PITTSBURGH – Eenie, Meenie, Miney, Moe: Which statistic, in this blizzard of statistics, best describes the Indianapolis Colts’ O?My mother said to pick the very best one …
In the NFL’s 85 years, only 24 seasonal offenses had a quarterback throw for over 4,000 yards and a running back and wide receiver each gain over 1,000 yards.
These 10-0 Colts, whom the 7-3 Pittsburgh Steelers will try to stop tonight, have done it five times in the last six seasons. They’ve done it with the same set of “triplets” four times and only one other set has done it twice. So the Colts’ Peyton Manning, Edgerrin James and Marvin Harrison define the greatest and perhaps most balanced offense in NFL history.
The Steelers normally gear up to stop the run, but with Manning having his pick of three 1,000-yard (in 2004) receivers, which aspect should the visiting team attempt to stop first tonight?
“Take your pick,” said Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau. “They’ve got an excellent running game and of course their passing game. They’re right at the top of the league in all those offensive statistics.
“That’s probably their biggest strength is you can’t point to one area and say that’s the area you want to stop. You’ve got to do a good job against everything and that’s kind of what you have to do in this league to win anyhow.”
So, it’s Eenie, Meenie, Miney, Moe, huh Dick?
“The only time I guess is when it’s wrong. When we do it right, I’m not guessing,” LeBeau said with a chuckle. “You’ve got to play good defense and keep them from making big plays. You can’t let them get the big chunks of yards – make them go the hard way. Every week, that’s our objective.”
So the Steelers have game-planned to take away the big play. Or, as strong safety Troy Polamalu put it: “You’ve got to defend the whole football field, unlike against Baltimore.”
To take away the big play, the Steelers must stop James (1,116 rushing yards this year), Harrison (58 receptions, 8 touchdowns), Reggie Wayne (59 receptions, 750 yards), Brandon Stokley (33 receptions) and emerging tight end Dallas Clark (25 receptions, team-high 13.2 yards per catch).
To make matters more difficult for the Steelers, Colts kicker Mike Vanderjagt (11 for 12) is the most accurate kicker in NFL history and the same five offensive linemen have started every game this season.
If dropping more players into coverage is the Steelers’ plan, Manning will read it at the line and check off to James. If the Steelers blitz, Manning will squeeze every second out of the play clock and possibly burn them with a big play.
LeBeau likens Manning’s approach to that of Boomer Esiason of the Cincinnati Bengals in the late 1980s. LeBeau was the Bengals’ defensive coordinator at the time and he squared off against Esiason and company every day in practice. Surely, LeBeau has some tricks up his sleeve, or at least some carefully considered theories on how to stop such a quarterback.
“I don’t have any secrets, and no theories,” LeBeau said. “It’s going to be a lot of hard work from our guys and that’s always the theory and that’s always the secret: good hard work and a coordinated defense. Make a few plays and keep them from making the big ones.”
And run the ball. It’s been the Steelers’ calling card throughout the Bill Cowher era. If they can run the ball, they can control the clock. And if the Steelers control the clock, Manning and his cadre of playmakers will be off the field.
To that end, the Steelers will be helped by the return of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and left tackle Marvel Smith, as well as the expected insertion of Duce Staley as the third-down back behind Willie Parker and Jerome Bettis. The Steelers will be in their best health of the season tonight.
“We haven’t lost confidence,” said wide receiver Hines Ward. “Yes, we lost a disappointing game to Baltimore, but we’re looking at the big picture. The three games we lost, we easily could’ve won. We could easily be 10-0 right now. We’re staying in the game. There hasn’t been a team that’s dominated us and blew us out of the water. We’ve put ourselves in a position to win every ball game we played, and that’s what you’ve got to look at.
“Could we have played better last week? Yes, we could have, but if you look at the bigger picture, nobody has beaten us physically and dominated us. That’s the most encouraging thing.”
That’s the hope against the greatest offense in NFL history.