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Colts vs. Steelers: What to watch for Sunday

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - SEPTEMBER 24: Jacoby Brisset #7 of the Indianapolis Colts looks to pass the ball during the game against the Cleveland Browns at Lucas Oil Stadium on September 24, 2017 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – Areas of interest in the Indianapolis Colts’ Sunday meeting with the Pittsburgh Steelers at Lucas Oil Stadium.

Kickoff: 1 p.m.

Broadcast: CBS4

  • Make it stop: Chuck Pagano always talks of blinders and earmuffs. His message to players: stay focused on the task at hand and don’t be distracted by outside noise. Unless the Colts are able to buck a recent trend in their series with the Steelers, a third accessory might be necessary: a blindfold.

What’s transpired has been downright unsightly. The Steelers have won 14 of the last 16 in the series, including four straight. The last three have been by 21, 35 and 17 points.

Could those comprehensive drubbings serve as motivation?

“I could throw those up there,’’ Pagano said. “I mean, those guys know what it is . . . everybody understands what’s coming to town. You don’t need to beat a dead horse. We got to play better.’’

Or else.

“We haven’t played well and we better play better,’’ Pagano insisted, “otherwise it’ll be the same song and dance.’’

For the record, Indy’s last win over the Steelers came Nov. 9, 2008 and was in doubt until Peyton Manning hit Dominic Rhodes with a 17-yard touchdown in the closing minutes. The only current Colts who were even in the league at the time were Adam Vinatieri and Frank Gore. Only two others remain in the league: Dwight Freeney and Antonio Bethea.

  • On guard: The Steelers ride a three-game winning streak into Lucas Oil Stadium. They’re 6-2 and presently the top seed in the AFC based on a tiebreaker edge over New England. They have a hammerlock on the AFC North ahead of Baltimore (4-5), Cincinnati (3-5) and Cleveland (0-8).

But the Steelers have shown their vulnerable side. They fell in overtime at Chicago in week 3 and were dominated at home 30-9 by Jacksonville in week 5. They could be excused for overlooking a Colts bunch that’s been an easy touch the last three meetings, but that’s not likely to happen.

“This is a trap game for us,’’ admitted Steelers tackle Marcus Gilbert. “There will be a lot of noise out there, people expecting us to win. We can’t hear all that noise. We have to execute the game plan and not shoot ourselves in the foot. That’s been our issue this year – not playing up to the level in games we’re supposed to win.

“This is a really good team, but we can’t go out there and lay an egg.’’

  • Control the controllables: Or at least contain them. Limit the damage done by Antonio Brown, who leads the NFL in receptions (57), yards (835), 100-yard games (3) and receptions of at least 20 yards (13). Keep Le’Veon Bell on a short leash. He’s third in the league in rushing (760 yards) and the Colts should anticipate seeing a ton of him. Bell is averaging a league-high 24.3 carries per game.

Roethlisberger makes it all go, even though he’s yet to really go off this season. He has 10 touchdowns, 9 interceptions and an 82.7 passer rating that ranks 26th. Roethlisberger is completing a modest 61.1 percent of his passes, which would be the lowest since 2008. Maybe the Colts and their 31st-ranked defense are the perfect elixir.

In the last three meetings, Roethlisberger has used the Colts for target practice. He’s amassed a ridiculous 144.6 rating by completing 72.2 percent of his passes for 1,107 yards with 13 touchdowns and no interceptions. Remember 2014? That’s when he completed 40-of-49 passes for 522 yards – the most by a Steelers QB and most allowed by the Colts – and 6 TDs.

“They’re going to make some plays,’’ Pagano said. “That’s what they do for a living.’’

The Colts defense is coming off its two best games of the season. After allowing a fat 426.6 yards per game over the first seven games, it has tightened things down considerably. The defense limited Cincinnati to 276 yards and Houston to 288. Neither team, it’s worth mentioning, featured the star power that’s coming to town.

“Pittsburgh brings out the best in every team they play simply because of what they are and who they are and how they approach the game,’’ coordinator Ted Monachino said. “Motivation won’t be a problem.

“There are things that we’ve got to make sure that we tend to and people that we have to make sure that we tend to, and we’ve built a plan that’s simple and sound enough that we can do that.’’

  • Be cautiously aggressive: It’s hard to imagine this coming down to a defensive slugfest. We expect Pittsburgh’s offense to be effective – too many weapons – so Jacoby Brissett, T.Y. Hilton and Frank Gore are going to have to keep pace. Our advice? Take the shots when they’re available, but concentrate on sustaining drives and keeping Roethlisberger and the rest where they’re easy to defend – on the bench.

That figures to be a tough chore. First, the Colts have yet to prove they can consistently move the chains. A breakdown of their 111 offensive possessions reveals only 9 that have involved more than 5 minutes and just 15 that have included at least four first downs. Blame lackluster work on third down – 38 percent, 17th in the league – along with pass protection allowing a league-high 36 sacks and the offensive line being flagged for 15 false starts, tied for most in the league.

Move the chains, and strike when the opportunity is there. Hilton should be motivated by sharing the field with Brown, his long-time friend. He’s coming off the 175-yard, two-TD outing at Houston which furthered established himself as one of the NFL’s big-play artists. He has 11 receptions of at least 20 yards, which is second to Brown, and a league-high 5 that have covered at least 40 yards.

But as we mentioned, be aggressive without being reckless. The Steelers are tied for 4th with 26 sacks rank in the middle of the pack with 11 takeaways.

  • And the winner is: Steelers 30, Colts 16. We tried to figure out a scenario that had the Colts pulling the upset. Couldn’t do it. If they limit Brown (which we doubt), Bell will rip ‘em. If they corral Bell (which is iffy), Brown will run through their secondary. And Big Ben has absolutely owned them.

You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.