AFC North: T.Y. Hilton

The Film Don't Lie: Steelers

October, 28, 2014
10/28/14
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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.

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
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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.

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.

Observation deck: Steelers-Colts

August, 19, 2012
8/19/12
11:24
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It was another conservative showing by the Pittsburgh Steelers' offense in their 26-24 preseason victory over the Indianapolis Colts.

Emphasizing the run and a controlled passing attack, the Steelers' starting offense managed one score on four drives. It came off a wide receiver screen, which resulted in a 57-yard touchdown by Antonio Brown.

The Steelers clearly wanted to get their ground game going, running the ball on the first five plays of the game. And it's clear that quarterback Ben Roethlisberger feels most comfortable throwing to Brown. Five of his attempts (and his only ones to wide receivers) went to Brown, who took a short pass and weaved his way to the end zone like it was punt return.

Take away that touchdown throw and Roethlisberger was 4-of-8 for 24 yards and one interception.

Here are some other observations from the game:
  • Ike Taylor put a lot of work into improving his hands this offseason and it paid off Sunday night. He jumped a route on the sideline and ran 49 yards for a touchdown in the first quarter. But he did have some forgettable moments, from two missed tackles to a miscommunication with Troy Polamalu that should have resulted in a touchdown (Colts receiver T.Y. Hilton got behind the defense and then bobbled the pass, which was intercepted by Cortez Allen).
  • The Steelers should feel more comfortable going with Jonathan Dwyer as their backup running back after Sunday night. He showed good vision and cutting ability in gaining 43 yards on eight carries. Dwyer broke two tackles on his first run of the game and then threw a good block on Chris Rainey's eight-yard gain on the first drive.
  • On the one-yard touchdown allowed by the Steelers in the second quarter, linebackers Larry Foote and LaMarr Woodley have to get off blocks to make that tackle. Defensive end Ziggy Hood, who was active against the run, got double-teamed on that play.
  • Chris Carter isn't James Harrison but he's much better than a typical third-string linebacker. He exploded to the ball and put himself in position to make plays. Carter just has to learn that he can't blatantly hold receivers like Reggie Wayne because it will draw a flag every time.
  • And speaking of Harrison, this is what head coach Mike Tomlin said about his Pro Bowl linebacker's chances of playing in the season opener after undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery: "I'm always optimistic. That doesn't necessarily mean he's going to be ready. We're just taking it day to day and we're going to let his recuperation dictate how we proceed. He's always been a fast healer and we'll keep that attitude."
  • When the Steelers went with their second-team offense, it was Charlie Batch and not Byron Leftwich who came in at quarterback. Batch completed 7 of 10 passes for 84 yards. Leftwich didn't get into the game.
  • Rainey looks like he can break free for a touchdown every time he touches the ball. His size is a concern, and that had to cross your mind when Rainey coughed up the ball on that rough hit. He has to hold onto the ball better.
It wasn't Ravens coach John Harbaugh's preference to have starting cornerback Lardarius Webb returning punts entering this offseason. His mindset probably didn't change after Webb agreed to a five-year, $50 million extension with a $10 million signing bonus and a $5 million option bonus.

Webb
Having Webb field punts was a risk before. Now, it has become a pricey proposition. The Ravens will try hard to find a replacement for Webb on returns, and it probably will come in the draft.

"You can’t sit there and play scared, so I don’t have a problem with [Webb returning],” Harbaugh said Wednesday, a day before Webb's deal. “But I would rather have a backup doing it? Yes. If there is another option that is a better player or takes your starting corner and takes him off the punt return, that’s even better."

Webb ranked 16th in the NFL in punt returns (10-yard average), returning one for a touchdown. The other two punt returners listed on last year's Ravens depth chart -- Chris Carr (Vikings) and Tom Zbikowski (Colts) -- signed elsewhere in free agency.

Baltimore brought in Ted Ginn Jr. for a free-agent visit but he re-signed with the 49ers. The Ravens were also linked to Eddie Royal before he joined the San Diego Chargers.

“We tried to do something with a free agent or two, and it didn’t work out, but that’s OK,” Harbaugh said. “We’ll move on to the next opportunity.”

That "next opportunity" means the draft. One returner to keep an eye on is Fresno State's Devon Wylie. Other top returners coming out of college are: Florida International's T.Y. Hilton, Alabama's Marquis Maze and Stanford's Chris Owusu.

AFC North weekend mailbag

April, 1, 2012
4/01/12
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It's been a quiet weekend so far in the AFC North and that's not surprising. We're at that point in the offseason where the first wave of free agency is over and the draft is more than three weeks away.

But there are still some unanswered questions based on what's in the mailbag. Let's take a look ...

...

Charlie (Fort Campbell, Ky.): Bengals fan and daily blog reader here. Great job on keeping me updated on my favorite (and least favorite) teams. Anyway, my question is this: Where do you foresee Keith Rivers fitting in with the Bengals' linebacking corps once he returns?

Jamison Hensley from AFC North headquarters: Right now, Rivers doesn't have a spot in the starting lineup. His starting job at weak-side linebacker -- the one he held for 2 1/2 years -- was taken by Thomas Howard, who was the Bengals' most consistent linebacker last season. The Bengals have yet to address Rivers this offseason and might give him a chance to compete for that spot. I see his impact coming on special teams this season. It's certainly a luxury to have the ninth overall pick of the 2008 draft sitting on your bench. The strongside linebacker position is one that the Bengals will need to figure out next season because Howard and Rivers are free agents after this season.


Matt S. (Warren, Ohio): The Browns have talked about trading back a few spots to acquire more picks. I think it is very possible we might see them trade back the sixth pick with the Rams in return for an additional second-rounder and later round picks. This ensures that the Browns have a chance to at least get Morris Claiborne with the sixth pick (the fourth going to Justin Blackmon and the Rams, and fifth going to Trent Richardson and Tampa Bay). Claiborne is a freakish athlete and will solidify the secondary for years to come. This leaves us with the 22nd pick and two second round picks to help the offense with starting potential. Do you think this is a possibility?

Jamison Hensley from AFC North headquarters: I can definitely see this as a possibility. If the Browns believe LSU cornerback Morris Claiborne is the best player available at No. 4, they should try to trade down with the Rams. That way, the Browns can get their targeted player in Claiborne and gain additional picks. I agree that the Rams will take Oklahoma State receiver Blackmon and the Buccaneers will grab Alabama running back Richardson. But this isn't the move I would make. The Browns desperately need a playmaker on offense. It would be a mistake to pass on a talent like Richardson.


Rick (Baltimore): If the Steelers address a need on offensive line or defensive line with their first-round pick, could you see them spending a second-round pick on a quality running back? David Wilson and Doug Martin come to mind. I would love to see Wilson in the Black and Gold on Sundays. He is an underrated freak athlete.

Jamison Hensley from AFC North headquarters: It's like you were reading my mind. I don't see the Steelers going for a running back in the first round, but there will be good value for that position at the bottom of the second. Expect at least one of the second-tier backs like Wilson (Virginia Tech), Martin (Boise State) and Lamar Miller (Miami) to be available at No. 56 for the Steelers. While I like Martin's toughness in between the tackles, it's hard to overlook the big-play ability of Wilson. The Steelers have a tough runner with Isaac Redman, and Wilson would be a great compliment in the backfield.


Heath (Shreveport, La.): There has been a lot of talk about the Ravens adding a kick returner, but is there any chance they will give Phillip Livas a chance? He was a late-season addition last year and tied an NCAA record at Louisiana Tech with eight returns for touchdowns.

Jamison Hensley from AFC North headquarters: Livas was signed to the Ravens' practice squad during the playoffs and will be kept around for offseason camps and training camp. The Ravens will give him a look, but he's not among the team's top options. Livas was cut by the Miami Dolphins in September even though the 5-foot-7 wide receiver returned a punt 75 yards for a touchdown in the preseason. He didn't catch on with another NFL team until the Ravens picked him up in January.

The Ravens want an upgrade in the return game, which became obvious when they brought in Ted Ginn Jr. for a free-agent visit. Drafting a returner is a good possibility for Baltimore. The top returners are: Florida International's T.Y. Hilton, Alabama's Marquis Maze, Fresno State's Devon Wylie and Stanford's Chris Owusu.

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