelers next possession LeGarrette Blount had the ball ripped out on the Indy 5-yard line.
*The Steelers had three dropped passes or they might have put up even more yards and points. Dri Archer dropped a ball in the second quarter and didn’t see the field again all game. In the third quarter Martavis Bryant dropped a first down slant where he had clearly beaten his man and had only a safety to beat for a 77-yard touchdown. It led to the Steelers only three-and-out on the day. Heath Miller dropped a long pass up the seam later in the third quarter.
*On 3rd-and-2 from the Indy 44 and 1:02 left in the game, Roethlisberger ran around right end and got drilled by two Colts defenders. There was absolutely no reason for Ben to run that play and take that hit.
*William Gay had the defensive play of the game when he jumped an out-route in the second quarter, picked off the pass and returned it for a 33-yard TD. It was the Steelers second touchdown in four plays and opened up a 21-3 lead. Gay has been the Steelers best corner and along with Lawrence Timmons their most consistent defensive player.
*Dick LeBeau decided the best way to attack Andrew Luck was to dial up the pressure. The Steelers registered two sacks, a forced fumble, a safety and a ton of punishing hits on the Indy QB. To his credit Luck still managed a huge day himself throwing for 400 yards and 3 TDs, but the pressure was a constant and contributed to the team’s two interceptions. Jason Worilds, James Harrison and Cameron Hayward were all noticeable and effective at bringing the heat.
*The Steelers two former Defensive Players of the Year James Harrison and Troy Polamalu each had a sack in this one. Harrison actually could have gotten credit for both sacks, but since Polamalu stripped Andrew Luck on the play, he was given credit for the sack/forced fumble. Harrison, playing his best game of the season, came back and got his own later in the game. (UPDATE: Harrison credited for two sacks)
*Antwon Blake replaced a benched-Cortez Allen late in the game and made a very good interception in the end zone. Blake turned early and high-pointed the ball. We’ll see if that leads to an opportunity for more playing time.
*The Steelers continue to give up too many explosive/splash plays. On the opening drive, on the game’s third play, T.Y. Hilton beat Brice McCain (he may have pushed off) for 45 yards leading to a Colts FG. Donte Moncrief (52 yards) and Dwayne Allen (21-yard TD) had big plays on the Colts next scoring drive. On the scoring drive after that Hakeem Nicks caught a 27-yarder and Hilton caught a 28-yard touchdown. You get the idea. The Colts had a ton of big plays including 7 catches for 20+ yards
*The Colts first two touchdown drives were kept alive by defensive holding calls against Mike Mitchell and Brice McCain respectively.
*After Roethlisberger’s punt was blocked near the end of the first half, the Colts took over on their own 35 with 35 seconds left and all three timeouts. In a sequence reminiscent of the defensive breakdowns that cost the Steelers the game versus Tampa Bay, Andrew Luck was able to move the Colts 60 yards to the Steelers five before they had to settle for a FG. Like the 41-yard pass play in the Tampa game, the defense gave up a 39-yard pass from Luck to T.Y. Hilton. That’s inexcusable.
*Cortez Allen had a nightmare. Again. Unfortunately it’s is an all-too-common refrain. He was benched late in the game. What’s surprising is how often the last few weeks Allen has been in good position but hasn’t gotten his head around or his hands up to make a play. Other times he’s just been flat-out burned. His timing, instincts and confidence are completely shot at the moment. I’ll bet no one expected to be asking how soon Ike Taylor would be back.
*The Steelers faced a 4th-and-2 at the Indy 13 with 8:39 left in the second quarter. They lined up for a 30-yard FG. As they have been able to do on multiple occasions the past couple season, they got the Colts to jump and got a new set of downs. On the next play Ben hit AB for a TD and a 28-10 lead. Great job turning 3 into 7.
*After scoring touchdowns on their four first possessions of the first half, the Steelers got the ball back on their own 20 with 1:56 left. They drove to the Indy 34 when the drive stalled. They faced a 4th-and-4 with one timeout and 41 seconds left. Ben opted to pooch punt and had the punt blocked.
*Last week I wrote, “The kick return game continues to be a disaster as the Steelers never seem to get the ball out even to the 20-yard line.” This week, after a vote of confidence from special teams coach Danny Smith, the Steelers demoted Dri Archer and put LeGarrette Blount back alone to return kicks. Different body-type, same result. Blount returned one kick for 15 yards, setting the offense up at the 13.
*The offensive game plan was excellent. Credit whomever you like—Mike Tomlin, Todd Haley, Ben Roethlisberger. Everything the Steelers called worked. This is what has been expected from the Steelers offense all season. It is a tremendously talented group that just hadn’t been able to put it all together for 60 minutes. They did Sunday and the results speak for themselves.
*Even though the defense gave up 34 points, I really liked the aggressive gameplan Mike Tomlin and Dick LeBeau implemented. The Steelers brought pressure early and often and pounded Andrew Luck. Penalties and lapses in the secondary were costly, but despite giving up 34 points the Steelers defense seems to be taking small steps forward the past two weeks.
*When asked about the 4th-and-1 pass to Heath Miller for the game-clinching touchdown Mike Tomlin said, “I’m not kicking the field goal right there and go up 13 (points and) have these guys put two late touchdowns on the board. We were not taking our foot off the gas.” It was a courageous call and it worked.
*As mentioned earlier, the Roethlisberger pooch punt at the end of the half was a poor decision where the coaching staff got too cute. Not going for a 51-yard FG into the open end is defensible (although I would have kicked it), but then either go for it, the best decision according to win probability, or use Brad Wing to pooch it. Ben has successfully punted before. He may have telegraphed this one a little early, but it was still a poor decision.
*Ten penalties for 53 yards reverses a trend that had been getting better.
*With both Ryan Shazier and Sean Spence available it was curious that the Steelers used Vince Williams in the nickel defense. The Colts repeatedly had their wideouts run short crosses and make the Steelers linebackers run with them. They couldn’t.
Big Officiating Calls
*Lots of penalty calls in this one, but nothing game-altering.
The Steelers will take on the (5-3) Baltimore Ravens, November 2 at Heinz Field. Kick-off is scheduled for 8:30 EST and will be nationally televised on Football Night in America on NBC.
Reminder: You can hear me on the pregame show on WDVE & 970 ESPN before every Steelers game and on weekdays on 970 ESPN from 3-6 pm. You can follow me on twitter @DavidMTodd.