Game plan: Colts at Steelers

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INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. (Dec. 5, 2015) – Five areas of interest in the Indianapolis Colts’ Sunday night meeting with the Pittsburgh Steelers in Heinz Field (WTHR-Channel 13, 8:30 p.m.):

 Prime-time players: Their roots wind back to Gwen Cherry Park on the outskirts of Miami, when each first flashed his rare speed and potential in youth football.  Now, T.Y. Hilton and Antonio Brown are a pair of electric, game-breaking NFL receivers. Sunday night, they share the field for the second time in 11 months.

Hilton and Brown remain close and converse regularly. They’re expecting a major prime-time event.

“I told him to make sure he’s got his Nachos and cheese ready, with extra cheese,’’ the Colts’ Hilton said. “He said, ‘I’m gonna be ready. You make sure you’re ready as well.’’’

Brown, the Steelers’ big-play threat, laughed when asked about Hilton’s comments.

“That means get ready for the show,’’ he said. “When the Ghost comes to town, you know it’s going to be a show. So, bring your popcorn and your hot dogs and keep it ready because he’s going to motivate.’’

Each has earned the right to yuk it up.

Hilton is coming off his first Pro Bowl selection and, with a team-high 819 yards, is on pace for a third consecutive 1,000-yard season. In last season’s meeting with the Steelers, he caught six passes for 155 yards and one touchdown.

Brown has emerged as one of the NFL’s top receivers. This year, he ranks No. 2 in receptions (85) and yards (1,192). Last season, he exploited the Colts’ secondary for 10 catches, 133 yards and two TDs.

Sit back and enjoy.

 More than Brown: We wouldn’t be as concerned if Brown was the only issue for the Colts’ No. 27-ranked pass defense. But the Steelers also flash Martavis Bryant and Markus Wheaton. The Colts might catch a break if tight end Heath Miller misses the game with a rib injury. He had seven catches, 112 yards and one TD against them last year.

“All you’ve got to do is watch the film or watch their games,’’ nickel corner Darius Butler said. “They’ve got explosive players all over the field.’’

Bryant is averaging 18.9 yards on 27 catches and Wheaton 19 yards on 25 receptions. They’ve combined for seven TDs. In last Sunday’s 39-30 loss at Seattle, the Seahawks limited Brown to six catches and 51 yards. No worry. Wheaton picked up the slack with nine catches, 201 yards and a 69-yard TD.

 Offensive, again? Not surprisingly, we’re stuck on an offensive theme. While the Steelers’ defense has been unreliable, the Ben Roethlisberger-led offense has been robust (No. 4 overall, No. 8 in rushing, No. 6 in passing). The Colts had no answers for Big Ben in last year’s 51-24 blowout loss. He carved them up: 40-of-49, 522 yards, six TDs.

If Indy is to avoid another thrashing, it must crank up the pressure on Roethlisberger. It failed to sack him last year and was credited with one pressure. Getting to Roethlisberger is one thing. Often, the problem is getting him on the ground. He’s 6-5, 240 pounds.

Linebacker Robert Mathis noted it’s difficult to prepare for Roethlisberger’s ability to extend plays during practice.

“He’s such an escape artist that you really can’t simulate it,’’ he said. “You just got to go until the echo of the whistle.’’

 Be balanced, but aggressive: It’s risky to get into a track meet with the Steelers, but as we’ve noted, their defense isn’t up to snuff. It ranks No. 23 in total yards allowed (377.3) and No. 30 in passing yards (283.6). Opposing quarterbacks have a 98.9 passer rating with 22 touchdowns and a 67.1 completion rate with just nine interceptions.

Matt Hasselbeck has posted a 4-0 record in relief of Andrew Luck in large part by directing a West Coast-type offense. It’s relied on a medium-range passing game and remained committed to the running game, even when that running game isn’t generating much. The rushing numbers in Hasselbeck’s four starts reflect quantity over quality. The four-game averages: 26.8 carries, 67.8 yards, 2.5 yards per attempt.

An unsettled offensive line has contributed to the steady decline in the running game, but there’s no question defenses have loaded up against the run and taken their chances with the NFL’s oldest QB. Even with Frank Gore’s lack of production (58 yards on 33 carries the last two games), defenses have had to respect him. According to Pro Football Focus, Hasselbeck has thrived in play-action situations. He’s completed 28-of-39 passes for 383 yards with three touchdowns and a 128.5 passer rating.

If the Colts can give Hasselbeck time in the pocket, he’ll have opportunities to do damage with Hilton, Donte Moncrief and tight ends Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen.

Be smart, but be aggressive.

 Playoff picture: Heading into Sunday, the AFC playoff picture has the 6-5 Colts as the No. 4 seed as the AFC South champion and the 6-5 Steelers on the outside looking in. But that could change by kickoff.

Worth watching earlier in the day is Houston’s visit to Buffalo. The Texans share the AFC South lead with the Colts – Indy has the tiebreaker – and currently hold one of the two wild-card berths. But the division lead swings to Houston if it extends its winning streak to five games and the Colts see their three-game winning streak end in Pittsburgh.

Taking a peek ahead, the Colts are at Jacksonville next Sunday while the Texans return home to face New England. Then comes the Dec. 20 rematch in Lucas Oil Stadium. An early reminder: the Texans are 0-13 in Indy.

 Prediction: Steelers 34, Colts 24

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