What to watch for: Colts turn to Scott Tolzien as Big Ben, Steelers visit Indy
INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – Areas of interest in the Indianapolis Colts’ meeting with the Pittsburgh Steelers at 8:30 p.m. Thursday in Lucas Oil Stadium:
On the third anniversary of his second NFL start – Nov. 24, 2013 with Green Bay and against Minnesota – Scott Tolzien makes his third. Let that sink in for a few seconds. The last thing NBC wanted to hear was Andrew Luck would miss the prime-time meeting with a concussion. But that’s the reality.
So, it’s Ben Roethlisberger vs. Scott Tolzien. OK, we understand they won’t be on the field at the same time, but let’s not gloss over the significance of Tolzien being asked to keep up with Big Ben, Antonio Brown, Le’Veon Bell and the rest.
Despite missing one game following knee surgery, Roethlisberger has passed for 2,524 yards and 20 touchdowns. Brown has 77 receptions, 907 yards and seven TDs while Bell is averaging 4.5 yards on 128 rushes. Roethlisberger failed to throw a TD and finished with just 167 yards in Sunday’s 24-9 win at Cleveland, but Bell piled up 201 total yards from scrimmage (146 on 28 rushes, 55 on eight receptions) and Brown had eight catches for 76 yards.
One more nugget regarding Bell. Despite missing three games, he ranks sixth in the NFL with 994 yards from scrimmage.
The Colts counter with an offense that had regained its health, until Luck was concussed against the Titans. Can Tolzien avoid Pittsburgh’s pass rush (eight sacks against the Browns)? Will he be able to use quick drops and shorter throws to get the football to his playmakers? Might the Colts occasionally use Stephen Morris’ mobility as a change-up, perhaps in the red zone?
“Scott knows the playbook, Stephen knows the playbook, so we’ll do what’s necessary and see how they’re going to play us,’’ Chuck Pagano said.
Key absentee on defense:
Luck’s situation has dominated the news, but let’s not ignore a couple of defensive players. Safety Clayton Geathers (concussion) won’t play and cornerback Vontae Davis won’t be 100 percent. Davis was held out of the light practices on Monday and Tuesday and spent much of the time with a protective boot on his right foot.
In a perfect world, the Colts might have Davis shadow Brown all evening. But that wouldn’t be fair to Davis, who’s dealing with an ankle injury. He’s not on top of his game, as evidenced by him being beaten one-on-one by Titans’ rookie Tajae Sharpe for a 34-yard TD last Sunday.
On the plus side, cornerback Patrick Robinson returns after missing the Titans game with a groin injury.
Geathers’ absence could be felt both in defending Bell – he’s often stationed close to the line of scrimmage in run support – and in coverage. He has the size – 6-2, 220 pounds – to handle tight ends. Without him, coordinator Ted Monachino either turns to rookie T.J. Green or Darius Butler, a natural cornerback who’s seen extended time at safety.
We would be remiss if we didn’t provide a quick review of the Colts vs. Steelers series. Here’s where you probably should brace yourself.
The Steelers own the series with the Colts 21-6. They’ve won three straight and 13 of the last 15, and the last two have been absolute train wrecks. Certainly everyone remembers the 45-10 drubbing last year in Pittsburgh and the 51-34 undressing, also in Pittsburgh, in ’14?
“Nobody forgets anything in this league,’’ Pagano insisted.
Everyone associated with the Colts recalls Roethlisberger’s domination in the last two meetings: 64-of-88 (72.7 percent) for 886 yards, 10 touchdowns, no interceptions. That’s a gaudy 142.7 passer rating. What’s particularly galling has been the Colts’ total inability to pressure Big Ben. Not only wasn’t he sacked in the two games, he was only hit once despite the 88 pass attempts.
If the offense struggles behind Tolzien, the defense must keep things competitive early. The Steelers have outscored Indy 56-30 in the first half of the last two meetings.
“We have to make sure we come out and play for 60 minutes,’’ said linebacker D’Qwell Jackson. “We can’t afford any mishaps. We’ve got to be mentally sharp.’’
The defense is coming off arguably its best game. It limited the Titans to 17 points and 351 yards, essentially sealed the win by stopping DeMarco Murray for no gain on fourth-and 1, and matched a season high with five sacks.
And speaking of Jackson, he’s grown tired of being on the wrong end against the Steelers. He’s just 1-13 against Pittsburgh.
The Colts are playing on Thanksgiving for a fourth time and hosting their first Turkey Day game. They are 13-1-1 all-time when playing on Thursday and have won 11 straight.
And the winner is:
Steelers 38, Colts 17. We were prepared to pick the Colts. With Luck, that is. Without him, it’s hard to imagine any scenario they score enough to keep up with Big Ben. At some point, we expect Tolzien to make a mistake or two that turns this one into a rout.