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Colts at Steelers: Areas of interest

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - NOVEMBER 12: Frank Gore #23 of the Indianapolis Colts runs with the ball against the Pittsburgh Steelers during the first half at Lucas Oil Stadium on November 12, 2017 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

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

  • Kickoff: 1 p.m.
  • Broadcast: CBS4

Conquering the Pittsburgh aura:

The facts are clear, and daunting. The Steelers are 106-41-1 (.720) at Heinz Field in the regular season since it opened in 2001. That’s the NFL’s third-best home record during that stretch, trailing the Patriots (125-23) and Ravens (107-40). They’re 15-2 against the Colts in Pittsburgh, including the playoffs and at three sites. The only Colts QBs to handle the Steelers in the Steel City: Peyton Manning in 2008 and – wait for it – Earl Morrall in 1968.

Frank Reich considered holding a history lesson to recap the Colts’ travails in Pittsburgh, but decided against it.

“Organizationally they have gotten the best of the Colts for a while (in Pittsburgh),’’ he said, adding that rehashing the past “kind of goes against the 1-0 mantra, you know what I mean? I just decided it really doesn’t matter.

“Nothing in the past matters and nothing in the future matters.’’

While Pittsburgh’s homefield advantage is real – brace yourself for the next round of Terrible Towels – it’s not unsolvable. The Steelers are just 7-5 at home since the start of 2018, including 2-2 this season. They’ve dropped tight games to Seattle (28-26) and Baltimore (26-23 in overtime) and feasted on winless Cincinnati (27-3) and Miami (27-14).

The Colts already have proven the venue is irrelevant. Remember their week 5 trip to Arrowhead Stadium?

Playing the 2019 Steelers:

This is an addendum to the previous item. These are not the Steelers that have dominated the series. There’s no Ben Roethlisberger (on IR with an elbow injury), Le’Veon Bell (languishing with the Jets) or Antonio Brown (spending his time on social media). They’ve been replaced by Mason Rudolph, James Conner and JuJu Smith-Schuster. Conner is dealing with a shoulder injury and probably will be replaced by Jaylen Samuels, who missed the last two games after undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery last month. Benny Snell is out following meniscus surgery.

The offense has been nothing special – 28th in yards, 24th in rushing, 26th in passing, 19th in scoring – and missing Conner won’t help. One major bright spot: the pass protection has allowed a league-low 7 sacks.

The defense, however, has played at a decent level. It ranks 10th overall and 13th in fewest points allowed (20.7 per game). It’s 6th against the run (103 yards per game), although it’s been vulnerable. Seattle (151 yards), San Francisco (168) and the Ravens (138) had success.

And there are playmakers on that side: T.J. Watt has 6 sacks, six tackles for loss and 17 QB hits; Casey Heyward 4.5 sacks; recent addition Minkah Fitzpatrick has three interceptions; linebacker Devin Bush, the 10th overall pick in the April draft, leads the league with six takeaways (two interceptions, four fumble recoveries).

Compensate for T.Y.’s absence:

There’s no dancing around the obvious: The offense – the team – isn’t the same without T.Y. Hilton. He’ll miss the next few games after suffering a calf injury in practice Wednesday. The Colts are 0-5 when their four-time Pro Bowl wideout is on the sideline. Not only do they miss his production, they miss his presence. He opens up things for others.

How will Reich compensate? In the passing game, the load falls on tight ends Eric Ebron and Jack Doyle, and wideouts Zach Pascal, rookie Parris Campbell, Deon Cain and Chester Rogers. But again, Hilton is tough to replace. He leads the team in targets (46), receptions (32), yards (360) and touchdowns (five). He has more than twice as many targets and catches as Pascal (21, 14), Indy’s second leading wideout.

While Jacoby Brissett is going to have to make plays with his arm, we’re anticipating a Hilton-less offense being more reliant on Marlon Mack and the ground game. Let’s not forget the Colts feature one of the top offensive lines in the league. Be patient, stay committed to the run and follow what can be a bullish o-line. The ground attack ranks No. 11 (128.4 yards per game), but it’s lacked consistency: four games with at least 127 yards, three with 79 or fewer.

Mack is on pace for 1,348 yards, but he, too, has ridden a roller-coaster. He piled up a career-best 174 yards in the opener against the Chargers and 132 in the win over the Chiefs, averaging 5.7 yards in the process. His averages in the other five games: 56.8 yards per game, 3.4 per attempt.

This might be a perfect occasion for Reich and coordinator Nick Sirianni to dust off the game plan they used at Arrowhead Stadium. The Colts ran 45 times for 180 yards and dialed up just 29 passes for Brissett, who finished with 151 yards.

Strength vs. strength:

The game within the game involves the opportunistic Steelers’ defense versus a Colts’ offense that has excelled at efficiency. Pittsburgh has generated 24 sacks, second-most among teams that have played seven games, and 19 takeaways, second to the Patriots (25 in eight games). The Colts have suffered just seven turnovers, tied for fourth-fewest, and allowed 11 sacks.

The last thing Steelers Nation needs is a reason to whip the air with Terrible Towels. It would behoove the Colts to take care of the football and not provide Pittsburgh with any momentum-shifting plays.

And the winner is:

Colts 19, Steelers 16. We’ll fall back on our season-long thought process. If the Colts are a legitimate playoff contender, this is the type of game they find a way to win. Yes, no T.Y. And yes the Steelers have bounced back from an 0-3 start to win three of their last four. But those three wins have come against teams with a combined 3-21 record.

This won’t be easy. Probably won’t be easy on the eyes. Just find a way.

You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51

And be sure to catch the Colts Blue Zone Podcast:

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