INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – The looming challenge jumps off the iPad as the Indianapolis Colts’ secondary prepares for what’s to come.
There’s Antonio Brown, arguably the NFL’s premier receiver. There’s JuJu Smith-Schuster, the league’s most prolific rookie wideout. There’s Martavis Bryant, apparently disgruntled but a threat nonetheless. The Pittsburgh Steelers also offer tight ends Jesse James and Vance McDonald.
“It’s hard,’’ Chuck Pagano said when sizing up the Steeler threat which invades Lucas Oil Stadium Sunday. “You’ve only got 11 guys (on defense). If you put two over here (on Brown), that leaves how many? Nine.’’
That might not be enough considering the options at the disposal of Ben Roethlisberger.
“Yeah, they ain’t going to let us play with 12,’’ Pagano said with a smile. “I wish they would.’’
Eleven hasn’t been nearly enough as the Steelers have turned their series with the Colts into a one-sided bar fight. They’ve won 14 of the last 16 meetings in the series, including four straight. In the last three, the average score: 41-17.
The recent dominance has been a case of the Colts having no answers to Pittsburgh’s star power. Consider some numbing stats:
- Over the last three games, Roethlisberger is 78-of-108 (72.2 percent) for 1,107 yards with 13 touchdowns. He hasn’t suffered an interception or been sacked. In the 51-34 blowout at Heinz Field in ’14, he set club records with 40 completions, 522 yards and six TDs.
- Brown has been unguardable during that three-game stretch: 23 catches, 342 yards, 7 TDs.
- In two games (’16 and ’14), Bell has gouged the Colts for 212 yards and one TD on 47 carries.
While Bell presents a clear threat – he ranks 1st in the league in rushing attempts per game (24.3) and first downs (55), and is third with 760 yards – the more perilous offensive phase is Roethlisberger and his array of options. Brown leads the NFL in receptions (57), yards (835), 100-yard games (4) and 10-catch games (3). He’s also first with 13 catches of at least 20 yards and tied for second with 4 that have gained at least 40, trailing only Colts’ wideout and longtime friend T.Y. Hilton (5).
Among Smith-Schuster’s 24 catches is a 97-yard TD at Detroit.
“They’re going to make some plays,’’ Pagano said Friday. “That’s what they do for a living.’’
The Colts counter with a group of cornerbacks that lacks similar name recognition and experience, and that’s particularly true with the Thursday release of veteran Vontae Davis.
Of the seven corners on the roster, three are rookies: Quincy Wilson, Nate Hairston and Kenny Moore II, and a knee injury has limited Wilson, a second-round pick, to two games. D.J. Wilson was claimed off waivers from Kansas City Monday.
Rashaan Melvin is the old man in the room. He’s 28 and in his fifth season, his second with the Colts. Desir, 27 and in his fourth season, makes his fourth start Sunday and second in Davis’ spot. If the balky knee continues to sideline Wilson, the third corner figures to be either Moore or Chris Milton.
Pagano has been especially pleased with the recent play of Desir, who the past two weeks has dealt with Cincinnati’s A.J. Green and Houston’s DeAndre Hopkins.
“Very, very competitive,’’ Pagano said of Desir. “He’s long, he’s athletic, he’s got good ball skills, he’s aggressive, he’s got confidence . . . all the things that you look for in a corner.’’
One of the big plays in last Sunday’s 20-14 win at Houston was delivered by Hairston, who broke up a third-down pass to Hopkins at the goal line with less than 10 seconds remaining.
Does Pagano anticipate his young and developing corners holding up against one of the NFL’s top receiver groups?
“They don’t have a choice,’’ he said.
The Colts offer a pass defense that ranks 31st in yards per game allowed (279.7) and too often has been on the wrong end of highlight plays. It has yielded 44 receptions that have gained at least 20 yards, easily the most in the league. Kansas City is a distant second (35).
“We’ve just got to do what we do,’’ said Desir, in his fourth season out of Division II Lindenwood. “They’re a great team . . . they have multiple weapons. We’ve just got to stick to what we’ve been doing and fix some things here and there, but we’ve got to play our game.’’
The cornerbacks won’t have a lot of experience against the Steelers from which to draw. Melvin and Desir have faced Pittsburgh twice while Milton and White have lined up against the Steelers once before.
The rookies, obviously, don’t really know what they’re about to face.
“That’s a good thing sometimes,’’ coordinator Ted Monachino said with a smile. “They’ve heard and they all know . . . but right now, they just can’t wait to play.
“They want to go out and test themselves against arguably the best guys in the league, so I’m not at all concerned about those young guys. They’ll go out and they’ll compete.’’
The only players ruled out of the Steelers game is linebacker John Simon, who’ll miss a third straight game with a stinger, and wide receiver Kamar Aiken (hamstring).
Offensive lineman Denzelle Good (wrist) was moved from the injured reserve list to the active roster this week and is expected to be active Sunday. The coaching staff still is trying to figure out whether Good is best suited for guard or tackle, but he would offer experienced depth at both spots against the Steelers. He started at right guard against the Steelers last season and at right tackle against them in ’15.
You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.