With Andrew Luck out with a concussion, the Indianapolis Colts were given a firsthand look at how much their Pro Bowl quarterback means to them.
It turns out Luck means a whole heck of a lot.
Ben Roethlisberger threw three touchdown passes to Antonio Brown, and Le'Veon Bell rushed for 120 yards as the Pittsburgh Steelers took first place in the AFC North with a 28-7 win over the Indianapolis Colts on Thursday.
The Steelers have a half-game lead over the Baltimore Ravens, who host the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday. Pittsburgh has now won two straight games since a four-game losing streak that put its playoff hopes in jeopardy.
Roethlisberger and the passing attack accounted for 221 of Pittsburgh's 369 yards, spearheading drives that opened up a two-touchdown lead in the first quarter from which the Colts never recovered. The Steelers quarterback completed 14 of his 20 passes, with their game plan making a clear decision to send passes down the field.
Brown led the team with 91 yards on five receptions. This is Brown's third multi-touchdown game of the season and 12th of his career. It's the first time he has ever scored three times in a game. Gordon McGuinness of Pro Football Focus made an astute observation about the former sixth-round pick:
Bill Barnwell of ESPN.com also provided a handy list of guys taken ahead of Brown:
The Colts also had little chance of stopping Bell, who consistently picked up yards by the handful. Bell went for over 100 yards and hit the 20-carry mark for the second straight week, finishing with 120 yards on 23 attempts. After failing to score in his first five games, he has hit paydirt in each of the last three.
Former Steelers great Jerome Bettis was excited following Bell's first-quarter score:
Nearly all of the Steelers' production from skill-position players came from Bell and Brown. Only five players caught passes for Roethlisberger, and the Steelers lost the time-of-possession battle—mostly due to mental gaffes that extended Indianapolis' drives. Pittsburgh finished the game with seven penalties for 67 yards, compared to just two such mistakes by the Colts.
What may have been an opportunity with Luck at the helm instead proved to be a series of frustrations and near-misses. Backup Scott Tolzien threw for 205 yards and a touchdown but clearly struggled for most of the contest. The Colts mostly completed intermediate and underneath routes despite the Steelers packing the box for most of the game.
Pittsburgh twice stopped the Colts at its 1-yard line on fourth down. Both times Colts coach Chuck Pagano chose to go to the air, only for Tolzien's passes to fall incomplete. Those drives took what could have been a 21-21 tie in the fourth quarter and kept it a two-touchdown game.
ESPN.com's Matthew Berry was confused by the calls:
Tolzien fell apart a bit after the second 4th-and-goal failure, throwing interceptions on the Colts' next two drives. Two birds, one stone here by the The Ringer's Kevin Clark:
Frank Gore spent his entire evening bottled up at the line of scrimmage, picking up a season-low 28 yards on 15 carries. He has averaged under four yards per carry each of the last three weeks and under three yards a pop the last two.
The Colts now sit two games behind the Houston Texans in the loss column, putting their push for an AFC South championship in jeopardy. The Texans host the San Diego Chargers on Sunday.
Luck, who missed Thursday's game with a concussion, will likely return for next Monday's game with the New York Jets.
The Steelers play host to a New York Giants team that has reeled off five straight wins next week.
Pagano told reporters he was frustrated with his team's lack of execution at the goal line:
"We had opportunities to make a game of this and we didn’t take advantage of them. The things we said we had to do defensively—stop the run, not give up big plays and play good situational football—we didn’t get that done, specifically in the first half. Third downs killed us. And, you’re on the goal line, you’re on the 1 yard line, you’ve got to be able to punch it in. We had opportunities to make plays and we didn’t make plays.”
Pagano also complimented Tolzien: “I thought Scott gave us a chance. I thought he played his ass off. He’s one tough son-of-a-gun. He hung in there and hung in there and hung in there and made some really tough throws and took some shots along the way. Very proud of that kid.”
Brown spoke to reporters about Roethlisberger: "When you're in the huddle with him, you know you're going to have a chance to make some big plays."
Steelers coach Mike Tomlin discussed Brown's career-best outing: "I don't take it for granted, but I'm not surprised by it. He maximizes opportunities."
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