After a bye week that spanned across all eternity for a football starving Steelers Nation, meat is back on the menu as Pittsburgh faces the reeling Indianapolis Colts.
They’re back…they’re back in the saddle again!
The Colts are missing their franchise quarterback in Andrew Luck and are limping and bruised, but they are also coming off of an impressive backs-against-the-wall victory where they beat the Houston Texans by a score of 20-14.
This was a game where QB Jacoby Brissett threw for over three hundred yards and had two touchdowns. He comes into this game with the exact completion percentage as QB Ben Roethlisberger at 61.1.
Still, the road team Steelers are favored by double digits leading into this game. Will a well rested Pittsburgh experience yet another major disappointment against an underdog, or are they going to shoot a shot across the bow of every other AFC contender?
Let’s Spin it to find out.
Who Are You?
Halfway through the season, the Steelers have a winning record, but they still don’t have an identity. What is this team, really? A Super Bowl bound team lead by an unstoppable offense? No evidence of that yet. Are they a defensive minded team that can shut down opponents? The 482 yards they surrendered to the Detroit Lions a couple of weeks back would debunk that theory. So who are you, Steelers? This game against the Colts might just provide the answer.
In Defense Of The Defense
Speaking of those Lions and the 423 yards of passing pain that QB Matthew Stafford inflicted upon them; has the formula and film for beating the Steelers defense been published in that performance? Yes…and no. Yes, in that the Steelers secondary got ripped apart at the seams. No, in that it took some of the most beautiful passing you’ll ever see to do so. There are only three or four quarterbacks in the league with a strong enough arm to hit those sideline seams like Stafford did against the Steelers. Stafford may be the only one of those who can consistently throw it accurately. The defense definitely needs to lick its wounds from their poor showing against the pass, but I wouldn’t panic yet. They won’t see Stafford again.
One way or the other, Steelers fans are going to see a lot more of RB James Conner this season. Either the coaches are going to pay him now, with some significant carries, or they are going to pay him later with all of the carries. I think it’s safe to say the Steelers got the deposit paid for in full by RB Le’Veon Bell in the first half of the season. They might want to be more careful about their investment for the remainder of the year or we’ll be asking a familiar question in the playoffs, “Would we have won if Le’Veon was healthy?”
The Number Two Receiver
Now that the JFK papers have been released, we’ve got to find another fresh conspiracy to sink our teeth into. Has anyone else noticed the Steelers have lost their “Number Two” receiver? No…it’s not Martavis Bryant. It’s the man who wanted to be paid as a number one running back AND a number two receiver. Do you think the front office shut down Bell’s play calls as receiver to strengthen their hand at the end of year?
Last year Bell was averaging 51.3 yards a game receiving and this year his tally is only 27.4 yards a game. And how many times have you seen him line up wide, one on one with a linebacker like you did all of the time last year? Yeah, not that often. You might say that it’s because they decided it would improve his running game to focus on carrying the rock. But compared to last year he is running a full one yard per carry less (3.9 in 2017 as compared to 4.9 in 2016).
They may be running Bell hard this year, but they haven’t been maximizing his capabilities. Why? Only the shadow knows.
Remember last winter when everyone in the Steelers organization was dismissing the notion that the Steelers needed to tool up specifically to be more competitive against the New England Patriots? They would tell us little people, “We don’t plan our future around beating any single team” or some variation of that theme. Really? Well…guess what? The front office better have been lying.
In fact, the coaching staff should be using every remaining game and practice (at least in part) leading up to the showdown with the Patriots…to be prepared to actually beat New England. The dreaded Patriots are 6-2 with a four game win streak, and they are perfect on the road. They are leading the NFL in both overall and passing offense.
Think they are overly doubtful regarding their chances of coming to Heinz Field on December 17 and leaving with a win, and home field advantage throughout the playoffs? The AFC North race is over. The Baltimore Ravens are closest to the Steelers in the division and are three losses behind.
There are only two true foes left for the Steelers, themselves and the Patriots. The Steelers defense is much improved, but there is no way they are going to shut QB Tom Brady down. If the Steelers are going to be top dog in the AFC, the offense needs to reach its potential, and that improvement is entirely on the shoulders of Roethlisberger and Bryant.
The Better Half
Can the Steelers do it? The Spin says most definitely yes. After going 6-2 in the regular season thus far and 3-1 in the preseason, the Steelers have a true taste for victory. They know how to win, and they are in a great position to experience that feeling for the rest of the year.
The fact they’ve been successful with neither Roethlisberger or Bryant at the peak of their games is actually encouraging. You add to the equation they have been playing without one of the best right tackles in the game in OT Marcus Gilbert and it’s downright exciting to think of how powerful this offense can still be.
On the defensive side, getting DE Stephon Tuitt back in the mix is a significant upgrade. It’s been years since this team has had as much positive momentum leading out of a bye week.
Coach Of The Year
And halfway through the season, it’s clearly time to give Coach Mike Tomlin early props for how far along his team is this year. You may never have confidence with him holding a red challenge hankie in his hand, or staring up at the clock with less than two minutes left, but his many other significant skills are fully rising to the surface this year.
If he can keep this team on track (beginning with this game against the Colts) he might be on the pathway to his best coaching season yet.
You Can’t Always Get What You Want
In honor of the Veterans Day weekend, LT Alejandro Villanueva will be passing out US Army decals to his teammates. He has a variety of them that he will hand to the players, each based on their personality. How cool is that?
Villanueva received (from his perspective) unwanted global attention during the national anthem controversy when he chose to stand, and as it turned out, alone. He thought other teammates would be with him and he didn’t appreciate being a Poster Boy for anything political in nature. He just wanted to honor the flag.
However; when you look back at what he accomplished, it was amazing. Not only did he stand up for his fellow soldiers, but he managed to simultaneously stand up for his fellow players and his coaches with his comments following the game. We can all learn something from the young man. He rose above it all.
This is the same guy who signed a modest long term contract this summer with the Steelers because he didn’t feel like he needed to “break the bank”. He may not want to be a symbol of anything, but you can’t always get what you want. Whether he likes it or not, he represents true character on this team.
Remember when every NFL team was only looking for big receivers in the draft saying they were the wave of the future? The Steelers and Colts matchup will feature two players who provide substantial counter evidence to that theory.
Leading the league in receiving yards by a good margin is the diminutive Antonio Brown. Number two on the list? That’s T.Y. Hilton of the Colts who considering the team he is on has no business even being in the top ten. Hilton’s injury status may slow him down, or even make him a late scratch, but if he plays, you’ll see the closest twin to Brown in the league.
Regardless, it won’t be enough. The Steelers will turn this one into a statement game and Bryant will be the receiver everyone is talking about after the match. And this time…for all of the right reasons.