AFC North: Andrew Luck

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CINCINNATI -- Twice in his end-of-season news conference Monday -- once at the beginning, once more near the end -- Marvin Lewis offered remorse to the city of Cincinnati and the fans of his team who inhabit it.

The 12th-year Cincinnati Bengals head coach understood how desperate they have grown for a playoff win. After Sunday's 26-10 wild-card round loss at Indianapolis, they still haven't seen a Bengals postseason victory since January 1991.

"I'm disappointed for the team. I'm disappointed for our fans. I'm disappointed for the city," Lewis said during his near 30-minute media session. "The city needs to win on a big scale. Big time. They deserve it. And that's what I'm disappointed in. It's not about me, it's about them.

"One day when I walk out of [the news conference room], hopefully I leave that trophy in here, and I just keep on stepping. That's all I want to do. I'm telling you, that's all I want to do. And you'll never hear from me again."

[+] EnlargeBengals
AP Photo/Michael ConroyCoach Marvin Lewis says his team's goal isn't just to be in the playoffs, but to be "world champions."
With Sunday's loss, Lewis became the second coach in NFL history to have lost six consecutive playoff games while associated with the same team. Steve Owen was the only other coach to accomplish the ominous feat, doing so in 1939-50. He had two NFL championships before the playoff drought began, and ended up coaching three more seasons after the sixth playoff loss. His 22-year career -- all spent with the New York Giants -- ended following a 3-9 campaign in 1953.

Like Owen, even after playoff loss No. 6, Lewis doesn't appear to be heading anywhere.

In order to better put his team in position to win a playoff game, Lewis said Monday his entire staff needed to coach better.

"I told our coaches [Monday] that moving forward, we're going to find a way to do better," Lewis said. "We've got to do better. We've got to find a way to get our guys through the little things, the critical moments of the game, to get those things done in a game that has the importance of a playoff game."

The Bengals didn't have any memorable plays on offense, and they couldn't take advantage of cornerback Darqueze Dennard's forced fumble in the second half. Big, momentum-turning plays like Colts quarterback Andrew Luck's well-placed third-quarter, 36-yard touchdown pass to Donte Moncrief while being tackled, didn't happen for the Bengals.

Lewis said he hadn't yet reached the point in the offseason where he and the front office have discussed making changes to the coaching staff.

At least one change could come whether he wants it to or not. Offensive coordinator Hue Jackson could land a head-coaching job for the first time since the Raiders fired him in 2011.

Whether that happens, the bottom line is Lewis believes it's on all his coaches to get the team better prepared to achieve more.

"You're fortunate to have earned your way into the playoffs again, but we're not here just to go to the playoffs," Lewis said. "In fact, that's not even a goal. Our goals are to be undefeated at home, win the AFC North and be world champions.

"So we're not satisfied with just being in the playoffs. There's a lot to be proud of for our players, the things they've accomplished, but there's more to it than just getting there. That's why we do this."

W2W4: Bengals vs. Colts

January, 3, 2015
Jan 3
4:00
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INDIANAPOLIS -- A few storylines to watch Sunday when the Cincinnati Bengals visit the Indianapolis Colts at Lucas Oil Stadium in an AFC wild-card game:

Hill
Hill ignores the noise: All this week, monitors in the Bengals' locker room occasionally flashed a message bearing the words: "Ignore the noise." At one point during his news conference Wednesday, as he addressed a question about the Bengals' 24-year playoff-win drought, Bengals coach Marvin Lewis even uttered them in his succinct response. It appears rookie running back Jeremy Hill has been paying attention. Hill told me this week that he had avoided watching ESPN and other sports networks in an effort to have a one-track mind this weekend. He said it's the same approach he took entering the Week 15 game at Cleveland when he rushed for 148 yards and two touchdowns. As he goes for his fourth straight 100-yard rushing game, keep an eye on Hill. He figures to be a large part of the Bengals' game plan as they try to be run-focused this week.

Dalton
Dalton
Which Andy Dalton shows up? This is arguably the biggest question entering the game. The fourth-year quarterback has mostly been inconsistent throughout his career. He's been known to put up 300-yard, three-touchdown, no-interception numbers in sporadic games, and then have trouble connecting with any of his receivers in others. You never can tell which Dalton will step up, particularly in big games. He's 0-3 in playoff games, with one touchdown pass and six interceptions. His career postseason QBR is about 35 points lower than his career regular-season QBR. One thing we have learned about the Bengals under offensive coordinator Hue Jackson, though, is that his offense can operate without putting too much pressure on Dalton to play the role of hero. Expect that to happen Sunday. That is precisely why Hill ought to be a major focal point of the scheme.

Luck
Will Andrew Luck go off? As poorly as Dalton's numbers have been in three postseasons, Luck's haven't been much better. The Colts quarterback has more interceptions (eight) than touchdowns (six), and has a 1-2 record. He very nearly went 0-2 in his first two playoff games, but staged a big comeback in last year's wild-card round win against the Chiefs. Down 38-10 in the third quarter, Luck rallied the Colts to a 45-44 win. Performances like that have the Bengals motivated to keep Luck contained for all 60 minutes. With injuries all along Indianapolis' offensive line, and the Colts playing their 11th offensive line combination, Cincinnati has to believe it can get pressure on the quarterback.

Green
No Green, no problem: Of obvious concern all week was the status of Bengals receiver A.J. Green. The Pro Bowler spent the last six days under concussion protocol after taking a hard blow to the head in the fourth quarter of last week's loss in Pittsburgh. He's still going through it. The team announced Saturday afternoon he was officially out because of the concussion. A deep threat in the play-action passing game, Green would have been a good weapon for the Bengals to have. But there are reasons why they shouldn't be too concerned about his absence. Much like Dalton, Green's best performances have come in the regular season. In three playoff games, Green has caught only 13 passes on 32 targets, and he doesn't have a touchdown. Of Dalton's six interceptions, four came while targeting Green. Maybe that means the Bengals might be better without Green? They won't be better without Green and tight end Jermaine Gresham, though. Nursing a back injury all week, Gresham is questionable.
CINCINNATI -- Only twice since Marvin Lewis took over as the Cincinnati Bengals' head coach in 2003 has his defense had 20 or fewer sacks in a season.

The first time it happened? 2008.

The second? 2014.

That's right, six seasons after Lewis' Bengals recorded just 17 sacks of opposing quarterbacks, the group had exactly 20 this season. For a defense that had earned a reputation the previous five years for being aggressive, sack-focused and crafty with blitzes, it was a far lower number than had been expected.

[+] EnlargeWallace Gilberry
AP Photo/David RichardThe Bengals and Wallace Gilberry are not concerned with their low regular-season sack total. They just care about getting to Colts QB Andrew Luck.
Naturally, many will pin the lower sack total on defensive coordinator Paul Guenther, who took over this season following former defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer's departure last January for the Minnesota head-coaching position.

Those who think the lack of pressure solely falls on Guenther are wrong.

However, it is Guenther's scheme, and he clearly has been less intent on sending extra pressure than Zimmer. According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Bengals blitzed on just 144 plays this season. That is 19 blitzes less than the fewest Zimmer ever called when he was with the Bengals. Per Stats & Information, Zimmer's defense blitzed 163 times both in 2008 -- his first year -- and 2012.

Though the Bengals might have given their defensive linemen less help this season, the fact is that like Zimmer's first season in Cincinnati, the players simply didn't get their pass-rushing job done.

None of that matters to the Bengals playing in Sunday's wild-card round game at Indianapolis, though. They contend the focus is to get after Colts quarterback Andrew Luck, disrupt his rhythm and try to register sacks.

"There's a lot of guys that have 15-plus sacks just sitting at home right now," defensive end Wallace Gilberry said. "So at the end of the day, none of that matters. We're in the playoffs, and we've got a chance to do something that hasn't been done around here, and that's to get out of the first round."

Cincinnati is 0-5 in the playoffs under Lewis.

The Bengals might get a little help from the Colts. Indianapolis' offensive line is expected to showcase its 11th different lineup this season with interior lineman A.Q. Shipley doubtful because of an ankle injury. He hasn't practiced all week.

In the Bengals' 27-0 loss at Indianapolis in October, Luck was sacked twice for a combined loss of nine yards.

As the season continued, his protection was increasingly worse. He had been sacked 1.6 times per game after the Week 7 meeting. Over the final nine games of the season, he was sacked an average 1.8 times.

Because of the injury and protection issues the Colts have had, keep an eye on how often they max-protect with either an extra offensive tackle or a tight end, both on the edge and in the backfield. Teams like Pittsburgh and Tampa Bay did it against Cincinnati down the stretch this season. With max-protect lines, defenses have trouble calling blitzes. It's one reason the Bengals' blitz numbers were down.

"When you blitz a lot in the beginning of the year and teams start max-protecting you on third downs, if you blitz, it's like banging your head up against a brick wall," Guenther said. "You got to be smart about it. That's the decision you got to make as a coordinator: Do you want to blitz against max protection or do you want to cover them when they're trying to keep everybody in?"

Decisions like these could be crucial to determining the outcome of Sunday's game.
PITTSBURGH -- The Pittsburgh Steelers are No. 16 in the NFL in total defense (357.9 yards allowed per game) and No. 21 in scoring defense (24.5 points allowed per game).

And the reality is the Steelers have been a middling defense for the last couple of seasons after playing it at an absurdly high level for the better part of a decade

There are numerous reasons why the unit has fallen off. One James Harrison won't entertain is that age has caught up with defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, who turned 77 in early September.

[+] EnlargePittsburgh's James Harrison
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesJames Harrison was credited with a second sack of Andrew Luck on Wednesday.
"It's nothing about Dick LeBeau is getting too old," the veteran outside linebacker said. "You've got a bunch of idiots that don't know what they're talking about when they say that so I do take it a little personal."

Harrison is doing his part to defend LeBeau's reputation as well as restore the intimidation factor to a defense that has too often lacked it recently.

Harrison recorded his 15th multi-sack game while with the Steelers in a 51-34 win over the Indianapolis Colts on Sunday, though it didn't become official until Wednesday -- three days after Pittsburgh's victory.

Harrison had been credited with a sack of Colts quarterback Andrew Luck and Elias Sports gave the 36-year-old Harrison a second sack on Wednesday, taking one that had been credited to strong safety Troy Polamalu.

"That's messed up," Polamalu said.

Then he laughed and conceded that Elias had been correct in crediting Harrison with both of the sacks that the Steelers managed against the Colts.

It seemed like old times in the Steelers' locker room on Wednesday with Polamalu and Harrison joking around. Moments like the one the two longtime teammates shared after practice almost didn't happen.

Harrison was content to walk away from the game when he officially retired in early September. When Jarvis Jones went down with a dislocated wrist a couple of weeks later and the Steelers needed immediate help at outside linebacker, Polamalu was among those who helped coax Harrison out of retirement.

Harrison said he would not have returned for any other team -- and that he would not have done so had his two sons been against it.

Even more than a month after coming out of retirement, Harrison still seems a little conflicted about having to put on hold his promise to spend more time with his sons.

"The big thing is not having that time with my kids like now. If I'm lucky I may get a few hours a week," Harrison said. "Being back right now it's still kind of hard because you're missing that time with them, you're missing those moments that you can't get back."

What Harrison has been getting back is his legs after not doing any football-related drills for more than nine months and it is showing.

Harrison, who is sharing snaps with Arthur Moats at right outside linebacker, helped the Steelers put consistent pressure on Luck last Sunday. That and the number of times that the Steelers hit Luck could bode well for the defense in the second half of the season.

"I like the direction we're going in," Harrison said. "We still have a lot of things we need to get better at."

The Film Don't Lie: Steelers

October, 28, 2014
10/28/14
11:00
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A weekly look at what the Pittsburgh Steelers must fix.

Cornerback Cortez Allen’s regression continued against the Indianapolis Colts, and the fourth-year veteran got yanked from the Steelers’ 51-34 win after giving up a pair of touchdown passes.

The Steelers replaced Allen at nickelback with Antwon Blake, who could remain in that role for the foreseeable future, including Sunday night's prime-time matchup against the Ravens.

Blake intercepted Andrew Luck in the fourth quarter to help preserve the Steelers’ most impressive win of the season. Allen, meanwhile, looks completely lost.

T.Y. Hilton turned him around with a double move late in the second quarter, and the Colts wide receiver caught a 28-yard touchdown pass even though Allen had given him a healthy cushion.

Allen leads the Steelers with two interceptions but inconsistency led to the Steelers replacing the 6-foot-1, 196-pounder as a starter with Brice McCain. Now Allen may have to fight to win back the nickelback job from Blake, who has primarily played special teams since signing with the Steelers last season.

What is most problematic about Allen’s play is he has either not adjusted to the NFL’s emphasis on enforcing the illegal contact rule on defensive backs or the former fourth-round draft pick is too often grabbing receivers because he doesn’t trust his technique.

PITTSBURGH -- The Pittsburgh Steelers were credited with seven quarterback hits in their 51-34 win over the Indianapolis Colts. I imagine that number will rise significantly after the Steelers coaches review film of the game and adjust any statistics from it accordingly.

The Steelers consistently pressured Andrew Luck and knocked him down a bunch of times. The defense seemed to play with an extra burst, energized by the need to harass Luck as well as the offense’s fast start.

Harrison
Harrison
One thing jumped out to me during the track meet that broke out on the Heinz Field turf. After one play in which the Steelers belted Luck and forced an incomplete pass, none other than James Harrison helped him up and tapped him on the side of the helmet.

I figured that was a sign of respect for the way Luck kept getting up and hanging in the pocket to keep the Colts in the game, so I asked Harrison about the gesture after the Steelers improved to 5-3.

“Helping him up, that’s not a big thing,” the veteran outside linebacker said. “Everybody thinks that’s a big thing to help somebody up. That’s just sportsmanship.”

Harrison then fixed one of his patented glares on me, not having to say anything else to let me know that he did not appreciate the question -- or that he thought it was dumber than, well, sportswriters.

It was classic Harrison, and the home locker room is not the only place where the Harrison of old surfaced Sunday at Heinz Field.

Harrison easily played his best game since the Steelers coaxed him out of retirement in late September. He recorded a sack and was credited with a quarterback hit, helping the Steelers hit Luck early and often.

The play of the 36-year-old Harrison stood out enough that coach Mike Tomlin singled him out in his post-game news conference.

“It was great to see James Harrison show glimpses of James Harrison,” Tomlin said. “He’s starting to show us what he’s capable of. He’s worked his tail off to get to this spot.”

And he is not done working.

Harrison, a five-time Pro Bowler from 2007-11, said conditioning-wise he feels like he is coming out of preseason since he didn’t re-sign with the Steelers until Sept. 22 and has had to work his way back into football shape.

“I’m in the process of losing a little bit of weight so I can move a little better, and it’s starting to show,” Harrison said. “Each week is a little better than the week before.”

PITTSBURGH -- The question triggered something that helped Pittsburgh Steelers center Maurkice Pouncey make sense of how his quarterback laid waste to a defense that had not given up a single point the previous Sunday.

That is why Pouncey's face broke into a knowing smile a couple of moments after he was asked if he had seen anything behind closed doors that portended the kind of record-setting performance Ben Roethlisberger put together when the Steelers needed it to secure a signature win.

"I'm glad you mentioned that," Pouncey said in an upbeat, but hardly euphoric, postgame locker room following the Steelers' 51-34 win against the Indianapolis Colts. "Usually, he's a little more relaxed before [games], but he was zoned in today. He didn't really say much."

His actions spoke volumes during a wild shootout Sunday that is more commonly associated with the Big 12 than it is the NFL.

Roethlisberger made a powerful statement by outplaying Andrew Luck and showing how good the Steelers' offense can be when he is at the top of his game.

In retrospect, we should have seen this coming.

OK, maybe not the 522 yards and six touchdowns and such sublime play that Roethlisberger fit the ball into tight windows when the situation dictated it -- or simply found the open man the multiple times the Colts generously offered up chunks of passing yards to Big Ben with broken coverages.

But the best game of Roethlisberger's career has its roots in back-to-back subpar performances in a close win against the Jacksonville Jaguars and then an embarrassing loss to the Cleveland Browns.

Roethlisberger has a competitive streak longer than the three rivers that meet in Pittsburgh, not far from Heinz Field. You knew with his résumé and competitive snarl that somebody was going to pay for that loss to the Browns, a team he usually owns.

What brought everything together for Roethlisberger and an offense that is good enough for the Steelers to contend in the AFC: the challenge of matching the prolific Colts offense.

It probably also didn't hurt that Roethlisberger had to have heard all of the questions last week about Luck's greatness and how the Steelers could possibly stop him and the Colts.

"He won't admit it, but I'm sure," Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said when asked if all of the Luck chatter motivated Roethlisberger. "You don't ascend to the position that he is professionally without that competitive fire burning. There was a lot written and said about their offense and their quarterback, and rightfully so. Some of it by me."

That had to fire up Roethlisberger even though he downplayed the Luck dynamic after becoming the first quarterback in NFL history with multiple 500-yard passing games.

"I don't know anyone who's more competitive than [No.] 7," Steelers defensive end Brett Keisel said, "and I've met a lot of dudes that have played in this league, and I've never met anyone who wants to win more than him."

Keisel is one of Roethlisberger's closest friends on the Steelers and has seen that competitive side everywhere from a football field to a fishing hole.

That is why it didn't surprise him Roethlisberger outplayed Luck.

Keisel, though, had such respect for Luck -- and the way he kept getting up after being knocked down like a bowling pin -- that he made a point to seek out the third-year man after the game and compliment him.

Keisel gushed about Luck in the Steelers' locker room.

But he also added: "I say all of that about Andrew, but Ben was the top dog, no doubt. He stood in the pocket, made big throws, big plays, flipped the field. It was amazing watching Ben."
A by-the-numbers look at the Indianapolis Colts-Pittsburgh Steelers game on Sunday at 4:25 p.m. ET.

-8: Steelers’ point differential, the worst of any team with at least four wins

.810: Colts’ winning percentage in games decided by eight or fewer points since 2012, the best in the NFL

1: Colts’ NFL rank in time of possession (36:56)

2: Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell’s NFL rank in yards from scrimmage (938)

3: Passes thrown by Colts quarterback Andrew Luck that should have been intercepted, according to ESPN Stats & Information, the most by any quarterback this season.

4: Total third-down conversions allowed by the Colts in their past four games

9: Steelers wins against the Colts the 11 times they have played in Pittsburgh

10: Colts players who have at least one sack this season

11: Sacks allowed by the Colts

17: Wins by Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger in 18 career October games at Heinz Field

18: Receptions Colts wide receiver T.Y. Hilton needs to break Marvin Harrison’s team record for most receptions in first three seasons (179)

18: Colts drives that have been at least 10 plays

19.3: Points allowed per game by the Steelers at home since 2012, fourth fewest in the AFC

26.7: First downs per game for the Colts, second-most in the NFL

34: Catches by Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown that have resulted in first downs

36: Catches by Hilton that have resulted in first downs, tops in the NFL

45: Catches tight end Heath Miller needs to move past John Stallworth and into second place on the Steelers’ all-time receptions list

87.9: Shaun Suisham’s field-goal percentage since joining the Steelers in 2010, tops in franchise history

96.0: Roethlisberger’s passer rating, 11th best in the NFL

100.5: Luck’s passer rating, seventh best in the NFL

Colts vs. Steelers preview

October, 24, 2014
10/24/14
8:00
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The streaking Indianapolis Colts will try to win their sixth game in a row on Sunday when they visit the Pittsburgh Steelers. Slowing down quarterback Andrew Luck will be the Steelers' priority, and they have to find a way to minimize his impact or score enough to keep pace with the 5-2 Colts. Beating Indianapolis would give Pittsburgh a 5-3 record at the halfway point of the season as well as a signature win.

ESPN Colts reporter Mike Wells and Steelers reporter Scott Brown take a closer look at the 4:25 p.m. ET game at Heinz Field.

Brown: Mike, the Steelers’ passing game has been torched by the likes of Mike Glennon and Brian Hoyer this season. The Steelers' pass rush has been average, and they are suspect in the secondary. That is not a good formula for stopping Luck. What is the best way to contain him, if that is possible?

Wells: Blitzing Luck is the best way, but that appears to be a problem for the Steelers. Luck has done an exceptional job of spreading the ball around this season. He is not just focusing on receivers Reggie Wayne or T.Y. Hilton. Luck had back-to-back games where he completed passes to nine different receivers this season. His biggest problem, though, is interceptions: He is tied for third in the league in that category with seven. The Colts have survived Luck’s miscues so far, but they won’t be as fortunate once they get to the playoffs and face teams that can make them pay for their mistakes.

The Steelers are a tough team to figure out. One week they get blown out by Cleveland, and then they come back and use an incredible performance in the second quarter to beat Houston. What is Pittsburgh’s identity?

Brown: Mike, I can’t figure out this team quarter to quarter, much less game to game. The defense certainly isn’t the one that people are accustomed to seeing. There is no intimidation factor, no swagger, and the Steelers are really just trying to get by defensively as they retool a unit that is in transition. The Steelers have the potential to forge a personality as a dynamic offensive team, as they have the NFL’s leading receiver in Antonio Brown, the second-leading rusher in Le'Veon Bell and, of course, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. The Steelers have moved the ball this season, but they have too often bogged down in the red zone. Maybe scoring three touchdowns in the last three minutes of the second quarter Monday night against the Texans will serve as a springboard for the offense. It had better put up a lot of points against the Colts if the Steelers are to beat one of the NFL’s hottest teams.

I normally don’t associate the Colts with the kind of defense they played in absolutely stifling the Bengals on Sunday. Is Indianapolis' defense underrated?

Wells: It is very underrated. I didn’t think this defense had a chance once linebacker Robert Mathis, last season’s sack leader, was lost for the season with a torn Achilles. The unit appeared to be headed for a rough season after it had only one sack over the first two games. But defensive coordinator Greg Manusky has taken a hold-nothing-back approach with his defense. With two cornerbacks who can blanket receivers, Greg Toler and Vontae Davis, Manusky is loading the box and constantly blitzing. That is why the Colts have 20 sacks and nine turnovers during their five-game winning streak. They have also held their past four opponents to 4-of-41 on third down. People might not have respected the Colts' defense before, but now teams have to take notice.

The Steelers have a history of being a good defensive team. They are 15th in the league in yards allowed a game. Are they on the decline defensively?

Brown: That is a great question. The Steelers have to hope it doesn’t get any worse defensively, or they could be in trouble. They have some promising young players to build around in rookie linebacker Ryan Shazier and rookie defensive end Stephon Tuitt. But the Steelers have serious questions at outside linebacker, especially if 2013 first-round pick Jarvis Jones doesn’t develop into a pass-rushing force. Cornerback is also an issue, a position at which the organization has not drafted well or neglected, depending on your vantage point. Cortez Allen is the Steelers’ best young cornerback, and he recently lost his starting job to Brice McCain. Allen has the physical ability to develop into a No. 1 cornerback, but the 2011 fourth-round pick has to become more consistent. It could get worse before it gets better on defense, given some of the holes that the Steelers have tried to spackle over by moves such as coaxing veteran outside linebacker James Harrison out of retirement.

The Colts seem like they have something going with Trent Richardson and Ahmad Bradshaw at running back. Richardson seems to be playing much better than he did last season. Is part of the reason that Bradshaw has eased the pressure on Richardson to carry the Colts' ground game?

Wells: Richardson might never live up to the expectations as being the No. 3 overall pick in 2012, but he is running better than he did last season, when he eventually was demoted. He is running with more confidence and making better decisions. Having Bradshaw has been a blessing for Richardson because he doesn’t have the burden of carrying the load in the backfield. Neither player has a problem sharing the work, and it helps that Bradshaw is familiar with sharing the load in the backfield. He went through it while with the New York Giants.

Brown looks like he could surpass the 1,499 receiving yards he had last season. What makes him so successful, and what type of challenges will he present to the Colts’ secondary?

Brown: I thought Brown would have a really tough time matching his production in 2013, when the fifth-year veteran set a Steelers record for receiving yards in a season. He has been even better this season and has scored five touchdowns after reaching the end zone eight times in 2013. Brown is an excellent route-runner, makes tough catches in traffic and is dazzling after the catch. The Colts will have to limit the damage Brown does after the catch, and I would imagine they will do everything they can to take him out of the game. But no team has succeeded in doing that, even though a reliable complement opposite Brown has yet to emerge.

PITTSBURGH -- Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger lavished praise on the player who will be his counterpart Sunday at Heinz Field.

And Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck couldn’t say enough good things about Roethlisberger.

“His ability to extend plays is incredible [and] maybe the best in the league what he does in finding an open guy if something breaks down,” Luck said. “I know as a quarterback if you can [do] that every now and then, it can be demoralizing for a defense, and he certainly does a great job at it.”

Luck
Roethlisberger
Luck, the No. 1 overall pick of the 2012 NFL draft, has been demoralizing teams with his right arm. The third-year quarterback has passed for more than 300 yards in five consecutive games, tying a Colts record held by Peyton Manning.

Luck leads the NFL with 333 passing yards per game.

“He’s emerging as one of the best in the league, and I think a lot of us saw that coming,” Roethlisberger said. “I always enjoy watching other quarterbacks because anything you can take, whether they’re older or younger, and use it in your game, I think you’ve got to do it. Hopefully he has a bad day because our defense is playing well.”

Roethlisberger is hoping to play enough well enough to deliver a victory, one that would leave the Steelers with a 5-3 record at the halfway point of the season, and reach a career milestone.

Roethlisberger will try to win his 100th career game on Sunday, and the 11th-year quarterback would join some pretty exclusive company.

If Roethlisberger beats the Colts, he will become just the fourth quarterback in NFL history to win 100 games in 150 or fewer starts, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Sunday will be Roethlisberger's 150th start.

The only other players to accomplish that feat are Tom Brady, Joe Montana and Terry Bradshaw.

“Amazing, great football player,” Luck said of Roethlisberger. “I know when I was a rookie, I watched a lot Steelers tape to try and learn [former Steelers and Colts offensive coordinator] Bruce Arians’ offense and ended up watching a lot of Ben and the things he does, did [and] still does. So a ton of respect for how he plays football."
CINCINNATI -- We've written a fair amount this week about the Cincinnati Bengals' inability to stop the run the last two weeks, both from running backs and quarterbacks.

But what about stopping the pass?

The Bengals certainly can't forget to do that, either.

Just like they have the last two games, in particular, the Bengals this week will have their hands full trying to slow down an offense that features a good group of tight ends, and multiple playmaking receivers, including a young wideout who has progressed faster than many expected.

There's a reason the Indianapolis Colts have the NFL's No. 1 total offense, and that reason doesn't only include quarterback Andrew Luck.

Luck's pass-catchers, namely Hakeem Nicks, Reggie Wayne, T.Y. Hilton, Dwayne Allen and Coby Fleener, have had as large a role in that top ranking as anything else. Hilton and Wayne are among the top 15 in the league in receptions and receiving yards. Among tight ends, Allen and Fleener are among the top 13 in yards per reception and touchdowns.

Combine all of that with a decent enough running game and Luck's ability to create plays and you get an efficient and seemingly well-oiled offense.

Part of the reason Luck has had such success passing this season is because he's doing better with deep balls. After having a completion rating of 37.2 on passes at least 15 yards downfield in 2012-13, Luck has completed such deep throws at a 56.4 percent clip this year. His total QBR also has increased on throws that have traveled at least 15 yards. The first two years of Luck's career his QBR on such throws was 75.2. His QBR on them this season is 99.2.

Another benefit for Luck? Wayne's sure-handed play. Entering this week the receiver led all players in the league with the most targets without a drop. He has 54 ahead of Sunday's game.

As for Hilton, the third-year player is having the best year of his young career. One glance at his statistics shows where he has experienced growth each season. This ESPN The Magazine graphic from Thursday demonstrates where his catches per game, yards per game, catch percentage and receptions per routes run have all increased incrementally each year to this point in the season. It also demonstrates where his drop percentage has gone down incrementally each year to this point in the season.

If there is a candidate in the NFL for breakout player of the year, Hilton could very well be it.

Fleener and Allen have caused their own headaches for opposing defenses and could do the same against the Bengals. Expect both to field their share of attention from Cincinnati, following the Bengals' issues covering Rob Gronkowski and Greg Olsen the last two weeks. Gronkowski had six catches for 100 yards and a touchdown two weeks ago, and Olsen had six catches for 62 yards and a score.

"We've got to do a better job, no question," Bengals defensive coordinator Paul Guenther said about the coverage versus tight ends.

His job will be a little more difficult this week, too, with cover linebacker Emmanuel Lamur out with a shoulder injury. It means the Bengals may be forced to go into nickel packages regularly and use safety Taylor Mays to line up in man coverage with Fleener or Allen. Other linebackers also will be forced into helping stop Indianapolis' largest playmakers.

NFLN survey/Super Bowl QB: Steelers

January, 29, 2014
1/29/14
10:00
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Tom Brady and Peyton Manning dominated ESPN’s NFL Nation survey of which quarterback players would most want if their respective teams needed a touchdown to win the Super Bowl with two minutes left in the game.

Brady (128) and Manning (86) combined to capture roughly two-thirds of the vote among the 320 players polled by ESPN’s NFL Nation.

Ben Roethlisberger received 20 votes to finish fifth among quarterbacks behind Brady, Manning, Aaron Rodgers (32) and Drew Brees (21).

Five of Roethlisberger’s votes came from teammates, a sign of how much his play at the end of close games is valued in the Steelers’ locker room.

Roethlisberger has led the Steelers to wins 33 times, including the postseason, in games in which they trailed or were tied in the fourth quarter. His most famous rally came in Super Bowl XLV five years ago when Roethlisberger marched the Steelers 78 yards in eight plays for the touchdown that beat the upstart Arizona Cardinals, 27-23.

Roethlisberger capped the drive with a 6-yard pass that Santonio Holmes snared with a tip-toe catch before getting pushed out of bounds. That play delivered the Steelers’ record sixth Super Bowl title and remains frozen in time for Pittsburgh fans.

Had I been granted a vote I would have thought long and hard before giving it to Brady over Roethlisberger, and I think you could flip a coin between the two quarterbacks who have won a combined five Super Bowls.

Roethlisberger’s improvisational skills and his burning desire to win have long made him one of the best quarterbacks when the game is on the line. He has delivered every time? Of course not. But neither has Brady, who has been outdueled late in the Patriots’ last two Super Bowl losses by Eli Manning.

Eli Manning received nine votes in the anonymous survey followed by Andrew Luck (eight) and Matthew Stafford (seven) and Russell Wilson (three).

The only other quarterback to receive more than one vote? Matt McGloin, who picked up two of them.

Draw your own conclusions there.

NFLN survey/franchise player: Steelers

January, 16, 2014
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Peyton Manning beat out the two quarterbacks with whom he will always be linked to finish first in an ESPN NFL Nation poll on the best player with which to start a franchise.

Manning received 62 votes from the more than 320 NFL players who were polled anonymously. Andrew Luck, whom the Colts traded No. 1 overall after releasing Manning in 2012, finished second with 56 votes while the Patriots’ Tom Brady came in third with 41 votes.

Quarterbacks, not surprisingly, dominated the voting for this category.

In addition to the three aforementioned signal callers, Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers (40) and New Orleans’ Drew Brees (11) received double digits in votes.

What is surprising is that voters did not go younger at quarterback with the exception of Luck. Manning is one of the all-time greats as his position but he turns 38 in March and he could decide to go out on top if Denver wins the Super Bowl this season. Brady, meanwhile, is 36 though he too is still playing at a high level.

The only other players to receive double-digits in votes were Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson (37) and Vikings running back Adrian Peterson (20).

Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, wide receiver Antonio Brown and strong safety Troy Polamalu all received one vote.

I would have definitely gone with a quarterback had I voted in this, and my choice probably would have been between Luck and the 49ers’ Colin Kaepernick. I would have also considered Johnny Manziel, who will be taken somewhere in the first round of the 2014 NFL draft.

Yep, count me among those who think Johnny Football is going to be a star in the NFL.

Double Coverage: Colts at Bengals

December, 5, 2013
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Maualuga-BrownAP PhotoRey Maualuga and the Cincinnati Bengals know the Indianapolis Colts will try to establish the running game with Donald Brown.
After holding off the Tennessee Titans and San Diego Chargers last weekend, respectively, the Indianapolis Colts and Cincinnati Bengals come into this Sunday's showdown with one another knowing the stakes have been raised.

Whichever division leader emerges victorious from Paul Brown Stadium will have the No. 3 playoff seeding, and most likely will retain it, barring a complete collapse across the final three weeks of the season. The only other reason they wouldn't retain the No. 3 seed? Because they would have the No. 2 seed. Currently, the New England Patriots have that.

Cincinnati could claim that this weekend with a win and a Patriots loss. The Bengals have a tiebreaker over New England after beating the Patriots in October.

Like Sunday's game, that one was in Cincinnati. The Bengals are 5-0 at home, providing an added layer of difficulty for the Colts. Why have the Bengals been so good there? How can the Colts prevent losing their No. 3 seed? ESPN NFL Nation Bengals reporter Coley Harvey and Colts reporter Mike Wells have the answers to those questions and more.

Coley Harvey: Mike, there are so many different places I could go with this first question, but I really want to ask about the Colts’ rushing game. Bengals fans certainly were intrigued when the Trent Richardson trade deal went down earlier this season because they knew their team still had to face him this year, even if he was no longer playing for the division-rival Browns. He’s had a rough go of it in Indy, prompting Donald Brown’s start this past Sunday. Does Indianapolis believe Brown really is the back who will lead it through the postseason?

Mike Wells: The Colts hope the demotion will turn out to be a good thing for Richardson. I know that sounds crazy considering the Colts gave up a first-round pick to acquire Richardson. Not starting should ease some of the pressure on Richardson because he’s had a problem of overthinking since he joined the team. Brown may be the starter now, but coach Chuck Pagano will go with the hot hand during the game. So all it takes is a few big runs by Richardson and he’ll be back in the mix. The trade so far is completely in Cleveland’s favor, but this setback doesn’t mean the Colts are throwing in the towel on Richardson. They really can’t afford to when you think about all they gave up to acquire him. The Bengals have excelled at playing at home. What makes them a dangerous team there?

Harvey: That’s a good question. I’d say the weather has made them dangerous. The crowd has made them pretty dangerous, too. The reason I say the weather has made them dangerous is because twice this season, coach Marvin Lewis has been accurate in his prediction of what the weather would do. Back in early October, he smartly told his players to expect a sudden rain shower late in a game against the Patriots. A fourth-quarter monsoon came right when New England got the football for the last time and attempted a comeback drive. Tom Brady couldn’t complete a pass. The rains were too hard. Eventually, Adam Jones intercepted Brady with 16 seconds remaining, clinching a big early-season Cincinnati win. Against the Browns three weeks ago, Lewis also told his players not to worry about the possibility of a delay that some weathermen had predicted. He was right. The game went along mostly smoothly, and about an hour after play, a line of strong storms moved through the area.

In addition to the advantage “meteorologist” Marvin gives them, the Bengals have had a great lift from their fans. Every game has been a sellout, and has had some moment in it that sent the crowd into a frenzy that’s barely been seen since the team moved from the old Riverfront Stadium. The Bengals are confident they’ll keep getting that energy the rest of the season.

Andrew Luck has played in some meaningful games already in his young career. Most notably this season, he gutted out a win during Peyton Manning’s return to Indianapolis. Because of what’s at stake in Sunday’s game, how much confidence do you think Luck’s big-game play gives the Colts, Mike?

Wells: Luck will have to carry the Colts if they expect to go into Cincy and get the victory. The former No. 1 overall pick doesn’t have much to work with on offense now that veteran receiver Reggie Wayne is out for the season with the torn ACL. Opponents have found a way to slow T.Y. Hilton down lately by sending help over the top. Tight end Coby Fleener is doing what he can to help Luck out. I’m not even going to talk about receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey. The running game can’t gain any traction and the offensive line has struggled this season. That leaves Luck having to improvise and do what he can to make things work. That won’t be an easy task since the Bengals have the sixth-best defense in the league. The Bengals probably like their chances at being able to sack Luck. He’s been sacked 29 times this season.

Speaking of quarterbacks, there seemed to be different stories floating around earlier this season that questioned whether Andy Dalton could win big games. Do you think he has the ability to take the Bengals to the next level?

Harvey: In all honesty, it’s tough to say, Mike. Dalton has been so inconsistent this season that it’s tough to actually believe he’ll be able to put this team on his back and be as successful as Luck has proven to be. That said, it looks like the Bengals learned something about Dalton and the rest of their offense in San Diego this past weekend. They discovered that with a little help from a solid running game, their passing game can actually produce big, explosive plays.

For a four-game stretch in October, Dalton looked like he would be able to make the Bengals an unbeatable force come the postseason. But since then, he hasn’t been as efficient and he hasn’t had the same type of prolific passing numbers. After throwing for more than 300 yards in four straight games in October, Dalton has hit the 200-yard mark just once since. Two games ago, against Cleveland, he didn’t even reach 100. If the Bengals are going to make noise in the playoffs, it’s probably not going to be because of Dalton. It most likely will be because of their defense.

Speaking of defenses, tell us about the Colts’ defense. What has contributed to its struggles this year, particularly against the run?

Wells: The Colts have struggled to stop the run all season -- 28th in the league -- and things may get worse for them. Defensive tackle Ricky Jean Francois is out two to four weeks with a partial tear of his plantar fascia. Fili Moala will start in his place. Stopping the run is just one problem for Indianapolis. The secondary has also had a difficult time stopping teams from passing on them. It all started when cornerback Greg Toler went down five games ago with a groin injury. But the defense stepped up by forcing four turnovers, including three interceptions, against Tennessee on Sunday. And there’s a chance Toler will be back in the lineup this weekend. The rest of the secondary feeds off of Toler’s energy. It’s a perfect time for Toler to return because the Colts can use his help to try to slow down receiver A.J. Green, who is averaging 91.9 yards a game receiving.

Like Pagano, Marvin Lewis is a defensive coach. What makes the Bengals' defense so successful?

Harvey: It starts with the combination of Lewis' background and defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer. The pair of defensive gurus have established quite the formidable two-headed monster for the Bengals, coming up with a slew of adjustments and lineup tweaks that has made the unit one of the best in the league, even when it maybe shouldn't be. Injuries have ravaged the Bengals' defense, most notably at defensive tackle (Geno Atkins) and cornerback (Leon Hall). The fact Will linebacker Vontaze Burfict has come on and had an unbelievably strong sophomore season has helped, too. The former undrafted free agent leads the NFL in tackles and played last week on a bad ankle. Because of his near-reckless style of play and the fact Zimmer's scheme has produced results, the Bengals believe in their system and that has made them successful.

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