This game presents us with an interesting setup when we ask, “What are the Steelers good at?” This is similar to a couple weeks ago when the Lions were playing the Vikings and we asked, “Why are the Vikings a good pass defense?” — and we found that their strengths matched up with elements the Lions’ passing attack wasn’t even focused on, while they were average at defending things that the Lions do well. This week, when we ask, “What are the Steelers good at?” the answer is creating turnovers and getting after the quarterback. The Steelers are a perfectly average pass defense in nearly every metric. They’ve been really solid against the run (3.75 yards allowed per carry to running backs), but they rank bottom half of the league in drive success rate allowed. And in spite of these “solid, but not particularly scary” metrics, the Steelers have allowed fewer notable stat lines than any team in the NFL (Hunter Henry’s 8-100-0, and Phillip Dorsett’s 4-95-2). The other three teams in the Steelers’ division are averaging over 10 notable games allowed apiece. So how have the Steelers kept opponents from compiling any meaningful stat lines against them? By ranking sixth in the league in sacks and second in the league in turnovers. But this week, the Steelers will be taking on a Colts team with a strong offensive line and a ball-out-quick attack that has allowed the fourth fewest sacks and suffered the fourth fewest giveaways in the league. If Jacoby Brissett and the disciplined, well-schemed Colts can avoid sacks and turnovers, it’s not crazy to think we could see a third “notable stat line” emerge in this spot.
The best bet for such a game, of course, is T.Y. Hilton, who has bounce-around target counts on the year of 9 // 6 // 10 // 4 // 11 // 6. Steelers opponents have been neutral in how they choose to attack, and it’s highly likely that this run-leaning Colts team (fifth lowest pass play rate in the league) continues to lean toward the run for as long as they control this game (which — given the coaching advantage Frank Reich has over most opponents — tends to be the entirety of most games). As such, Hilton will need one of two things to happen in order for volume to pile up (which is necessary to bet on him and his short-area role beyond just “throwing a dart and hoping for the best”). 1) He’ll need the offense to simply concentrate heavily on him, or 2) He’ll need the Steelers to get enough going on offense for the Colts to be forced into a more aggressive game plan. From a “concentrating heavily on him” standpoint, this is an average spot for that bet. The Steelers corners have been stationary this year, which will allow Hilton to move around for the matchup that suits him best; but there is no clear weak link in the Steelers secondary for the Colts to go out of their way to exploit. This leaves “needing the Steelers offense to get going” as a worthwhile bet to make on the other side of a Hilton roster, as that may prove to be his clearest path to big volume.
The rest of the Colts passing attack is entirely whack-a-mole — with Brissett’s often-limited pass attempts spread across eight to nine players each week. There are players like Jack Doyle or even Eric Ebron who can be considered for savings on FantasyDraft and DraftKings as “three to six target players in a good matchup” (the Steelers’ weakest link is tight ends, as explored in this space multiple times over the last few weeks), but nothing in this passing attack becomes a true upside play outside of hoping for the best. In fact, the same can be said for this offense as a whole, as Marlon Mack runs into the toughest matchup and still sees no schemed work in the pass game (on a team that doesn’t operate outside its scheme much), leaving him as a yardage-and-touchdown back in a below-average matchup with a low scoring expectation for his team as a whole.
Which brings us to the “possible exception” we have mentioned a number of times: can the Steelers score enough points to force Indy to become more aggressive?
Short answer: probably not.
Pittsburgh has run the ball on 51.7% of their plays across their last three games — and while that includes the Devlin Hodges week, they haven’t exactly been asking Mason Rudolph to let it rip, either, with only one game on the year north of 28 pass attempts, and with a high-water mark of 251 passing yards…on 36 attempts…in comeback mode against the Miami Dolphins. In other words: barring some fluky ball-bounces early (some missed tackles and a big play; a turnover (or two) returned for a touchdown; a trick play working early in the game and leading to a two-score lead for one of these teams), this game should play out about the way Vegas expects (21 to 22 is the current Vegas-implied outcome), with the Colts moving the ball well enough to score the occasional touchdown or field goal, and with the Steelers trying to control the game on the ground against Darius Leonard and one of the tougher run defenses in the league. In this scenario, the Steelers will hammer the shorter areas of the field against a defense that invites teams to do exactly that — with a small number of strategic shots mixed in. The game will remain close and scientific rather than free-form and aggressive, and while this will likely lead to one or two Steelers players posting a solid, price-considered output, it will be difficult for any player from this offense to produce a score you have to have.
JM’s Interpretation ::
If you want to play an alternate path here :: the Colts force everything to the short areas of the field and tackle well after the catch, but they are generally content allowing receptions (providing a 7% boost to the league-average catch rate — the fifth highest boost in the league). If Rudolph and the Steelers can avoid the mistakes and negative plays that the Colts bank on each team eventually making against them (taking sacks, missing an open throw to set up third-and-long, focusing too heavily on the run, committing a penalty, turning the ball over, etc.), they should be able to move the ball on underneath throws to JuJu Smith-Schuster and Diontae Johnson; and this could lead to the Steelers producing more points than expected (and the Colts responding in kind). It’s an interesting scenario to build around, as each team has multiple players who can score from anywhere on the field (Mack // Hilton // JuJu // Diontae // Washington — just among players who are actively involved). But each team is also good at tackling, and is disciplined on the back end; so such breakdowns remain unlikely.
On my main builds, of course, I’ll view this game through the lens of the likeliest scenarios — which has a few strong scores emerging from this game, but with some unpredictability as to where those scores will come from, and without a lot of clear paths to slate-breaking upside to make the plays worth whatever “mediocre game” risk exists on guys like Hilton // JuJu // Diontae // Conner // etc. Conner actually ends up being the player I’d be likeliest to play, as his role is just so valuable. He has smashed in obvious spots (Dolphins // Chargers // Bengals) while failing to show up in “tough to average” spots so far, but the workload still gives him some level of attractiveness. I could also see a shot on Doyle as a deep salary saver (DK/FDraft only) in order to open other spots on your roster (you can typically capture eight to 12 points from him), but outside of that I’m seeing this game as more of a “game-stack-only” spot for me this week.
:: Compete against the OWS fam in the One Week Season Survivor contest!