Steelers vs. Colts: 10 Observations from the Nailbiter Sunday Night Win

Joshua HayesCorrespondent IISeptember 26, 2011

Steelers vs. Colts: 10 Observations from the Nailbiter Sunday Night Win

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    Last night, the Pittsburgh Steelers did everything they could do to lose a football game and won anyway. Sometimes, it’s best to simply be thankful for a victory. I’m sure the team was happy to do an Indianapolis bolt from Lucas Oil Field following a win over the Colts.

    The importance of winning was magnified. Falling to 1-2 with an upcoming road game in Houston was not advisable. In the end, the Steelers made like “Men of Steal,” taking a game they barely played well enough to earn.

    Let’s not be naïve, as with another outing like Sunday Night, the Steelers will fall to 2-2.

    The events that took place at Lucas Oil Field presented a gallery of observations—a few good, but mostly alarming—that the team must address in the near future.  

    On a night that can safely be dubbed as a great escape, here were 10 observations Steelers fans could take from the 23-20 nailbiter against the winless Colts.

Some Wins Just Feel Dirty

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    Let’s be honest: Wins make us happy.

    Last night, Steelers Country had reason to celebrate. Yet, fans of Pittsburgh are “football people,” able to evaluate player performance and decipher the quality of victory from each and every game.

    As the team’s current state of performance is concerned, the Sunday night affair in Indianapolis was a sour success story.

    The first—and most obvious—detractor from victory was the state of the competition. Let’s face it: Curtis Painter (key turnover) and Kerry Collins (13-of-29) are not Peyton Manning.

    The team blew an early lead. Worse, the Colts did little to influence the comeback as the Steelers own mistakes opened the door for a close football game. 

    The team fell to 0:10 in the turnover battle on the year before a late fumble recovery, and touchdown marked the first forced for by the Steelers defense all season.

    The running game was non-existent, and any positive impact from the play-action pass and seemingly invincible play by the offense was negated once the Colts no longer feared the rush.

    The defense gave the team the lead, but surrendered a late touchdown to allow a tie against the third string quarterback; this was the same quarterback who influenced Colts management to sign a retired 41-year-old veteran off the streets.

    Sean Suisham missed a field goal, Ben turned the ball over twice and the offense could not block either of Indianapolis’s dynamic duo at the defensive ends.

    The good news? 

    Not many teams can rack up that dirty laundry list and still win a football game!

The Offensive Line and Running Game Are Pathetic...and It's a Shame!

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    Earlier in the week, I previewed the upcoming game and mentioned the absolute need for the Steelers to run effectively against the Colts. Two reasons were cited:

    1)      It would open up play-action passing opportunities downfield.

    2)      If you can’t run on Indy, who can you run against?

    It is an absolute shame that the Steelers cannot get their rushing attack in order. Why?

    Two words: play action.

    In the first quarter, before Indianapolis had any notion that they would not be dominated in the trenches as per their typical effort, the Colts respect for the run opened up play action opportunities. Mike Wallace was the most obvious beneficiary of this illusion.

    As the game wore on, the Steelers made every effort to run the football. Sadly, the rushing attack was as poor as I can ever remember.

    Sadly, on a night where two pass-rushing ends dominated the evening, the Steelers running game could not take advantage of the typically lowly Indianapolis defensive line. Holes were few and far between, and most of the night saw both Isaac Redman and Rashard Mendenhall abruptly stopped for short gains.

    Freeney and Mathis are highly regarded tackles….for rushing the passer! Last night, every Colts lineman put in a virtuoso run-stuffing performance.

    Not only does a poor running attack limit downfield opportunities, but also it could prevent the Steelers from securing late leads later in the season.

    Unless this is resolved, expect a repeat of 2009, where teams rally late in games against our tired defense.

Freeney and Mathis Defeated Gilbert and Scott

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    The Steelers running game was not the only struggle by the offensive line. 

    With their lack of run blocking evident, any added focus by the Steelers’ offensive line on pass protection wasn’t evident either, attributable to both the quarterback and ineffective play by both tackles. 

    Jonathan Scott was injured late in the contest after being planted by the freaky Freeney, and the telecast conveniently showcased a statistic that the tackle has been the most penalized in football over the course of the last ten weeks of regular season play. Throughout the evening, Freeney had manhandled the tackle.

    Marcus Gilbert showed potential in flashes, but the Indy ends—like the rest of the defensive line—won individual battles and dominated all night.

    On one particular play, Gilbert forced Mathis around the passer. Unfortunately, Ben Roethlisberger stepped out of the pocket to his left and as he stepped up to pass, Mathis—who aggressively pursued the quarterback through the entire play—hit him from behind and jarred the football loose.

    Even Jamaal Anderson, a lesser known defensive end, scored a touchdown that completely shifted the contest's momentum. Last night, both animals, Freeney and Mathis, were uncaged and relentless—getting sacks, forcing fumbles, and turning heads. 

    The pressure was relentless, and it was obvious that Roethlisberger was hearing footsteps. In his paranoia in the second half, after having to evade the ends all night (not always successfully), the quarterback scrambled to the right sideline and glanced backwards to evaluate the pursuit.

    Distracted, Ben took a devastating hit, a blow that launched him out of bounds and to the ground violently. The look and feel of the collision were reminiscent of the tackle on Drew Bledsoe by Moe Lewis that ultimately ended his Patriots career. Drew suffered internal bleeding, a punctured lung and other ailments that sidelined him and endangered his life.

    Clearly, the end result was not nearly as devastating for Ben. The point is that both ends supplied so much pressure that their presence was felt even when they were not making plays. 

    And, if the line doesn't improve, Roethlisberger's 2011 shelf life could be limited.

Ike Taylor Could Be the Quiet Steelers MVP so Far in 2011

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    While other corners have been victimized this season, such as Bryant McFadden by Anquan Boldin early against the Ravens, Ike Taylor has been a steady and consistent force for the Steelers so far this season.

    One of his lone errors came last night, frozen by Pierre Garcon on a stop and go route. Luckily, no damage was done as Curtis Painter missed his wide open receiver.

    Other than that, the evening saw Ike being a consistent force in the Steelers secondary.

    Nothing new. Like always, quarterbacks have been avoiding the solid cover cornerback.

    Late in Sunday's contest, other Steelers defenders—Harrison and Polamalu—combined for a fumble and recovery for a late touchdown. Always the heroes, the play would go on to be huge.

    Yet, Taylor played well against Reggie Wayne, shutting down the elite receiver on various looks. Ike's man coverage skills have been clearly superior to all of his Black and Gold peers so far this season.

    Unless your name is Deion, success at the corner position is often demonstrated when the player's name is rarely announced.

    Willy Gay and McFadden have certainly had their names mentioned this year.

    On Ike Island, visitors tend to come back, but they certainly don't receive that package they were looking for—the football. Taylor has been playing incredibly well, and on a defensive unit that has been eerily quiet in September, Ike could very well be the best defender of 2011 to date.

And the "Doh" Moment of the Year Goes To....

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    EMMANUEL SANDERS.

    Situational football.

    It’s an understanding of the game that separates fans from enthusiasts, gurus from mere followers and Marshall Faulk from just about every other running back in the game.

    Okay, so that’s a stretch. So is ostracizing a young player for one foolish play. 

    Nonethless, the lapse in judgment demonstrated a clear lack of understand and a deficit in football I.Q.

    After a Roethlisberger interception at midfield late in the first half, Emmanuel Sanders leaped over the intercepting defender in a clear evasion attempt. Unlike other levels of the game, where a player in possession of the football is down once an eligible part of his body hits the ground, professional football requires contact from an opposing player. 

    So, was it the shortened offseason? Nah, the kid's not a rookie.

    Then, what was it? Why is it so often that some young players have college flashbacks in the middle of NFL games?

    By leaping and not touching Joe Lefeged, the receiver allowed a return. Had the Colts scored a touchdown on a short field as a result of the mental lapse, it could have easily cost Pittsburgh the game.

    Many things were not done well by the Steelers, but this was an obvious rookie mistake by a non-rookie.

    I guess situational football separates the Sanders and the Wards, too. 

    Actually, the young receiver made a simple mistake. He’s certainly not the first. Just ask “Spike.”

    (For those unaware, that’s Plaxico Burress.)

Notice of "The Fall of Troy" Was Very Premature

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    Ask Curtis Painter if Troy Polamalu has lost a step. 

    After having already demonstrated fantastic coverage of an end zone throw to Dallas Clark and broken up various play in the Indianapolis backfield, the safety saved his best moments for after “the smell of blood.”

    The cause of the smell was the young and inexperienced Curtis Painter’s entrance into the game. The safety met with linebacker James Harrison in the backfield, scoring the first defensive touchdown of the young Steelers season. Later, with Painter clearly unaware of cues he was providing before the snap, Polamalu timed a blitz perfectly—a series of unbelievably effective pressures by Troy. 

    The safety nearly caused another fumble before Painter could hand the ball off to Edgerrin James. As a matter of simple change, the exchange was barely made and Troy  focused on the wrong player. Just like the flip of a coin, the odds were 50/50. After having missed on another similar early arrival earlier in the game, chance is now entirely in the safety’s favor.

    Last week, Troy broke perfectly on a Tarvaris Jackson pass that he nearly intercepted for a touchdown. 

    By a matter of inches, Polamalu could have as many as four turnovers this season atop of his touchdown. More importantly, the illustrious defender is getting to the football, a solid sign for Steelers fans and evidence to the contrary for those doubting his greatness.

With a Healthy Manning the Colts Are Still a Double-Digit Winner

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    Taking a moment to look at the opponent, the Colts have been in range of victory for two consecutive weekends. Could you imagine the storyline if the team was 2-1 without Peyton?

    It's not that far-fetched. Seeing the missed routes last night by Collins and Painter, one is acutely aware of the extreme difference Manning makes to his team.

    Tom Brady may be the game's best quarterback, but no signal-caller or player is more important to his team than Peyton.

    The Indianapolis lineup has always featured sketchy defense. Likewise, it has showcased sublime offensive talent. 

    In 2011, little has changed in those regards. Sound familiar to the standard 11-5 season under Manning?  Sure does!

    Before the game began, Mike Tomlin established the team’s focus: the existing and active talent on the Colts roster.

    While many projected a blowout, Kerry Collins had always protected the ball against Pittsburgh. Sometimes he dominated the Steelers defense, and other times his careful play stagnated opposing offenses. Still, fans had to suspect a Colts loss would not be due to miscues by Collins.

    From Pierre Garcon (thanks for the drop!) to Dallas Clark, continuing through Reggie Wayne and Joseph Addai, the Colts offense is a who’s who of offensive capability.

    Against what appears to be a fine AFC opponent, Indianapolis held their ground, stepping up their game and nearly leapfrogging Pittsburgh in the standings after a comeback filled with heart.

    How many times did Reggie Wayne look up to the dome  roof, likely thinking, “If only, Peyton…”

    Fans questioned whether they’d have won the opener against Houston, but losses to the Steelers and Browns were the result of stagnant offense. Against Cleveland, the Colts failed to translate drives into touchdowns, settling for field goals. And, frankly, the Steelers did all they could to gift wrap a win for the winless.

    If Peyton Manning were healthy, this Colts squad would be on its way to another double-digit win season—not past the prime like many experts are indicating.

Wallace and Ward: Rising and Falling Stocks

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    After last week's win, I observed that with his rate of production, Mike Wallace could threaten the single season NFL receiving record held by Jerry Rice.

    With another huge outting at Indianpolis, the NFL's most explosive player (yeah, I said it!) kept up his torrid pace. In a league where fame and money go hand in hand, Wallace's stock is rising in more ways than one.

    Hines Ward is still a great player, the prototype for what it is to be a Steeler, and a clutch blocker and pass snagger.

    Still, his stock is dropping. On a night where the Steelers had to rely on the pass to win the game (and barely got by using this method), Hines caught three passes for 17 yards.

    Everybody in Steelers Nation will always love Hines Ward's legacy in Pittsburgh. That legacy is coming toward its end, and a season dedicated to increased production for the all-around championship man seems the one hurdle he may be unable to jump!

Every Time He Appears to Be a Liability, Suisham Bounces Back

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    Late in the game against the Colts, kicker Shaun Suisham nailed his third field goal, a game-winning 41-yard effort. 

    Still, the sound of a football hitting off of an upright is unmistakable. Trailing 13-10 in the third quarter, Steelers fans worldwide heard the disheartening "BONG!" of a field goal attempt gone awry.

    With every miss, a legion of fans—those not far removed from the former automatic nature of Jeff Reed’s kicks—grow more and more leery of Suisham’s ability in the clutch, especially in the playoffs.

    In last year’s Super Bowl, the kicker’s miss on a long attempt sailed extremely wide, earning its spot among the worst field goal efforts in the history of the big game.

    Big game. Big whiff.

    With some exception, fans continue to compile evidence that suggests Suisham is not the answer at kicker should the most critical of situations occur: win or go home.

    Clearly, there is evidence to support both camps: those who back Suisham and those who tremble with every kick attempt.

    Other fans, like myself, are on the fence, helplessly wavering.

    What are your thoughts?

Steelers Must Improve Play on the Road

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    Indiana down.Now, it's on to Texas!

    Surely, some of the Houston natives are longtime NFL fans from the "Luv' Ya, Blue!" days of the Oilers. Their arch-rival?

    You guessed it.

    In 2010, the Steelers lost three games at the comfort of Heinz Field: the Ravens (17-14), Patriots (let us forget) and the Jets (22-17). While they avenged two of those defeats in Janaury, the team still finished the regular season 12-4, securing a bye week and eventual fate-induced home path to the AFC Championship.

    This was despite the trio of losses in Pittsburgh. How did this happen?

    The team was a band of road warriors. With a little luck and some lights-out play in the clutch, Pittsburgh went 7-1 away from the Steel City.

    It was not easy.

    A controversial ending, where Ben Roethlisberger fumbled late in the game with no visual evidence of a Dolphins recovery, ended in a 23-22 win over Miami.

    The Bills’ famed receiver Steve Johnson, rapidly working up the receiver ranks of the NFL, dropped a sure-fire touchdown pass in overtime. The Steelers won in Buffalo despite blowing a 13-0 halftime lead.

    The Bengals rallied from a 27-7 deficit, possessing the ball deep in Pittsburgh territory late in the game- trailing by only six points! James Harrison broke up a fourth down pass from Carson Palmer, securing a win over Cincinnati.

    And, who can forget the Polamalu strip of Joe Flacco late in the game at Baltimore?

    While Pittsburgh struggled to win those contests, they pulled out victories in the end. Their only loss was a 20-10 defensive duel with the Saints. Heath Miller fumbled away a perfect pass from Big Ben late in the game, and Pittsburgh lost after having the chance to take the lead.

    That game was the most indicative of their play so far this season away from home. After a blowout loss to Baltimore, the team showed susceptibility in blowing an early lead against the Colts. 

    Remember when Bill Cowher’s teams practically never lost when they led by 10 or more? 

    Winning on the road in the NFL is tough, but pulling out a few victories in some hostile environments is a great way to play deep into January.

    So far, the 2011 Pittsburgh Steelers have struggled mightily in their first two road contests. Can they right the ship this weekend in Houston?

    Stay tuned!