The Indianapolis Colts haven't started out a season 0-3 caller currently on the sidelines and the reigning AFC titleholders next on the docket, they're in some serious danger of reaching that undesirable mark this week.
The spiraling Colts will try to reverse their recent misfortune in Sunday's home bout with a Pittsburgh Steelers squad that bounced back to championship- level form last weekend following a season-opening stumble against its fiercest rival.
Manning has missed the first two contests of his legendary 14-year career while the four-time league MVP slowly recovers from a pair of neck surgeries that have placed his 2011 season in doubt. To say the Colts have missed his presence under center would be a grave understatement.
With the aging Kerry Collins now at the controls, the once-mighty Indianapolis offense has been uncharacteristically impotent through the season's first two weeks. The Colts have compiled meager averages of 13 points and 260.5 total yards per game while suffering a pair of defeats, a 34-7 thrashing at the hands of AFC South cohort Houston in Week 1 followed by last Sunday's 27-19 home setback to Cleveland.
Collins hasn't done a very good Manning impression over those games, with the 38-year-old managing just 388 passing yards and turning the ball over four times while completing a skittish 50.7 percent of his passes.
Indianapolis also ranks near the bottom of the league in third-down conversions (21.7 percent) and struggled in the red zone in its latest defeat, settling for two of kicker Adam Vinatieri's four field goals against the Browns in its three trips inside the 20-yard line.
"We have to do a better job of capitalizing on those opportunities when we get them," admitted Collins. "We need to keep getting better at third downs. It hasn't been good enough. We moved the ball, but for whatever reason we weren't able to convert and stay on the field."
A breakout performance this week may be tough to come by, however. The Steelers boast a skilled and experienced defense that's yielded the second-fewest yards (449) and stands fourth against the pass (174.0 ypg) at the moment, and the well-regarded group heads to Lucas Oil Stadium off a domineering display its last time out.
Pittsburgh stifled the wayward Seattle Seahawks in its 2011 home opener this past Sunday, holding its punchless opponent to a paltry 164 total yards and eight first downs in a 24-0 victory that marked the Steelers' first shutout since 2008.
That determined effort brought about some measure of redemption for an atypically awful outing in Week 1, when the Steelers were dealt an ugly 35-7 loss by fellow AFC North inhabitant Baltimore in which the Black and Gold were done in by seven turnovers and the Ravens bulled their way for 170 rushing yards.
That humbling result remains fresh in the mind of Pittsburgh head coach Mike Tomlin, who knows his team can't be looking past their wounded foe this week.
"I am still chewing on last week," Tomlin said after the Seattle game. "I am sure we all are. That's just the nature of this thing. It's not going to take one performance to take that stench off of us."
The Steelers are 13-6 in their all-time regular-season series with the Colts, though Indianapolis has won each of the last two non-playoff encounters between the teams. The most recent one took place in Pittsburgh in 2008, with the Colts rallying for a 24-20 triumph on a late Manning touchdown pass to running back Dominic Rhodes. Indianapolis also bested the Steelers at the RCA Dome in 2005, a 26-7 verdict.
Pittsburgh is 1-2 lifetime in Indianapolis under regular-season conditions, with the lone win a 21-3 decision at the RCA Dome on Oct. 6, 1991.
The Steelers have never lost to the Colts in five postseason matchups, including a 21-18 road stunner over top-seeded Indy in a 2005 AFC Divisional Playoff. Pittsburgh also topped the Colts in Divisional Round contests in 1975 and 1976, claimed a narrow 20-16 home decision in the 1995 AFC Championship, and drilled Indianapolis by a 42-14 margin in a 1996 AFC First-Round Playoff.
Tomlin is 0-1 against the Colts during his time as the Steelers' head coach, while Indianapolis' Jim Caldwell has never previously faced either Pittsburgh or Tomlin as a sideline boss.
WHEN THE STEELERS HAVE THE BALL
Pittsburgh's calling card may be on defense, but the team is doubly difficult to overtake when quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (578 passing yards, 2 TD, 3 INT) is on top of his game. That wasn't the case in the season opener, with the two-time Super Bowl champion responsible for five of the Steelers' seven miscues against the Ravens, but he rebounded strongly by connecting on a crisp 22-of-30 passes for 298 yards and a touchdown in last week's rout. A good number of those throws landed in the hands of standout wide receiver Mike Wallace (16 receptions, 233 yards, 1 TD), who delivered his fifth straight 100- yard game in regular-season play by amassing career bests of eight catches and 126 receiving yards along with a touchdown. The third-year pro is one of the premier deep threats in the league, averaging 19.5 yards per grab over his career, and the new headliner of a deep wideout corps that still contains the ultra-reliable Hines Ward (9 receptions) along with an ascending talent in sophomore Antonio Brown (6 receptions), who came up with 67 yards on four catches versus Seattle. The running game was steady but unspectacular last Sunday, with the backfield duo of Rashard Mendenhall (111 rushing yards, 1 TD, 2 receptions) and Isaac Redman (61 rushing yards, 1 TD) combining for 115 yards and two scores on 29 carries while the Steelers killed the clock, but the anticipated return of left guard Chris Kemoeatu (knee) from a one-game absence could help in that department.
Provided Roethlisberger has adequate time to survey the field, he should be able to dissect an Indianapolis defense that's allowed opposing quarterbacks to complete nearly 70 percent of their throws, though the secondary is adept at limiting big plays. He'll be tested, however, by the prowess of edge rushers Robert Mathis (4 tackles, 1 sack) and Dwight Freeney (2 tackles, 1 sacks), two of the game's top pressure producers who've combined for over 20 sacks in each of the last three seasons. The Colts are more susceptible to the run, having permitted an average of 136.5 rushing yards per game (29th overall) and a league-high four touchdowns on the ground, and may be without three starters -- middle linebacker Gary Brackett (shoulder), strong safety Melvin Bullitt (shoulder) and defensive tackle Fili Moala (ankle) -- on Sunday. Indianapolis did a decent job keeping Cleveland power back Peyton Hillis in check last week, though, with leading tackler Pat Angerer (21 tackles) holding his own subbing for Brackett and weakside starter Kavell Conner (15 tackles) compiling 10 stops and forcing a fumble.
WHEN THE COLTS HAVE THE BALL
Collins (388 passing yards, 2 TD, 1 INT) had been enjoying a brief retirement until the well-traveled veteran was called into duty late in the preseason, and his mediocre numbers indicate he's still getting up to speed with his new team's offense. The 17th-year field general still has a big arm, however, as well as some very good targets to throw to, as lynchpin wide receiver Reggie Wayne (11 receptions, 172 yards, 1 TD) and tight end Dallas Clark (8 receptions, 1 TD) are two of the best at their positions and speedy wideout Pierre Garcon (6 receptions) is well-skilled at stretching the field. Running back Joseph Addai (103 rushing yards, 6 receptions) provides a quality safety valve out of the backfield as well, though the two-time 1,000-yard rusher has been sharing the ball-carrying load this year with promising rookie Delone Carter (71 rushing yards), who's passed disappointing former first-rounder Donald Brown on the depth chart and contributed 46 yards on 11 carries in last week's loss. Clark missed some practice time this week with a sore foot, but doesn't appear to be in danger of missing the game.
Expect esteemed Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau to come after the rather immobile Collins with a heavy pass rush spearheaded by the outstanding outside linebacker tandem of James Harrison (13 tackles, 1 sack) and LaMarr Woodley (6 tackles, 1.5 sacks), the main reason why Pittsburgh led the NFL with 48 sacks a year ago. The Steelers also topped the league in both scoring defense and run defense while surrendering the second-fewest total yards in the league during last season's march to Super Bowl XLV, and returned to their terrorizing ways with a five-sack outburst against the Seahawks. The unit also shut down Seattle's attempts to run the ball, with safety and 2010 NFL Defensive Player of the Year Troy Polamalu (14 tackles, 1 sack) and rugged inside linebacker Lawrence Timmons (20 tackles) each amassing eight tackles to help limit the Seahawks to a mere 31 yards on the ground. Polamalu and cornerback Ike Taylor (2 tackles, 2 PD), who'll be shadowing Wayne on Sunday, are the cornerstones of a secondary that's allowed the fourth-fewest passing yards (348) in the league to date. The Steelers have yet to force a turnover this year, however, and will likely be without sturdy end Brett Keisel (5 tackles) this week due to a knee sprain.
KEYS TO THE GAME
For the Steelers, it's simply about playing their brand of football and doing it effectively. The defense should be able to keep Indianapolis' weakened attack at bay as long as it performs at or near its usual standards, while the offense can't suffer a meltdown like it did in the Week 1 blowout loss at Baltimore. The Colts won't win this game without getting a few breaks along the way.
The Indianapolis offense has to operate at an improved efficiency to have a chance, though that's no small task against Pittsburgh's formidable defense. Converting under a quarter of your third-down attempts usually won't cut it against any NFL opponent, while the red-zone opportunities need to end up in touchdowns instead of field goals.
One Steelers weakness the Colts may be able to exploit lies on the offensive line, where right tackle Willie Colon is lost for the season with a torn triceps, while left-side starter Jonathan Scott has been responsible for three of the six sacks Roethlisberger has taken over the two games. He and rookie Marcus Gilbert are going to need assistance dealing with Freeney and Mathis, and a serviceable running game would also help in keeping Indianapolis' pass- rushing stars neutralized.
The Steelers' strong credentials and Indianapolis' obvious offensive problems may immediately draw the conclusion that this game will be a one-sided one, and that could very well be the case if Pittsburgh puts it all together. It's unclear as to whether the defending AFC champs are truly at their best right now, however, as an easy win over a hapless Seattle team really doesn't tell much, and the Colts will be playing with a sense of urgency in order to avoid having the season completely slip away. Look for the Steelers to sputter a bit on offense, and its dependable defense to come up with several key stops and a couple of costly mistakes out of Collins.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Steelers 24, Colts 16