Offensive line still requires some help
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INDIANAPOLIS -- The Indianapolis Colts galloped onto the carpet at Lucas Oil Stadium to the thundering chords of a rock anthem by The Who, an interesting choice for a team with a starting lineup littered with names that triggered that very question:
Kerry Collins is a known commodity, if not a terribly valued one at quarterback in place of Peyton Manning, but what about an Indianapolis defense that was featuring more subs than Quizno's?
Eric Foster started at defensive tackle instead of Fili Moala. Philip Wheeler started at linebacker instead of Pat Angerer, who slid over to play another linebacker spot in place of Gary Brackett. David Caldwell started at strong safety instead of Melvin Bullitt, and on offense, Mike Pollak started at right guard instead of Ryan Diem.
Not all that bad for a club that listed 12 players as questionable on its Friday injury report.
If all that sounds like the kind of opponent a good team should chew up and spit out without any excess masticating, it's interesting that the Steelers almost choked on it instead. The Colts were in position last night to stink even worse than they had in losing to Houston and Cleveland before their not-ready-for-prime-time appearance on NBC's Sunday night showcase.
But it wasn't any of that chicken wire and duct tape the Colts brought to this meeting of erstwhile AFC powers that proved decisive, it was rather the alleged starting tackles in front of Ben Roethlisberger.
The matchups most Steelers fans had feared all week turned out to be just about as hair-raising as anticipated. The people charged with fending off Indianapolis defensive ends Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis failed just often enough to turn a 10-0 Steelers lead into a 13-10 deficit problem that wouldn't seem to go away.
It was only when James Harrison finally discovered the Colts were almost equally vulnerable in the same exact spot -- specifically rookie left tackle Anthony Castonzo -- that Mike Tomlin's team righted itself in a wild fourth quarter and swiped a 23-20 victory on Shaun Suisham's late, late field goal.
Harrison beat Castonzo and slammed into Curtis Painter, the backup backup quarterback, with the resultant fumble one-hopping to Troy Polamalu, who danced in for the Steelers' only second-half touchdown.
That kind of thing went on pretty much all night.
Mathis, working against Steelers rookie Marcus Gilbert, dragged the Colts off the mat early in the second quarter when he ran Roethlisberger down from behind, separated 7 from the ball, and pounced on it at the 50.
Twelve fitful plays later, the Colts chopped the lead to 10-3 on a 21-yard kick from Adam Vinatieri, the only player on the field actually older than Collins.
Freeney, working against veteran left tackle Jonathan Scott, swooped in on Ben on the very next possession and forced another fumble that bounced directly to Colts defensive end Jamaal Anderson, who escaped Gilbert's dreary attempt at a tackle and rumbled 47 yards along the hash marks to the Steelers end zone and a 10-10 tie.
Not content with back-to-back turnovers and unable to run against Indianapolis' 30th-ranked rush defense, the Steelers went right back to deep passing game with disastrous results. Roethlisberger's high throw to Sanders on a post pattern flew long into the hands of rookie defensive back Joe Lefeged, who returned it 25 yards to the Steelers 27, where officials tacked on a 15-yard penalty against Antonio Brown for a low block, moving the ball to the 12. Collins missed badly on two end zone throws from there, but Vinatieri doesn't miss from there, and it was 13-10.
More ominously, the Steelers' severe offensive line problems were only beginning. The right flank soon disappeared altogether when both Gilbert and Doug Legursky went to the sideline with shoulder trouble. Ramon Foster and Trai Essex supplanted them, but the real damage was still piling up on the opposite edge around Scott.
In his increasing desperation to keep Freeney off Roethlisberger, Scott held him to stall a promising drive the Steelers put together in large part due to Heath Miller. They settled for Suisham's 44-yard field goal and a 13-13 tie.
On their next possession, the Steelers moved easily to the Indianapolis 31 after Brown's 37-yard punt return, but Scott lined up in the backfield to draw a penalty, then let Freeney sack Roethlisberger again to push the Steelers out of field-goal range.
You have thought, at this point, the Steelers would at least offer Scott some help with Freeney, but on third-and-8 at their 37 on the next possession, Miller lined up in the backfield to the right of Roethlisberger instead of to the left of Scott -- on Freeney's nose -- and Freeney promptly pushed Scott all the way into Ben's shins still again.
It was only then someone decided to give Scott some help, lining Miller up against Freeney and protecting Ben long enough to float a 22-yard pass to Mewelde Moore to spark a 60-yard drive to the winning field goal. Even at that, Scott was flattened by Freeney on the next play and left the field, forcing Gilbert, bad shoulder or no, back into the lineup at the opposite tackle.
How far can you go with an offense that can't run and can't protect?
Still have the number down at the Flozell Hotel?
First Published September 26, 2011 1:33 am