Two perennial AFC powers meet this Sunday night at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis when the Pittsburgh Steelers visit to take on the Indianapolis Colts. Kickoff is scheduled for 8:20. Pittsburgh has been installed as 10 point favorites by the oddsmakers.
For the first time since the 1998 season (Manning's rookie campaign), the Indianapolis Colts have started the regular season 0-2, and you don't have to be a nuclear physicist to understand why: Peyton Manning's neck injury. The future Hall of Famer is out indefinitely, and needless to say, the Colts are struggling to adapt to life without #18 on the field.
The Colts won-loss record isn't the only victim of the four-time MVP's physical disability however. TV networks, who've never hesitated to schedule Indianapolis as often as possible since Manning's become one of the league's iconic performers, are now stuck with the Colts for no fewer than five national prime-time appearances this season, beginning with the Steeler contest.
Veteran QB Kerry Collins, who came out of retirement to try and keep the Colts afloat, has yet to perform miracles, while Manning's primary back-up, Curtis Painter, has yet to instill confidence in the coaching staff that he's an adequate NFL signal-caller. The Colts offense is so geared to Manning's unique abilities that the once fearsome, prolific attack is, at best, one of the NFL's least productive, ranking 27th overall in passing yards and 23rd in rushing. In two games, the Colts have put 26 points, total, on the scoreboard, which was a not unusual first-half total with Manning at the helm. One slim ray of hope for the Colts is that Kerry Collins is 3-1 lifetime versus Pittsburgh with 5 TDs and just 1 INT. WR Reggie Wayne has essentially been the only bright spot for the Colts, with 11 receptions for 172 yards.
Pittsburgh, after being blown out in their season opener by arch-rival Baltimore, bounced back in Week Two with completely dominant 24-0 shutout over Seattle. The Steeler trademark defense, which seems to defy aging, is clicking on all cylinders, ranking 4th league-wide in opposing passing yardage and 12th in rushing yards. The linebacking corps is as aggressive as ever, with Harrison, Woodley, Farrior and Timmons, even though not the youngest unit, is still, overall, the finest group in the NFL. The secondary (Taylor, McFadden, Polamalu and Clark) isn't far behind in terms of efficiency and being opportunistic, and their capacity for hard-hitting is still feared by receivers league-wide.
Offensively, QB Ben Roethlisberger recovered nicely from the Baltimore debacle against Seattle, connecting on 22 of 30 for 298 yards and a score, while RBs Rashard Mendenhall and Isaac Redman combined for 115 yards and two TDs. Expect the Steelers to pound away with their ground attack versus the Colts, who appear to be ill-equipped to slow them down.
Indianapolis' defense is undergoing restructuring, with veteran DEs Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis the two Colts defenders generally given the most attention by the opposing offensive line. The feeling is that if those two can be controlled somewhat, no one else on the unit is going to overwhelm their man. The off-season loss of S Bob Sanders leaves a huge hole along the back line, while the LB corps is not only relatively inexperienced, but also lacks depth. Look for Big Ben to mix in short, middle of the field passes with the ground game to open up the field deep for WR Mike Wallace and veteran Hines Ward.
Given Kerry Collins' relative immobility, expect Pittsburgh to blitz frequently, and for S Troy Polamalu to be assigned to shadow Reggie Wayne. This could leave TE Dallas Clark with some openings, and hopefully, Collins can find him as he otherwise tries to escape with his life, avoiding LB James Harrison and company.
What appeared to be a splendid matchup between two of the AFC's contenders prior to the season has taken a huge hit with Manning's injury, leaving TV scheduling executives stuck with the good possibility of viewers reaching for the remote control early on.