Steelers spoil Tolzien’s Colts debut with 28-7 win

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - NOVEMBER 24:  Scott Tolzien #16 of the Indianapolis Colts is sacked during the first half of the game against the Pittsburgh Steelers at Lucas Oil Stadium on November 24, 2016 in Indianapolis, Indiana.  (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - NOVEMBER 24: Scott Tolzien #16 of the Indianapolis Colts is sacked during the first half of the game against the Pittsburgh Steelers at Lucas Oil Stadium on November 24, 2016 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

By Mike Chappell

INDIANAPOLIS – What caught our eye during the Indianapolis Colts’ 28-7 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers Thursday night at Lucas Oil Stadium. It marked the first time the Colts had hosted a game on Thanksgiving.

Missed opportunities: For all the pregame conversation on Andrew Luck not starting, the Colts were guilty of not finishing. On consecutive drives and with the Colts trailing 21-7, backup quarterback Scott Tolzien drove the offense to the Steelers’ 1-yard line. Twice, his fourth-down pass  fell incomplete. Twice, the Colts, desperate for something to happen to swing the momentum, came up empty.

Late in the second quarter, Tolzien’s 32-yard completion to T.Y. Hilton – Hilton suffered a back injury on the play when whacked by free safety Mike Mitchell – gave the Colts a first-and-goal at the 2. The Steelers took their 21-7 lead into halftime when three runs picked up 1 yard and Tolzien’s fourth-down pass went on Chester Rogers’ hands.

Then on their first possession of the third quarter, the Colts mounted a massive 19-play, 89-yard drive that consumed 11 minutes, 22 seconds. They needed 1 more yard. A first-and-goal at the 6 stalled at the 1 when Tolzien failed to connect with Phillip Dorsett.

In a game with virtually no margin for error, coming up short – twice – was too much to overcome.

“This is a humbling league and, gosh, when you’re that close you’ve gotta put ‘em in,’’ Tolzien said. “That’s frustrating. That’s seven points, really 14 in both of those situations.

“That’s a big swing in the game. “You can’t have that in this league. You can’t win games when you can’t score from that short.’’

Added coach Chuck Pagano: “When you’re on the goal line, when you’re on the 1-yard line, you’ve got to be able to punch it in.’’

Missed opportunities, Part II: The stalled drives were glaring, but let’s not let other Colts off the hook for botching opportunities.

Mr. Automatic, Adam Vinatieri, pushed a 52-yard field goal wide right in the first quarter. After setting an NFL record by converting 44 consecutive field goals, he’s now missed two of his last three.

Hilton’s 32-reception in the second quarter only partially atoned for an egregious drop earlier in the drive. He worked himself free along the right sideline and dropped what should have been – most likely would have been – a 63-yard touchdown. Donte Moncrief also had a drop inside the Steelers’ 10-yard line.

“We had opportunities to make plays and we didn’t make plays,’’ Pagano said.

Backup action: Until suffering two interceptions with the game slipping away in the fourth quarter, Tolzien held up his end while making his third career start on the third anniversary of his second start. Tolzien completed 22-of-36 passes for 205 yards with the two interceptions and a 5-yard touchdown to Moncrief.

Tolzien was sacked three times and hit on another 11 occasions.

“I felt great about it going in,’’ he said. “I appreciate everyone rallying around me.’’

“He gave us a chance,’’ Pagano said.

However, it continued an expected trend across the NFL. This season and excluding the New England Patriots, teams that have turned to their backup quarterback after replacing their opening-day starter because of injury or performance are now 5-25.

More of the same: To no one’s surprise, the Steelers’ big offensive guns dominated the Colts defense.

Ben Roethlisberger completed 14-of-20 passes for 221 yards and three touchdowns to Antonio Brown. Brown had five catches for 91 yards and the three TDs. Running back Le’Veon Bell finished with 120 yards and one TD on 23 carries.

For those keeping track at home, a look at Roethlisberger’s last three games against the Colts: 78-of-108, 1,107 yards, 13 touchdowns, no interceptions, a 144.5 passer rating. The Colts have failed to sack Roethlisberger and hit him only twice on those 108 drop-backs.

And Brown? In those three games he has 23 catches, 342 yards and seven TDs.

Special times: The Colts’ special teams provided a few highlights. Pat McAfee executed a perfect fake punt, hooking up with tight end Erik Swoope for a 35-yard completion. Jordan Todman set up the Colts’ only score – Tolzien’s 5-yard TD to Moncrief – with a 43-yard kickoff return. Chester Rogers generated a 25-yard punt return that was wiped out by an illegal formation against the Colts.

Now what?: The Colts took another step back in their pursuit of the AFC South title. They fell to 5-6 and into a second-place tie with the Tennessee Titans, two games behind Houston (6-4) in the loss column.

So they won’t mind a bit of help this weekend. The Texans are home against San Diego, which is 4-6 but features the NFL’s second-ranked scoring offense (29.2 points per game). The Titans are at 2-8 Chicago. The Bears have lost four of their last five and are without QB Jay Cutler.

Medical update: The Colts found themselves scrambling along the offensive line from the outset. Rookie center Ryan Kelly suffered a shoulder injury on the first series and did not return. Jon Harrison replaced Kelly. On the second play of the second series, right guard Denzelle Good left the game with an injury to his neck and shoulder. He returned later in the quarter, but left the game for good in the fourth quarter.

In the second quarter, cornerback Vontae Davis left the game with a groin injury and did not return. He was questionable for the game with an injury to his right ankle. Prior to going out, Davis gave up 25- and 33-yard touchdown catches to Brown.

After leaving the game and heading to the locker room following the big hit by Mitchell, Hilton returned for the start of the third quarter. He had a 4-yard reception, but then was pulled from the game.

In the fourth quarter, linebacker Robert Mathis left the game with an elbow injury.

So after starting the game without Luck, the Colts finished without Kelly, Hilton, Davis, Good and Mathis.

The Colts are off for 11 days before a road meeting with the New York Jets Dec. 5. They’ll need the extra time to heal.

You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter.

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