Disappearing act by Colts’ offense leads to loss to Pittsburgh

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INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – It was right there, tantalizingly close, just like it’s been on so many other occasions in a season that teeters on the brink.

A 17-3 lead early in the third quarter. The Indianapolis Colts offense mixing a grind-it-out-approach with a couple of lightning bolts. Young gun Jacoby Brissett outdueling the ol’ gunslinger, Ben Roethlisberger.

It was still right there, even after the Steelers narrowed things to 17-9 midway through the quarter.

But then it was gone.

Oh, the Colts defense kept this one incredibly winnable until it was lost 20-17 on Chris Boswell’s 33-yard field goal at time expired Sunday at Lucas Oil Stadium.

The offense? Pffft!

“We knew we had to score more,’’ tackle Anthony Castonzo said. “You want to get in the 25-plus range of points. That’s usually enough to win games.

“You can’t put that much on your defense. I think our defense is playing just unbelievably right now.’’

A defense missing so many critical parts – rookie safety Malik Hooker, lineman Henry Anderson, linebacker John Simon, even recently-released cornerback Vontae Davis – distinguished itself when facing Pittsburgh’s cavalcade of stars.

It limited All-World receiver Antonio Brown to three catches and 47 yards, although his 32-yard catch-and-run in the final minute help set up Boswell’s game-winner.

It contained explosive back Le’Veon Ball, making him take 26 handoffs for his 80 yards (3.1 yards per attempt).

It made Roethlisberger work for his 236 yards and two TDs, even though the Colts’ decision to occasionally use a three-man pass rush benefitted him, most notably when – after what seemed like 5 minutes of surveying the field – Roethlisberger found tight end Vance McDonald by himself in the right corner of the end zone for a 7-yard touchdown. That, along with the ensuing two-point PAT, tied things at 17-all with 11:52 remaining.

The Steelers finished with 316 total yards and averaged just 2.9 yards on the ground.

“They played their butts off on defense,’’ Chuck Pagano insisted. “You give guys an opportunity and you keep giving them a shot and giving them a shot and giving the a shot and we don’t capitalize on the chances that we have, let people hang around and that’s what happens.’’

This is what happens when the offense is unable to sustain drives against the league’s No. 5-ranked defense.

The over-the-top plays were exhilarating.

When Steelers cornerback Artie Burns bit on Moncrief’s stutter-step move on the second play of the second quarter, Moncrief zipped past him and ran under Brissett’s pass for a 60-yard touchdown.

In the third quarter, busted coverage by the Steelers left Chester Rogers wide open on the right side. He headed up field, cut inside the tackle attempt of safety Mike Mitchell and ran away for his first career TD, a 61-yarder.

After that, virtually nothing. Consider the incredible disappearing act:

  •  the Colts’ first seven possessions: 36 plays, 243 yards, 11 first downs. There were the two Brissett TD passes and Adam Vinatieri’s 48-yard field goal.
  • the final five possessions after the 17-3 lead: 20 plays, 24 yards. Pittsburgh had as many sacks (2) as the Colts had first downs (2). They punted four times and suffered a crippling turnover when a Brissett dump-off went through tight end Jack Doyle’s hands and was intercepted by Shazier at the Indy 10. Three plays later, Roethlisberger and McDonald collaborated on the 7-yard TD.

“We played really good football for a long time, and then we made critical, critical errors in critical situations,’’ Pagano said.

He was especially miffed with a personal foul by safety T.J. Green when the Steelers were pinned at their own 1-yard line, and Green’s holding on the ensuing punt that forced the Colts offense to start at their own 8.

The Colts also were penalized nine times, including a pair of false starts and a hold against guard Kyle Kalis.

“You can’t do it against anybody in this league,’’ Pagano said. “Certainly can’t do it against one of the better teams in the National Football League.’’

The inability of the Colts offense to generate positive yards on early downs in the second half enabled Pittsburgh to crank up the pressure. Brissett had little time to drop back and set up to throw, let alone go through his progressions. After starting the game 11-of-15 for 202 yards and the two TDs, he finished 3-of-9 for 20 yards and constantly was being helped up off the turf.

Brissett returned to the lineup in the fourth quarter after being evaluated for a concussion – an independent neurologist cleared him – but began experiencing concussion symptoms after the game.

“It’s a damn good defense, and they got after us,’’ Pagano said. “They rushed us and we got to be better.’’

“It sucks,’’ center Ryan Kelly said. “When you don’t have good first- and second-down production, you get into third-and-long. That’s a really good defense and that’s what they thrive on.’’

The Colts saw nothing different from the Steelers, he insisted, during their second-half fade.

“The game plan was the same,’’ Kelly said. “They showed us the same stuff. It came down to execution.

“This isn’t the first time it’s happened, so we’ve got to figure it out.

“Our defense played really, really good today. They gave s a lot of opportunities for us to be in that driver’s seat. When we get those opportunities that are really rare against a team like that, we have to take advantage of that.’’

You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.

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