Steelers vs. Colts: 8 Things Steelers Fans Should Watch for in Week 3

Joshua Hayes@@JayPHayes1982Correspondent IISeptember 25, 2011

Steelers vs. Colts: 8 Things Steelers Fans Should Watch for in Week 3

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    No Peyton Manning, no problem for the Pittsburgh Steelers!  Right?

    In a series that Pittsburgh has dominated, the Steelers return to action against the Indianapolis Colts

    This Sunday's game marks the first trip to Lucas Oil Field for the Steelers, and Mike Tomlin's crew will hope to deliver a better result than the franchise's previous first game at an Indianapolis venue.  In that 1984 affair at the Hoosier Dome, the Steelers blew a 13-0 fourth quarter lead and lost 17-16.

    Much has changed in over 25 years.  Heck, so much has changed for the Colts in the last six weeks!

    The two teams have split their previous two contests, including an epic 21-18 Steelers upset over Indianapolis (2006) and a Peyton Manning touchdown pass in 2008 to complete a 24-20 comeback victory at Heinz Field.

    Unlike those two games, the Steelers defense will not have the stress of playing against the All Pro Manning, whose surgical issues threaten to compromise his season or career. 

    Yet, for the lucky horseshoe on their helmets and despite this recent misfortune, veteran Kerry Collins gets the start versus a defense against which he has been successful.

    Many prognosticators predict a blowout on Sunday Night Football.  Still, there are reasons to indicate the contest could be closer than expected.

    The Steelers offense has not found cohesion, the defense has not forced a turnover and the running game has been unable to take the pressure off of Ben Roethlisberger— who has been harassed and nearly injured so far this season.

    Despite some of their recent deficiencies, the Steelers appear to be clear favorites.... at least on paper.

    Considering the matchups, the Men of Steel should be able to secure a comfortable road win in Indiana.  Whether or not the competitive phase of this game is over by the final quarter will largely depend on Pittsburgh's own play; if the team can continue to get better and play at their optimum level, few would debate a commanding night for the Black and Gold.

    In pursuit of this outcome, here are eight things for Steelers fans to keep an eye on this Sunday Night, a list of items that should determine whether the team makes this game upsetting for the Colts...or just an upset period.

Kerry Collins vs. the Steelers Defense

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    While he has struggled in two games and is well past his prime, don't be fooled by the figurative liver spots the media has placed on the portfolio of quarterback Kerry Collins.  If the Steelers have any shot of getting upset on Sunday, the veteran Collins will be the reason.

    And, if history is any indication, he can be the reason!  Against the Steelers defensive scheme, he has been methodical, careful and dare it be said.....  productive?

    Criticisms in this early season of Collins are his slow release.  Can Pittsburgh finally overwhelm him with a fierce pass rush? 

    Last year, the Steelers decimated the Tennessee Titans, harassing quarterback Vince Young and forcing a barrage of turnovers that should have blown the game wide open.

    Trailing 19-3, Titans coach Jeff Fisher benched the struggling Young and replaced him with Kerry Collins.  An awful performance was not the lone reason for the Tennessee coach's decisions.  Another factor was Collins' experience against the Steelers' defense.

    After an interception of the veteran, Collins finished 17 of 25 for 149 yards and a touchdown, along with a two-point conversion that made the contest competitive in the final seconds.

    Was it late in the game against a relaxed defensive unit looking to wind down the clock?  Sure. 

    Yet, this was not the first time Collins picked apart a Pittsburgh defense.  In fact, more often than not, the former Penn State Nittany Lion has looked like the pride of the quarterbacking pack against the Men of Steel.

    After an 18-14 Carolina Panthers win in his first game against Pittsburgh, Collins had his finest day against the 'Burgh, hammering the Steelers into submission at Giants Stadium.  Kerry was 24 for 35 with two touchdowns and no interceptions.  He followed up with the Titans, defeating the eventual Super Bowl Champions in 2008 with a 20 for 29 performance —once again avoiding key turnovers.

    Simply, Kerry Collins has been incredibly effective in games against the Steelers.

    In two losses by Tennessee during games which Collins has made an appearance, the quarterback has been serviceable.  In fact, viewing the Indianapolis offense as a helpless unit would be foolhardy.  A lot of talent is still taking the field.

    While the man dubbed "Graybeard" has captained a struggling Colts offense on the scoreboard, the unit has moved the ball.  The Indianapolis offense approached 300 yards last weekend, and Collins has made plays with Reggie Wayne and the Colts receiving talent.

    The issue?  Finishing.  Also, Collins has struggled to complete half of his passes, showcasing a timing issue between the field general and his troops. 

    Collins, playing with a team with which he has had little time to completely gel, will look to continue his smart and savvy play against Pittsburgh.  The Steelers must look to get pressure and stop the run, forcing Kerry to put the ball in the air. 

    Can Pittsburgh can finally drop the Steel Curtain over Collins?  After all, this will help to disrupt the timing of an already inconsistent Colts aerial attack.

Don't Overlook Colts' Talent at Offensive Skill Positions.....Especially Dallas!

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    Fans are wise to be cautiously concerned about the prospects of Pierre Garcon, Reggie Wayne and the Colts' offensive gallery against Pittsburgh's secondary.

    Most fans expect Indy to utilize a spread offense, while others expect an attempt at more balance— after all, who doesn't want to try a page from the Ravens' Week 1 offensive shellacking?

    The biggest issue for Indianapolis should they look to take a page out of Baltimore's successful strategy—is that the Ravens ran the ball well against the Steelers, opening up intermediate routes underneath the coverage.

    The Colts have failed to establish the run in the first two weeks, threatening to render the team one-dimensional. 

    In other words, for all of the best laid plans, expect Indianapolis to be forced into a pure spread offense before halftime —if it is not their first option at the very start. 

    For every Steelers fan (I personally estimate 95 percnt) who is critical of William Gay and other members of the secondary, Indianapolis's receiving talent will still cause some uneasiness.

    Despite Manning's injury and a rough start offensively, the Colts do have the talent to execute plays against the Steelers, whose defense must play with discipline despite a natural desire to be aggressive against the elder statesman Collins.

    The secondary will have key matchups across the field, and the unit must play well—better than it has all season— to ensure a Pittsburgh win. 

    The Colts absolutely must have big plays from their receivers to stay in the football game.  Great play by the Steelers defensive backs could take away any chance of an Indy upset.

    Atop all of these concerns, there is one player (if healthy) that the Steelers absolutely must contain to have success:


    The health of Dallas Clark comes with some interesting questions for the Indianapolis offense that goes up against a defensive unit that many teams have attacked with intermediate passing, especially through backs and tight ends.

    If Clark is healthy, fans can expect the Indianapolis offense to borrow a page from the playbook of Baltimore.  Additionally, Clark may be the Colts' most productive weapon, and his presence in the middle of the field—along with his receiver-like attributes— allow him to take over games in which defenses aren't properly prepared to contain him.

    If Dallas is a scratch, there is no denying—and call me Captain Obvious— that this will handicap the Colts' offense.

    Additionally, Joseph Addai has the ability to catch passes, creating a duel threat that the Steelers must address.  Thankfully, Addai's yards per reception have dropped dramatically in recent seasons, approximately two yards less than during his peak in 2007 of nearly nine yards per reception.

    If the Steelers can stop the run (as expected), this will force Collins into becoming the Colts focal point on offense.  Sound play in the secondary and improved pressure is a must! 

    Unlike Tavaris Jackson, who the unit worked to contain and keep in the pocket, Collins is no threat outside. 

    When Pittsburgh has a lead, Dick LeBeau already knows to bring the heat, but the defense's looks have rarely confused Collins to-date.  It is up to the talent in the defensive backfield to prevent Indianapolis skill players from making any backbreaking plays, bumping receivers off of routes and sealing off Collins' secondary reads.

Who Will Get the 1st Turnover?

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    After two games, the Steelers defense has yet to force a turnover.

    No fumbles recovered.

    No interceptions.

    In fact, there hasn't even been one football stripped from the arms of an opponent.

    For a defense that prides itself on forcing opponents to make mistakes, opposing offenses have certainly been unwilling to oblige. 

    Chances have been there, but the team has yet to seize the opportunity.  Last week, Troy Polamalu allowed a seemingly easy interception touchdown to fall to the grass.

    This week, the Steelers play a quarterback who has historically protected the ball well against them. 

    Can the defense force a fumble or create a key turnover?  When, oh when, will this drought end?

    No matter the answer.... with execution will come rewards.  After all, Dick Lebeau said it. 

    Nevertheless, this story has remained quiet.  As times goes by without a defensive steal, the noise will get louder.  The unit can avoid an overblown story by forcing the Colts offense into mistakes.

    I think I speak for all of Steelers Country, without overreacting, when I say, "Take the damn ball!"

The Running Game Must Improve This Weekend

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    Let's be honest.  If the offensive line can't create better running lanes against Indianapolis, there is reason for great concern.

    Against running backs Peyton Hillis and Ben Tate, the Colts' defense have averaged giving up over 100 rushing yards.  Their defensive front has been known for its struggles on run defense, their biggest threat up front being the pass rushing skills of defensive ends Robert Mathis and Dwight Freeney.

    The offensive line has to understand the need for improvement in the running game, especially after their lack of success late in the fourth quarter against Seattle.  The Colts are typically the perfect tonic for these woes, an opportunity for confidence in a group that needs it.

    Isaac Redman has been nothing short of stellar, producing the highlight play of the afternoon against the Seahawks.  Rashard Mendenhall has made lemons into lemonade, using his agility to make yardage in scenarios where forward progress seemed hopeless.

    If the Steelers can run effectively, it will allow offensive balance and assist in the effort to contain Indianapolis' all-pro defensive ends.

    Likewise, the run will set up play-action passing against a secondary that has played poorly. 

    For a congested running game, few prescriptions are more effective than a dose of the Colts defensive front. 

    For Pittsburgh, improvement in this area on Sunday Night is the doctor's order.

Freeney and Mathis vs. the Steelers Offensive Tackles

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    Eat your Wheaties, Marcus.  Sunday Night will be the toughest assignment of your life.

    The Colts main defensive weapons line up on both ends of the defensive line.  If a line is defined as the distance between two points, then the points on the Colts' defensive front should be defined as monsters.

    With Freeney spinning and whipping in defiance of air resistance and Mathis being nearly every bit the same threat, the tackles will need to play their smartest and finest games of the season.

    The real key to limiting the impact of Freeney and Mathis will be running the football, a strategy that Indianapolis has not stopped with any amount of consistency for years.  Any offensive balance will help by forcing the all-pro ends to honor the run.

    Almost as intriguing as the matchup between the tackles and ends will be the duel between Roethlisberger and the stud duo. 

    If and, realistically, when either gets into the backfield, they will come face to face with the one quarterback in football who is the most difficult in the game to tackle. 

    Watching Roethlisberger pull off his Houdini act will be even more gratifying against talents like Freeney and Mathis.  Still, why not avoid this if possible?

Can the Play Action Pass Extend Wallace's Streak?

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    So far in 2011, the Colts secondary has been scorched.  Matt Schaub completed 17 of 24 attempts, while Colts McCoy was incredibly efficient in a 22 of 32 passing effort.

    Cumulatively, the Colts have allowed 39 completions against 17 incomplete passes, a disconcerting rate of efficiency.  This has been catalyzed by the opposing running games, with Peyton Hillis and Ben Tate rushing for (or near) 100 yards.

    Sunday is a great opportunity for Pittsburgh to take the lead and shorten the game with improved run blocking and rushing (previous slide), which should set up offensive balance.

    So, how does this have anything to do with Wallace's streak? 

    While an effective running game would- in theory-negate chances for the passing game, it will open up opportunities downfield with play action passing.  If the Steelers can run the ball, the game will be nearly impossible for the Colts to win, considering their defensive ends relish the pass rush.

    For Ben Roethlisberger's passing game, the porous Indianapolis secondary and corners Powers and Lacey present a great opportunity for an effective night through the air...especially vertically.

    Who, most specifically, could this most benefit?  Receiver Mike Wallace.

    Mike Wallace enters Sunday's contest with a five game streak of more than 100 yards receiving.  In Wallace's case, with such a high yards per catch, one explosive play can have a huge role in extending the streak.

    Running the ball will set up play action, but even if the team struggles against a defensive front more accustomed to rushing the passer than stuffing the run, a lackluster secondary could make up the difference. 

    With fans paying particular attention to Wallace's streak, expect a big night from the Steelers' most explosive offensive weapon.  The speedster should see at a couple of deep attempts and a number of vertical routes.  If the running game is effective, the play action game should spring Wallace downfield, resulting in a YPC of over 20 yards.

The "Other" Receivers: Down the Depth Chart, Everyone Is Contributing

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    For the focus on Hines Ward and Mike Wallace, the likes of Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders have made huge impact plays in the first weeks of the season.

    Sanders caught the lone touchdown in Baltimore and made a fine run after the catch during the Steelers' first offensive possession against Seattle.

    Meanwhile, Brown had over 60 yards receiving last weekend and looks to continue his contributions following his preseason talent showcase.

    This week, Jericho Cotchery is healthy, and key catches against the Colts would be a welcome sight.  Cotchery is a very underrated member of the receiving corp, arguably making Pittsburgh's receivers the deepest such unit in the league.

    Cotchery is the essence of Steelers football, willing to make the hard catches- including over the middle of the field- and able to perform even in excruciating pain (see video).

    With so much talent all contributing, the Steelers offense will be incredibly difficult for the undermanned and overmatched Colts defense to stop.

Will Steelers Fans Take over Indianapolis in Prime Time?

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    The Indianapolis Colts fans are now accustomed to greatness.  In fact, who could blame them for taking it for granted? 

    Months ago, talks over Brett Favre's consecutive starts record being broken by Peyton Manning were not uncommon. 

    The team has reached double digit wins in every season for nearly a decade.

    And, when the game was on the line, the ball only needed to be in Manning's control for a real shot at victory.

    With the team suddenly 0-2 and Peyton Manning out of the lineup for extensive time, just how loyal are the "lifelong" Colts fans in Indianapolis?

    Apathy drives ticket holders to sell their seats to the highest bidder, disenchanted fans seeing the figurative "stock value" of their team dropping by the week. 

    Steelers fans travel better than any other band of loyal supporters in all of sports, ardent in their desire to show support both at Heinz Field and other NFL venues.

    Conditions are perfect for a mass influx of Terrible Towel waving at Lucas Oil Field on Sunday Night, with the Steelers playing a struggling team during prime time that is within reasonable proximity to Pennsylvania.

    If predictions are validated and the Steelers are dominating late in the game, will Black and Gold become the dominant colors at Lucas Oil Field?