Who could have guessed that the 11-0 Pittsburgh Steelers would go into tailspin after their terrific start to the season? I know I never saw it coming, especially losing to the Washington Football Team (6-8) and Cincinnati Bengals (3-10). Sandwiched in between those two losses is a loss to the 10-4 Buffalo Bills. To go from the clear front runners in the race to win the Super Bowl 55 to suddenly losing three straight, makes Steelers fans everywhere extremely nervous and has critics scratching their heads. They need to get their act together fast, as the 1st place Indianapolis Colts (10-4) visit Heinz Field on Sunday afternoon.
In their three losses this season, the Steelers have a minus three turnover ratio and have scored under 20 points. They are 10-0 when scoring 20+ points this season. They have rushed for less than 100 total yards during that streak, including twice under 50 yards. The Colts on the other hand have scored 20+ points during their mini winning streak, while maintaining a plus 3 turnover ratio. They have blown out the Las Vegas Raiders (7-6) who are barely in playoff contention and twice defeated the lowly Houston Texans (4-10) in two one score games. Now that last line might not sound that impressive, but at least they’re not losing to a team in the worst division in football and getting embarrassed by the worst team in their division on Monday Night Football. To save themselves from an epic collapse to end the season, the Steelers need to wake up fast.
The spark for this team needs to start with the Steelers offense. Turning the ball over and not staying balanced on offense, opens up opportunities for tight coverage and lots of pressure on QB Ben Roethlisberger, which leads to all the turnovers. Need an example of that? Check out the video below, where the Bengals defense forced 3 turnovers (INT and 2 fumbles) and held the Steelers to 4 for 16 on 3rd down. A performance like that come playoff time and they’ll be one and done. The time to fix those mistakes starts on Sunday.
There is no excuse for these type of numbers, considering the offensive weapons Big Ben has at his disposal. Four different receivers have 50+ catches and 500+ yards receiving. When you cast of receiving threats that can clearly put up big numbers like that, it baffles me that this team has struggled to score in the last three weeks. This group has had a ridiculous number of dropped passes in the last four weeks, including eight in a narrow win against the undermanned Ravens and that needs to stop quickly. You want to find the easiest way to stall a scoring drive? Drop an easy catch. I’m looking at you Diontae Johnson.
On defense, Pittsburgh needs to continue to wreak havoc in the backfield. Their defense leads the league in sacks (47) and QB hits (125). The problem is Colts’ QB Phillip Rivers has only been sacked 16 times (2nd) and has been supported by a balanced offense, thanks to his running game. RB Jonathan Taylor has rushed for 80+ yards in their last three games, while Rivers has a passer rating of 115+ during that span. Another statistic that is just as important is that Rivers has thrown six TD’s and ZERO interceptions during that span. The Steelers must take control of the line of scrimmage and disrupt the Colts timing every drive. They don’t want to see a repeat of last week where the Bengals rushed 41 times for 152 yards and two scores. Part of that solution could include the return of LB Vince Williams off the COVID-19/reserve list, who will join forces with Cameron Heyward and T.J. Watt to create chaos in Indy’s backfield.
The Steelers pass defense also needs to get Colts offense off the field, in the form of turnovers. They are ranked 1st in passer rating (74.9) and 2nd in yards per game (193.3) but against Washington they allowed the combination of RB J.D. McKissic and TE Logan Thomas to catch 19 passes for 168 yards and touchdown. One week later Bills star wideout Stephon Diggs had a big night with 10 receptions for 130 yards and a score. They were able to clean things up last week, allowing just 7 completions for 89 yards but it was against the Bengals and their 3rd string QB. This week they face a passing attack that features two running backs with over 30+ receptions and star wideout TY Hilton, with his 50 catches (2nd on the team) for 675 yards and 4 touchdowns. When CB Joe Hayden is following around Hilton, the rest of his teammates still have to be concerned with the likes of Zach Pascal and Michael Pittman Jr. who both have 30+ catches and 300+ yards receiving. With a formidable group of pass catchers and the fact that Rivers rarely is sacked, Pittsburgh’s pass rush needs to get home. He’s not afraid of spreading the ball around and if the Steelers give him time to throw, he’ll pick them apart.
I didn’t think I’d be saying this game means more to the Steelers after they started 11-0 but things have changed rapidly in the last three weeks. They are only the third team in NFL history to start 11-0 or better and lose at least three games but more than that they’ve been knocked out of the #1 and #2 seeds in the AFC. The Chiefs and Bills are both raising their respective games and improving, while the Steelers are in a free fall. Worse than that they have the Cleveland Browns (10-4) right on their tail, with a week 17 showdown looming. Pittsburgh has already clinched a playoff spot but can clinch the AFC North title with a win, Browns loss or both contests ending in a tie. While they can’t control the last two scenarios, a win in this game not only gives them much needed confidence heading into the playoffs, but some semblance of respect back. They need to find whatever magic and big play ability that helped them get to 11-0 and quickly.
The Colts on the other hand can continue to prove their own critics wrong by taking down another playoff juggernaut. Remember this team beat the Titans and Packers this season, so when they play their brand of football: creating turnovers, using a balanced offensive attack and converting big plays, they can beat anyone. Losing the turnover battle and forcing Rivers to throw the ball 40+ times in a game, will not work against the Steelers’ ferocious pass rush. I expect this offense to use a quick passing game and their dynamic duo out of the backfield to try and slow the game down and keep Big Ben sidelined. Whether that works or not is the key.
Indy also has a four playoff spot clinching scenarios available to them this week:
IND win + BAL loss or tie OR
IND win + MIA loss or tie OR
IND tie + BAL loss OR
IND tie + MIA loss
Prediction: Steelers win 23-20. The Steelers will use their poor play in the last few weeks as motivation late in the 4th quarter to finally wake up their sleeping offense but the game will remain close throughout. I expect a big game from JuJu Smith-Schuster who’s TikTok presence on the field has been the center of attention instead of his receiving ability. Chase Claypool and Diontae Johnson should also be featured quite a bit but don’t be surprised if Smith-Schuster is out to prove everyone wrong, when Claypool and Johnson get the majority of the Colts’ defense’s attention. Watch out for a big game from pass rusher TJ Watt as well. He needs to be in Phillip Rivers’ face all day to make sure the Colts don’t get going and score in bunches.
Who do you think will win? Will the Steelers regain their early season dominance? Tune in on Sunday at 1 pm on CBS to find out!
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By: Whitney Dowds CruelFan.com