The Pittsburgh Steelers continued their seesaw season, alternating wins and losses in each of the first seven games, with the most recent result emerging victorious. That would suggest a defeat, but then again so would the Indianapolis Colts and Andrew Luck, who commands arguably the best offense in the league right now.
That defense, of course, has had trouble keeping their opponents off the scoreboard and out of the end zone. They’ve only held two opponents to under 20 points thus far this season, and have given up 77 points at home in three games at Heinz Field.
It doesn’t help that the Steelers have been plagued by injury on the defensive side of the ball. Ike Taylor continues to be out, and the other cornerback who started the season opener, Cortez Allen, was demoted to nickel duty in favor of the 5’9” Brice McCain, who held his own. I would expect that that will continue for at least another week, but it’s not certain.
Even with Reggie Wayne out, the Steelers’ cornerbacks will have their hands full with Luck under center, especially as T.Y. Hilton continues to emerge.
But the Colts, more than any team in this league, love to utilize their running backs and tight ends in the passing game. Ahmad Bradshaw alone has six touchdown passes. 15 of Luck’s 19 touchdown passes have gone to the backs and tight ends.
And that means the Steelers’ safeties and inside linebackers must be on the top of their game in coverage. While it’s nice to get his blazing speed back on the field for that purpose, the return of Ryan Shazier may not help, as he has struggled to stay on assignment out in coverage.
For that and other reasons, I wouldn’t be surprised if his snaps are limited in his first game back. But his replacement, Sean Spence, hasn’t been very encouraging in his coverage assignments either, which could be a problem, and the other reserve option, Vince Williams, is primarily a run stopper.
The onus, I believe, will be on the veteran Lawrence Timmons, who has been spotty at times in coverage this year, but is still currently their best coverage linebacker. Perhaps a few exotic blitzes with linemen dropping in coverage to create confusion is also in order to combat the Colts’ use of backs and tight ends.
Of course, it’s not as though Indianapolis doesn’t run the ball, and with Steve McLendon still out, doing so will be more enticing. Expect the Steelers to once again try to stay in their nickel defense, which will encourage the Colts to run more.
That means snaps will likely be intentionally limited for Cam Thomas and Daniel McCullers unless the run defense is so poor that it requires a change in strategy, as was the case last week.
The bottom line is that this defense will have its hands full trying to contain Luck and the Colts. It will probably be up to the offense to make this a competitive contest.