The 3-7 Pittsburgh Steelers are coming off another loss, a crucial one within the division that did have some encouraging sites, including their highest notch on the scoreboard of the 2022 season, and will hopefully be able to carry some of these things of these things over to the week 12 matchup against the Indianapolis Colts (4-6-1) Monday night.
Let’s get into the matchup, starting with the quarterbacks. Here are the passing leaders through week 11:
Here we can see Colts quarterback Matt Ryan lands comfortably above the mean in both with 357 pass attempts and 2,443 yards, which each rank ninth of the 39 qualifying quarterbacks, despite being benched for two games in weeks eight and nine. Prior to this, he had as many touchdowns as interceptions (nine), but has no interceptions in the two games since his return along with a touchdown. This gives him a +1 TD-INT ratio on the season, and it will be interesting to see what this looks like against Pittsburgh’s defense that can hopefully capitalize against an offense that ties for the most turnovers to date, also tying for the third most interceptions and most fumbles (Ryan with a whopping 11, second most).
Pittsburgh quarterback Kenny Pickett is coming off an improved yet inconsistent performance and has also not turned the football over in the last two games, along with a touchdown last week. He now has 237 attempts and 1426 yards, with an improved but still league low TD-INT ratio (three touchdowns, eight interceptions). Pickett is tied for the fourth most interceptions through week 11, and whoever can come out on top of the turnover battle likely coming out the victor in my opinion.
Next, I wanted to examine Ryan’s reputation from many of getting the ball out in the short pass game, and see how NFL quarterbacks’ number of completions compared to their air yards to the sticks (AYTS):
Ryan jumps out on the top left of the chart with the least AYTS, with the only average at more than three yards short of the sticks (-3.03). His top ten passing yards rank took the fifth most completions on a stellar 69.19 completion percentage (fourth), really adding context and validity to the earlier point in comparison to the league. It has felt this way with Pickett at times watching and charting his passes this season, but the visual highlights his -1.49 AYTS being more than a yard and a half closer to the chains on average. He now has 239 completions on a 65.4 rate that sliding down the ranks to 16th, highlighting him throwing the ball with a bit more depth as of late but lacking success.
Speaking of which, here is a visual of completed and intended air yards for quarterbacks with 200 attempts to further illustrate this point:
At the bottom of this group is Ryan, with a noticeable drop off when looking at his 6.19 intended air yards, and has a 5.07 completed air yards number, maximizing these shorter passes with the second ranked air yard differential. In comparison, Pickett is 17th intended air yards (7.6) of the higher volume quarterbacks, and a 5.09 completed air yards number that ranks 18th. The quality of connection is clearly stronger for Ryan, and here’s to hoping Pickett’s play can gain more consistency as the offense will seemingly continue to open things up more in the pass game as they have the past couple of weeks.
Now for the running backs starting with rushing leaders through week 11:
Indianapolis presents a stiff challenge at the position with running back Jonathan Taylor, who is comfortably above the mean with 151 attempts (tenth) and 693 yards (11th) of the 48 qualifying players. We see Steelers running back Najee Harris follows just behind in attempts (148), but the clear difference in yards (550) which is over 100 less than Taylor and ranks 19th. Harris is encouragingly coming off a couple stronger outings on the ground, aiding a positive trend for the Steelers offense and landing above the mean in yardage for the first time this season. Each running back has three rushing touchdowns on the year, and hopefully Pittsburgh can win this facet following Harris’ two score performance last week.
Harris leads the outlook comfortably in the receiving game with 35 targets, along with 28 receptions for 138 yards (4.9 yards per reception) and the only back to reach the end zone through the air (twice). This is less of Taylor’s game, having 26 targets along with 21 receptions and 97 yards (4.6 yards per reception) and no touchdowns.
Colts running back Deon Jackson is next in the outlook in opportunities, with 42 rush attempts for 130 yards (3.1 average) and a touchdown, along with 21 targets and catching 20 of them for 124 yards and a quality 6.2 yards per reception. Steelers running back Jaylen Warren has unfortunately been ruled out for the game, too bad with how well he’s been playing with an outlook high five average rush yards and 8.6 yards per reception. So, more of Harris and will be interesting to see who else might get an opportunity, perhaps from Benny Snell who got his first offensive snaps last week upon Warren’s exit, and/or a possible Anthony McFarland sighting as our own Alex Kozora suggested.
Next, I wanted to gain more context to the lead backs yardage with Next Gen’s rushing yards over expected (RYOE) and average rush yards:
Taylor is above average in both again, with his stronger rank of 12th in RYOE (90.63) and a healthy 4.6 average rush yards that ranks 18th. Harris is on the bottom left still, highlighting the vast difference in production on the season, with 3.7 average rush yards that ranks 35th, and still has the league’s worst RYOE of -77.49, but similarly to Pickett’s TD-INT ratio, is nearing the rest of the pack the last two weeks.
Last thing for the position, here are the top backs in Next Gen’s efficiency metric, which measures north-south runners, and here are the most efficient to date:
Taylor has an impressive fourth rank in this regard, doing a great job of making decisive decisions and getting up field as a runner. Pittsburgh’s defense will surely have their hands full against the run but have fared pretty well against rushing attacks overall which will undoubtably need to continue this week. Harris is on the other end of the spectrum on average this season as the seventh least efficient, but has really improved in this manner the past couple games in route to his two highest yardage outputs on the year. Here’s to hoping Harris can fuel the engine of an improving young offense to get back in the win column this week.
Let’s move to the wide receivers, starting with receiving stat leaders through week 11:
Colts wide receiver Michael Pittman is having a good season with a comfortable lead in the outlook, by far Indianapolis’ primary receiver with 92 targets (fifth) and 678 yards which ranks 13th out of the 86 players on the chart. His lower yardage rank highlights the shorter pass game on average, and Pittsburgh’s defense better be ready to tackle the catch against Pittman and company. His single touchdown came all the way back in week one against the Texans, and hopefully Pittsburgh can keep this drought going in the matchup. Pittman has primarily played out wide this season (73.7%) and plays a good deal in the slot as well, including a season high 43.2% last week that I could see the Colts wanting to employ against the Steelers, particularly if cornerback Arthur Maulet continues to get matched up in coverage situations against the big bodied receiver.
Steelers wide receiver Diontae Johnson now has 86 targets (eighth) for 456 yards which ranks 43rd and is the lowest total of players with at least 70 targets. He is nearing the rest of the pack compared to the results earlier in the season, another element of the offenses positive trend that hopefully continues, but can’t believe he still does not have a touchdown in 2022. Here’s to hoping, but this may be a tall task against a strong corner in Colts Stephon Gilmore, and it will be interesting to see if this is the primary matchup. Here’s to hoping Pittsburgh tries something different, including moving Johnson around the formation more to hopefully free him up (89.2% out wide this season).
Indianapolis wide receiver Parris Campbell is third in the outlook with 60 targets, along with 440 yards and an outlook high three touchdowns. He has primarily played in the slot (78.9%) and will definitely be a challenge for Pittsburgh’s secondary considering the other weapons they’ll likely be eyeing to shut down. Steelers wide receiver George Pickens follows with the fourth rank in the outlook in targets (53) and 453 yards, which amazingly is only three less than Johnson. Pickens has aligned out wide 87.9% and has two touchdowns on the season, adding to his total last week getting wide open and benefitting from space created with three receivers to his side, something I hope continues moving forward along with including Johnson to that side as a hopeful solution to the earlier point. Colts rookie wide receiver Alec Pierce is the final qualifying player in the outlook, and has 50 targets along with 424 yards and a touchdown, which was a big one as he stacked the corner on a go ball with physicality to reel in the explosive 32-yard game winner.
Next, I wanted to look at and provide more context with percent of teams air yards and catch percentages for the position:
Johnson leads the outlook in TAY, comfortably above the mean and ranking 19th in the NFL. His catch percentage and lack of connection with Pickett has been the bugaboo, well below average compared to his peers and fourth in this regard in the outlook. Pittman, Pickens, and Pierce align closely in TAY, highlighting the earlier point on Pittman’s shorter distance of target with high volume, and the latter two being targeted more downfield in their fewer opportunities overall. So, four players in the outlook rank above the mean in TAY all with top 40 ranks. The Colts have the clear edge in catch rates, with Campbell having the top rank in the outlook at 73.3% which ties for 14th in the NFL. Pittman follows closely with a 72.8% rate for the 18th rank in the league, a very impressive element of their top two wide receivers. In comparison, Pickens and Johnson are each below the mean, the former at 62.3%. Pierce has an outlook low 56% catch rate including the second least separation in the NFL to date, and hopefully this holds true with Pittsburgh providing tight coverage and limiting the big play at the catch point.
Here are the separation numbers for the outlook and the NFL for more context, along with yards after catch:
Campbell is the leader and only above the mean player in both aspects in the matchup, with the only above average separation result through week 11 that ranks 19th league wide, and has maximized after the catch (20th) at 5.56 yards. Johnson is second in the outlook in separation, but the Steelers well documented yards after catch numbers are still below their opponents each and every week. While improving from last week, Johnson has the third least YAC in the league, while Pickens is sixth least and really hope to see continued route development and targets for him, and hopefully seeing this applied more to Johnson moving forward in his confusing usage this season.
Now let’s look at the tight ends, beginning with the receiving stats leaders:
Here we can see Steelers tight end Pat Freiermuth is by far the most targeted with 67 which ranks sixth in the NFL along with a team lead 482 yards which is fifth out of 28 qualifying players at the position. Here’s to hoping he can have another strong game following his 12-target outing that hopefully includes a touchdown, a feat he and Pickett have yet to accomplish with his lone score of the season coming way back in week two. Colts tight end Kylen Granson leads the team with 32 targets and 249 yards but is questionable for the contest with an illness. It will be very interesting to see if he is able to go, with the other options at the position including Mo Alie-Cox (18 targets, 163 yards, and two touchdowns) and rookie Jelani Woods (11 targets, 79 yards, and three touchdowns), and the defense better watch out for them in the red zone though they each have explosive plays to their name as well.
Next, I wanted to provide a similar view to the wide receivers in TAY and catch percentage:
Freiermuth ranks sixth in the NFL in TAY amongst tight ends, but the consistency with Pickett is a big factor I’m hoping will improve, with a 65.7% catch rate to date that ranks 23rd. This number typically is lower with more usage obviously, but would be great to see him get above the treadline (diagonal line) hopefully starting this week. Granson lands on the top left, highlighting his lower opportunities (second least TAY) but maximizing them with a very strong 78.1% catch rate that ranks sixth in the NFL. Alie-Cox fares well in this regard as well, so tackling the catch arises from the data again as a key component for Pittsburgh’s defense in the matchup.
Let’s see how the primary tight ends in the matchup have fared with separation and YAC:
This is where Granson could provide an edge if he is able to go for Indianapolis, with the sixth rank in separation at the position contributing to his strong catch rate and near the mean five-yard YAC average. Freiermuth lands below the mean in both, with the fifth least separation and 3.93 YAC that ranks 20th, but actually leads best the primary wide receivers comfortably, highlighting the team struggles in this regard. Freiermuth has provided tough churning YAC plays, and hopefully we see more of that along with his increased slot usage providing increased results moving forward.
The offensive lines are always key to any matchup, and let’s see how the two teams have fared thus far with PFF grades:
Left guard Quenton Nelson is one of the best at his position, and has a stronger 74.5 pass block grade along with his 67.1 run block grade to date. Right tackle Braden Smith also lands above the mean with an outlook high 76 pass block grade but a lower 65.2 as a run blocker. It will be interesting to see how he fares against Steelers edge rusher T.J. Watt, considering the Colts have allowed the most sacks on their quarterbacks to date. Insert Alex Highsmith, who I’m really hoping can have a strong game against left tackle Bernhard Raimann, who does have an outlook high 73 grade as a run blocker but below the mean 56.8 pass block grade in a seemingly up and down rookie year. Center Ryan Kelly is above the mean as a pass blocker (62.9) and below average 58.8 as a run blocker. Right guard Matt Pryor has really struggled in his time this season in both regards, with a 48.8 as a run blocker (outlook low) along with a poor 38.1 pass block grade. Expecting to see Pittsburgh defensive lineman Cameron Heyward and perhaps Larry Ogunjobi create some havoc, especially the latter with the double teams the former often gets. Will Fries and Danny Pinter have gotten a fair amount of opportunity due to injury, with the former having an above outlook average as a run blocker (62.3), but each faring poorly as run blockers with 40 or below grades. Really need Pittsburgh’s d-line to win the matchup in hopes of victory.
Steelers guard James Daniels leads the team in both data points with a 75.4 pass block grade along with a 67 grade as a run blocker. Kevin Dotson is fourth in the outlook as a pass blocker (72.4) but has struggled more as a run blocker (64.4) though he is still above the mean in both. Center Mason Cole also fits this bill, with no injury designation after exiting last game due to injury. He has a 65.1 run block grade along with a pass block grade of 64. Tackles Chukwuma Okorafor (63 pass, 57.8 run block grades) and Dan Moore (64.7 pass, 57.2 run block grades) have trended toward each other as of late. They both struggled last game, particularly the latter as a pass blocker, which I will have my eye in in hopes of improvement for him and thus keeping Pickett cleaner as the pass game looks to keep their positive trend going. Indianapolis has a quality defense; a key factor will be how their injury report pans out. Three excellent defensive linemen are all questionable for the contest, including edge rushers Kwity Paye and Yannick Ngakoue, and defensive tackle DeForest Buckner, with the latter able to practice fully on Saturday but still carries the designation.
Perfect time to transition to the defenses, and today I wanted to provide expected points added (EPA) on that side of the ball in the run and pass game:
We can see here that the Colts are an above the mean defensive team in both regards this season, particularly good against the run with the fourth best mark in the NFL. The injuries will obviously be crucial to monitor, but could make for a troublesome day for Pittsburgh’s rushing attack, putting more on Pickett’s shoulders which has not gone well this season. Big key to the game. Indianapolis also has an above the mean pass defense that ranks 10th through week 11, and can’t wait to see how Pittsburgh fares against the challenge. In comparison, the Steelers defense have refreshingly fared better this season against the run, ranking 15th in the NFL. There always seems to be another side of the coin with this team though, ranking a painful 29th against the pass, and hopefully we see a positive trend starting Monday night coming of a tough outing allowing 37 points mostly through the air.
Let’s look at the defenses from a player stats perspective to close, starting with Pittsburgh. Linebacker Myles Jack still leads the team comfortably with 81 combined tackles, along with two for a loss, one quarterback hit, and three passes defensed. Fellow linebacker Devin Bush is second on the team with 54 combined tackles, along with one for a loss, one quarterback hit, and a pass defensed. Edge rusher Alex Highsmith now has nine sacks, and really hoping he can hit the double-digit mark with his needed impact in the matchup. He pairs this with an also team leading 13 quarterback hits, eight tackles for loss, three forced fumbles, along with 37 combined tackles and a pass defensed. Safety Minkah ties for the team lead in interceptions with three with one going for a touchdown, along with seven passes defensed, 48 combined tackles, and a quarterback hit. Cornerback Levi Wallace is now encouragingly tied with Fitzpatrick in Interceptions, along with a team leading nine passes defensed, and 25 combined tackles.
Colts linebacker Zaire Franklin leads the team in tackles with a whopping 110 combined, eight for a loss, along with four quarterback hits, three passes defensed, a forced fumble, and a sack. Fellow linebacker Bobby Okereke has the second rank for the team and outlook with 95 combined tackles, along with four for a loss, four passes defensed, two fumble recoveries, and one forced fumble. What a challenge they present. The questionable defensive lineman mentioned earlier are top three on the team in sacks, starting with Ngakoue (6.5), along with 12 quarterback hits, 21 combined tackles, four tackles for loss, and a forced fumble. Buckner has 5.5 sacks, a team leading 14 quarterback hits, along with 48 combined tackles, five for loss, two passes defensed, a forced fumble, and a fumble recovery. Paye has four sacks, 48 combined tackles, six for a loss, and six quarterback hits. Cornerback Stephon Gilmore leads the team with six passes defensed, along with 39 combined tackles, one interception, and will be interesting to see if Pittsburgh avoids him with his shutdown coverage ability. Defensive lineman Grover Stewart ties for the team lead in tackles for loss with eight, along with 53 combined tackles, four quarterback hits, three sacks, two passes defensed, and a fumble recovery. He also ranks sixth in ESPN’s run stop win rates at the position, one of many challenges the Steelers offense will be looking to overcome.
How do you think the game will play out on Monday night? Thanks for reading and let me know your thoughts in the comments!