Colts at Steelers: What to watch for Saturday

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Scott Tolzien

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – Areas of interest in the Indianapolis Colts’ preseason meeting Saturday with the Pittsburgh Steelers at Heinz Field.

  • Kickoff: 7:30 p.m.
  • Broadcast: FOX59.

Move the chains?:

The bar is so low after two preseason games that all we’re asking from the offense in the first half – whether it’s Scott Tolzien or Stephen Morris at the controls – is a drive or two that consists of a couple of first downs. Just move the chains, show some continuity, display some level of competency.

“We’ve been good at taking care of the football, taking it away,’’ Chuck Pagano said. “. . . but we need to  move the football on offense. We’ve got to put some points on the board. I think that’s obvious.’’

Yes, it is.

Through two games, the Colts have managed just two offensive TDs. Both have come in the final minute of the fourth quarter, one on the final play against Detroit. Most distressing has been the lack of productivity and pop from the Tolzien-led offense. He’s directed eight series that have generated just 131 total yards, seven first downs, one field goal and seven punts. His offense has averaged 3.6 yards per play and converted 1-of-8 third-down situations, and he’s averaged 4.95 per pass attempt and 7.8 yards per completion.

Yes, the unsettled nature of the offensive line has contributed to the impotency as have injuries that have forced wideouts Donte Moncrief (shoulder) and Phillip Dorsett (hamstring) and tight end Erik Swoope (knee) to miss extended practice time. But we’re in no mood to absolve Tolzien. When it’s third-and-7, quit throwing 4-yard completions to Jack Doyle.

Make a play. Keep the chains moving.

“It’s a simple statement, but if we move the chains and score points, that’s our goal,’’ Tolzien said. “That goal should never change.’’

QB rotation:

Morris apparently has served his time. He’s no longer a prisoner, an afterthought, at the bottom of the QB depth chart. After the coaching staff used the first two preseason games to determine the viability of rookie Phillip Walker, it returned Morris to his rightful spot behind Tolzien during this week’s practice.

Still to be determined, though, is how – or if – Pagano will divvy up first-half playing time between Tolzien and Morris.

Normally in the third preseason game, starters play the first half, regroup and adjust at halftime, then play a series or two in the third quarter. We’ve entered the phase of preseason practice where the media is not allowed to watch, so we have no idea if Tolzien took the bulk of the reps with the starting unit or there was a split with Morris.

Morris has emerged as the people’s choice, in part because of Tolzien’s ineffectiveness and in part because he’s directed both TD drives.

“I’m excited to see (Tolzien) and see Stephen go,’’ Pagano said. “This is a really good football team and this is a good defensive unit.’’

Good luck to whomever is taking snaps. The Steelers’ defense has been in mid-season form. It has feasted on opposing QBs, allowing a 55.4 passer rating on the strength of 11 sacks and three interceptions. Opposing QBs are completing just 52.3 percent of their passes and averaging 5.83 yards per attempt.

Defensive atonement:

Major red flags were run up the pole last Saturday in Dallas. The starting unit was virtually intact, and totally dominated as the Cowboys did whatever they wanted, however they wanted to do it. There was little pocket pressure until Barkevious Mingo came up with his sack-strip-fumble of backup QB Kellen Moore and little resistance against the run. Dallas averaged 5.9 yards per carry in the first half.

And now, the Steelers. Running back Le’Veon still isn’t in the picture, but look for quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and wideout Antonio Brown to make their preseason debuts. Backup QB Landry Jones, who’s missed the first two games with a stomach injury, also is expected to play.

Here’s where we remind you how overmatched the Colts defense has been in recent meetings with the Steelers. Pittsburgh has won four straight and 14 of the last 16, including the playoffs.

Roethlisberger has approached the Colts D like he does 7-on-7 work on the practice field. In the last three games – the Steelers have outscored Indy 124-51 – he’s completed 72 percent of his passes for 1,107 yards with 13 touchdowns, no interceptions, no sacks and a ridiculous 144.6 passer rating. Brown has 23 catches, 342 yards and seven TDs in those three games.

Roethlisberger and Brown probably only play a couple of series, but this still represents a major challenge for a Colts defense that must put the Dallas debacle behind it.

“I’d love to see the defense come out and play well, get some stops, get off the field, get the run game calmed down and not give up big plays,’’ Pagano said. “Great barometer to see exactly where we’re at.’’

The defense won’t be at full strength. Johnathan Hankins suffered a shoulder injury in practice this week that probably keeps him on the sideline. Rookie safety Malik Hooker is dealing with a shoulder injury that might force him to miss a second straight game.

We’ll be paying special attention to inside linebackers Jon Bostic and Antonio Morrison. They need to fill in behind the D-line and help contain the Steelers’ ground game. Morrison was limited to three snaps at Dallas while on the mend from a shoulder injury, and should see extensive work.

This and that:

Rookie running back Marlon Mack engineered a snazzy debut, rushing five times for 45 yards with a long of 23 at Dallas. Now, do it again.

“He showed the ability to make some plays,’’ offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski said. “It wasn’t too big for him.’’

Undrafted rookie Thomas Hennessy remains the frontrunner to succeed Matt Overton as the Colts’ longsnapper, but the coaching staff will take a look at whether inside linebacker Luke Rhodes is a viable challenger against the Steelers.

The return chores remain up for grabs. Veteran wideout Quan Bray is the incumbent, but another undrafted rookie – JoJo Natson – is making a strong push. Natson has averaged 23.3 yards on five kick returns and 6.6 yards on five punt returns. Those are lackluster averages, but he has the speed and elusiveness to break a long return. Boosting Natson’s chances of supplanting Bray is the fact he’s probably a more accomplished receiver. Natson leads the team with 8 catches and 111 yards.

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