NFL Nation: Andrew Luck

The Film Don't Lie: Steelers

October, 28, 2014
Oct 28
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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.”
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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."

Colts vs. Steelers preview

October, 24, 2014
Oct 24
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.

EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- In the recent annals of performances by rookie quarterbacks, the number of times Teddy Bridgewater's been taken to the ground has been startling.

The Minnesota Vikings rookie quarterback has been sacked 15 times in just four games, or on 11 percent of his dropbacks.

In other words, according to ESPN Stats and Information, Bridgewater is on pace to be the most frequently-sacked rookie quarterback in the league since the Dallas Cowboys' Chad Hutchinson in 2002. He's been pressured on 27.9 percent of his dropbacks, and he's thrown just one touchdown pass against five interceptions so far.

Bridgewater
 I've heard some talk recently about the idea that the Vikings could be "ruining" Bridgewater by exposing him to so much pressure -- and running the risk of either getting him injured or making him skittish -- as a rookie. The name David Carr usually comes up in these conversations as a cautionary tale, after the former first overall pick was subjected to 76 sacks in the Houston Texans' inaugural season, and then another 173 in the following four seasons, before the Texans let him go.

It's true that the list of the most-sacked rookie quarterbacks in history (usually passers playing for bad teams behind leaky offensive lines) includes a number of busts: Carr tops the list at 76, followed by Tim Couch at 56, Jake Plummer at 52, Dieter Brock at 51, Tony Banks at 48 and Rick Mirer at 47. But then we come to names like Warren Moon and Jim Kelly (albeit after time in the CFL and USFL, respectively), and Andrew Luck, who was taken down 41 times as a rookie and pressured on 28.8 percent of his dropbacks while playing for a team that threw the ball 627 times. Phil Simms took 39 sacks as a rookie. Russell Wilson was sacked 33 times, Joe Flacco 32 and Ben Roethlisberger 30.

It'd be one thing to worry if Bridgewater was showing signs of letting the rush affect him, either by taking off early or hurrying throws to avoid sacks. We've seen him rush throws on a couple occasions, but not to the point where I'd attribute it to something more deep-seeded than a rookie still figuring out his timing in the NFL. He rebounded from two interceptions on Sunday, making some of his best throws when he stood in the pocket and fired decisively to a receiver, and offensive coordinator Norv Turner sounded pleased on Thursday with how composed Bridgewater has remained in the face of all the pressure.

"He's got good sense in the pocket. He's getting better at getting the ball out," Turner said. "He threw the ball away a couple times Sunday when there was nowhere to throw it, where against Detroit [on] those plays he took sacks. We're working on getting him a lot quicker, we're working on design to help get the ball out quick, we're working on protection so we don't have to have the conversation about how he handles it."

If the Vikings keep giving up pressure to the point where Bridgewater's sack totals are pushing into the 50s, then we might have something to worry about long-term. But right now, the issue seems to be affecting the Vikings' ability to win in the present more than it's stunting Bridgewater's growth. The amount of pressure the Vikings have allowed is alarming, especially from an offensive line that was supposed to be one of the team's strengths. But the Vikings were drawn to Bridgewater in part because of how masterfully he handled pressure in college, and any sense of a maladjustment because of what he's faced as a rookie probably is premature.
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."
Andrew Luck played for Jim Harbaugh at Stanford his first two years of college. So surely the No. 1 pick of the 2012 NFL draft by the Indianapolis Colts must have some perspective on Harbaugh in light of reports that current San Francisco 49ers' players do not want to play for him.

Luck
Harbaugh
Luck, a two-time Heisman Trophy runner-up for the Cardinal, was asked about his old college coach in a conference call with writers who cover the Houston Texans on Wednesday.

“I don’t know, I really don’t,” Luck told the Texans writers as they prepare for the game between Houston and the Colts.

“It seems to sort of be the nature of sports media now to love on the story with conflict within an organization. Players and coaches. I take everything with a grain of salt. I’m not in their locker room. I don’t know what’s going on, if anything’s going on.”

But what about Luck’s own relationship with Harbaugh?

“I know my experience with coach Harbaugh was great,” Luck said. “We won a lot of games, practiced hard, played hard. Learned a lot about football and life with him.

“I feel very fortunate that I was coached by him in college.”
OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- In my 14 years of covering the Baltimore Ravens, I don't recall a time when the defensive players raved about a young quarterback like they did when talking about Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck on Wednesday.

"We're really impressed with the kid. We don't say that about a lot [of players]," linebacker Terrell Suggs said. "Usually we come up here and play a political game and we're like, 'This guy can make every throw and this guy is pretty good.' This guy is actually really f------ good."

Luck
The Ravens face Luck and the Colts on Sunday, and there's no question they're lining up against the hottest quarterback in the NFL right now. Luck is the first player in NFL history to post consecutive games with at least 370 yards passing, four or more touchdown passes, a completion percentage above 70 percent and one or no interceptions.

Luck leads the league in passing yards (1,305) and has thrown the most passing touchdowns (13) by a Colts quarterback through the first four games of a season -- and that includes Peyton Manning and Johnny Unitas.

The Ravens beat Luck in their only meeting, keeping him out of the end zone in a 24-9 win in a 2012 AFC wild-card game. But that was when Luck was in his first year in the league.

"He was already good his rookie season, obviously," cornerback Jimmy Smith said. "Now, he's that much better. He has way better control of the offense. Anytime a person is open, he hits them. That's what it looks like on film. Everybody has to be on their game this week. Everybody has to know exactly what we're doing. We can't let any balls get over our head."

The Ravens know Luck can hurt them with his legs as much as his arm. Since coming into the league in 2012, Luck is second only to Cam Newton among quarterbacks in converting third downs by running the ball with 27.

"He ran like 4.5 [40-yard dash] or something at the combine, so he's outrunning most defensive ends," Suggs said. "It's going to be a fun and entertaining game."

This game features the Ravens, who have given up the second-fewest points in the NFL (15 points per game), against the Colts, who have scored the most points in the league (34 points per game).

"This is probably the best offense we've had to face so far," Smith said. "They have a ton of receivers who can get open, get the ball and score. They have a quarterback who is on his way to being the best in the league. We have our work cut out for us."

Ryan Tannehill preps for nemesis Bills

September, 11, 2014
Sep 11
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DAVIE, Fla. -- Miami Dolphins third-year quarterback Ryan Tannehill owns career wins over Tom Brady and the New England Patriots, Andrew Luck and the Indianapolis Colts and even Russell Wilson and the Seattle Seahawks.

Tannehill
But, surprisingly, the one team Tannehill has struggled most against throughout his NFL career is the Buffalo Bills. Tannehill is 1-3 against Buffalo, completing just 48 percent of his passes in those four games and averaging only 136.7 yards per contest.

Tannehill’s most recent outing against Buffalo was arguably his worst game. He was 10-of-27 passing for 82 yards in a 19-0 loss to the Bills in Week 16.

Tannehill will get to meet his personal nemesis when the Dolphins (1-0) travel to face the Bills (1-0) on Sunday. Tannehill knows he wasn’t his best in Week 1 against the Patriots but still put together a winning performance. He completed 18-of-32 passes for 178 yards, two touchdowns and an interception.

“We left a lot of plays out there. I left a lot of plays out there, personally,” Tannehill admitted. “Location of throws, missing throws, [I] had a couple of dropped passes. Details like that where we left a lot of yards and a lot of touchdowns out on the field. ... But you can’t leave that many plays on the field consistently and expect to win week-in and week-out. Definitely, we want to clean those details up this week.”


Tannehill will have to play better this week. Buffalo has found a way to batter Tannehill and force Miami's offense to be one-dimensional in the past. That was especially the case during last season's season sweep when the Bills' defense registered nine quarterback sacks on Tannehill in two games.

Those two contests helped convince Miami to do a major makeover of its offensive line via free agency and the draft. The Dolphins signed veteran left tackle Branden Albert to a $47 million contract, drafted rookie right tackle Ja’Wuan James in the first round and added center Samson Satele and veteran guards Daryn Colledge and Shelley Smith in free agency.

Miami had five new starting offensive linemen in Week 1, and the unit thrived against New England. The Dolphins had impressive balance with 191 rushing yards and 169 passing yards, which caught the attention of Bills head coach Doug Marrone.

“As far as just a unit, in general, they’re working extremely well together and I think that’s the most impressive thing,” Marrone said in a conference call with the Miami media. “They’re knocking people off the ball.”

Both teams enter this game with momentum. That sets up this interesting matchup of surprise undefeated teams where the winner will be 2-0 and in first place in the AFC East.

According to ESPN Stats and Information, 63 percent of teams that start 2-0 since 1990 have gone on to make the playoffs. Whoever wins Sunday will be well-positioned to end a lengthy postseason drought. The Dolphins haven’t made the playoffs since 2008, and the Bills have the NFL’s longest playoff drought dating back to the 1999 season.

“Very important just because we need to get this lead. We don’t need to be playing catch up,” Dolphins receiver Mike Wallace said. “We’ve been there before. We need to see how it feels to play as the division leaders the whole time. We can do that. We have the team to do it. We just have to continue to put in the work every single week, every single day."

Broncos vs. Colts preview

September, 5, 2014
Sep 5
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The last time the Indianapolis Colts and Denver Broncos faced each other, the Broncos were rolling along with a 6-0 record, having scored at least 41 points in four of those games and 50 in two. But on Oct. 20, they couldn’t block Indianapolis' Robert Mathis (two sacks and a forced fumble), quarterback Peyton Manning aggravated his ankle injuries, and the Broncos limped away from a 39-33 loss.

This time, the Colts will see a newly minted defense -- just five players remain from the Super Bowl XLVIII roster -- and the Broncos will see a Colts team that has battled injuries throughout the preseason and is without Mathis, who is suspended for the first four games for violating the league’s policy on performance-enhancing drugs.

ESPN.com Colts reporter Mike Wells and Broncos reporter Jeff Legwold discuss Sunday night’s game.

Wells: Not that Manning needs any motivation to get better year to year, but how much did the embarrassing Super Bowl loss fuel him during the offseason and in training camp, especially because the clock is ticking on his career?

Legwold: Mike, as folks in Indianapolis saw for quite some time, Manning is a study in focus, and he simply attacked the offseason. He said once he decided he was all-in for the coming season, and his annual exam on his neck came back with a medical thumbs-up, he went about the business of taking last season apart -- league-record 606 points, Super Bowl blowout and all -- pass by pass. He looked at his incompletions, interceptions, touchdowns, plays that should have been touchdowns and plays that should have been interceptions. He essentially took his game back to the foundation. Coach John Fox says Manning looks stronger physically than in his previous two seasons in Denver, and wide receiver Demaryius Thomas says Manning has shown more arm strength in workouts. Put it all together and it’s pretty clear Manning is locked in on getting another shot at the trophy.

Keeping with the quarterbacks, where do the Colts believe quarterback Andrew Luck is on his developmental curve? This is decidedly his team, correct?

Wells: I’d say it became Luck’s team once they selected him No. 1 overall in 2012. That is not a bad thing when you take into account Luck has led the Colts to 22 wins, two playoff appearances and an AFC South title in his first two seasons. Did I mention that he is only 24? Not that Luck needs any pats on the back, but you could tell how he is perceived by others when our ESPN.com colleague Mike Sando talked to executives around the league and they said he is a top-five NFL quarterback. There is nothing wrong with being voted behind Manning, Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees and Tom Brady. Those are four future Hall of Fame quarterbacks. The Colts have a chance to beat any team, including the Broncos, as long as No. 12 is taking the snaps for them.

The Colts' issue is whether the defense can play on the same level as Luck and the offense. The Broncos went out and added some substantial pieces to their defense. Can the defense be as good as Manning and the offense?

Legwold: If it isn’t, it won’t be because the Broncos didn’t make the effort. They made an almost unprecedented dive into free agency for a team coming off a Super Bowl appearance, adding defensive end DeMarcus Ware, safety T.J. Ward and cornerback Aqib Talib. They also used their first-round pick in the May draft on cornerback Bradley Roby. All four players will get significant snaps against the Colts on Sunday night. Executive vice president of football operations/general manager John Elway wanted more speed on defense and more attitude. The Broncos, who had five defensive starters on injured reserve by the time they got to the Super Bowl, also have a healthy Von Miller back at linebacker and Chris Harris at cornerback. They have not shown much in the preseason, so the Colts will get the first real look at this unit. But Miller and Ware give Denver the kind of one-two pairing in the pass rush it had with Miller and Elvis Dumervil in 2012, when this was a top-five defense.

Defensively, Mathis is suspended for the first four games of the season. The previous time these teams played, Mathis was the most disruptive defensive player on the field. What is the Colts’ plan to get to Manning this time around?

Wells: How about we say: What do the Colts hope to do without Mathis? As you pointed out, Mathis was the difference-maker in the game last year. His strip-sack of Manning was a momentum changer because it led to a safety and started a string of 23 straight points for Indy. Bjoern Werner is starting at outside linebacker in place of Mathis. But let’s be real, there is no replacing Mathis' 19.5 sacks from last season. The Colts will attempt to do it by committee. The starting defense accounted for only two sacks in the preseason. That is pretty scary to think about. Manning is the master of picking apart defenses.

I was going to ask you about Wes Welker and his concussion issues. Now the Colts don’t have worry about facing him because he has been suspended for the first four games of the season. How do the Broncos go about replacing Welker in the lineup?

Legwold: Welker’s suspension is the reason the Broncos will have to adjust their rotation at wide receiver Sunday night, but they had put plans in motion long before because of Welker’s concussions. He had two last season and suffered a third in an Aug. 23 preseason game. The Broncos made Emmanuel Sanders a primary target in free agency and used a second-round draft pick on Cody Latimer in May. Sanders, who has shown in the preseason just how big a year he could have in this offense, will get plenty of work in the slot; he played there during most of his tenure with the Steelers. Tight end Jacob Tamme, who played in the slot a great deal in Manning’s first year in Denver (2012), will also get plenty of snaps. The Broncos will move the pass-catchers all over in search of the matchups they like. They have a versatile group of receivers and tight ends that should allow them to overcome four games without Welker.

A different kind of injury issue to be sure, and you have written about it plenty, but how will the Colts adjust things on the offensive line to line up against a revamped Broncos defense?

Wells: The offensive line has been an issue for the Colts going back to when Manning was there. Luck has his best group of offensive weapons to work with since entering the league, but none of that matters if the line can’t do its job. Luck has been sacked 73 times in his first two seasons. The Colts have a rookie -- Jack Mewhort -- starting at one guard, a second-year player -- Hugh Thornton -- at the other guard, and center is up the air. Khaled Holmes, the projected starter, missed four weeks with a sprained ankle, and A.Q. Shipley was claimed off waivers from Baltimore last weekend. Ware and the rest of the Denver defense should be excited about the opportunity to get after Luck.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – The Denver Broncos have made no secret they want to be more physical on defense in the coming season.

They want to do a better job slowing down opposing receivers, they want to disrupt the timing of opposing offenses and they want to get opposing pass-catchers out of their routes.

And yet they’ll have to do all that with the NFL’s officials looking, under the “points of emphasis’’ edict from the league, to tighten things up even more on defenses when it comes to illegal contact on receivers and defensive holding.

[+] EnlargeTony Carter
Matthew Emmons/USA TODAY SportsPenalties were a problem for Tony Carter and Denver's defensive backs last season.
“It’s hard on defense these days, man,’’ cornerback Chris Harris Jr. said. “They want scoring, they want touchdowns, you just have to see how they’re going to call things and go from there.’’

It is certainly a potential issue for the Broncos because when you combine defensive holding and illegal contact penalties the Broncos were tied for the league lead last season – with the Kansas City Chiefs – for those two fouls combined. Harris, who plays both on the outside and in the slot in the Broncos defense had four of the team’s 13 defensive holding penalties while Duke Ihenacho had three and Tony Carter had two.

In all it does mean a Broncos defense that is looking to be more rugged will have to find the line about how far it can go.

“My biggest thing is to really understand how they’re trying to emphasize and call it and make sure we’re teaching our guys, so we can play within the rules,’’ Broncos defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio said. “I don’t waste a whole lot of energy worrying about whether I like it or don’t like it. To me, it’s about helping our guys understand what they have to do to play well and spending your energy on that and teach and instruct. Hopefully, they get an understanding of how we can play within the rules and make sure we’re prepared to do that.’’

As part of the effort to show players and coaches what the officials will be looking at on that front, officials will visit each team in the preseason. Several of the league’s officials will be at the Broncos complex next week to break it all down during video sessions as well as on-field during several practices.

But the Broncos didn’t sign the likes of cornerback Aqib Talib and safety T.J. Ward in the secondary because they’re interested in playing back on their heels. Denver is looking to make life far more difficult for opposing receivers, who were too often allowed to get free releases off the line of scrimmage and run free beyond the coverage.

Some of the issues were traced directly to injuries – five defensive starters were on injured reserve by season's end, including Harris Jr. and safety Rahim Moore in the secondary alone. But many personnel executives around the league simply believed the injuries showed the Broncos didn’t have championship level depth and lacked team speed at the defensive skill positions once the second- and third-teamers were forced into the lineup.

Overall the team was 27th in pass defense in the regular season, surrendered an alarming 61 pass plays of at least 20 yards – an enormous jump from 38 such plays surrendered in the 2012 season – and data from ESPN’s Stats & Information group shows the Broncos allowed 58 completions on passes that traveled at least 15 yards in the air before being caught, tied for fourth most in the league.

The Broncos believe a healthy Von Miller to go with free-agent signee DeMarcus Ware in the pass rush will help significantly, given the best pass defense is often played by those defenses that are the most proficient at preventing the quarterback from throwing the ball.

Del Rio, however, said he believes the Broncos' defensive coaches have a good idea on what the boundaries are going to look like in pass coverage in the coming season. Asked Saturday if he felt like he had a good understanding of what would constitute illegal contact or defensive holding, Del Rio said, “I do, based on what I heard when they came through [earlier in the offseason]. [The officials will] be in next week, and we’ll get a better feel for it as they work with us in practice. It’s always beneficial for us.’’

Del Rio added: “You know there are things that are going to be emphasized. Depending on how that goes—if the emphasis results in a five hour game, then they probably would de-emphasize it. Again, I don’t think I need to worry about that kind of thing. It typically takes care of itself. We just make sure, as coaches, that we instruct the best we can so guys are well-prepared.’’

But it’s an issue that’s going to come up, and come up quickly, with quarterbacks like Andrew Luck, Russell Wilson, Carson Palmer, Colin Kaepernick, Philip Rivers and Tom Brady all on the Broncos’ schedule in the season’s first eight games.
PITTSBURGH -- ESPN NFL analyst Ron Jaworski recently ranked all of the starting quarterbacks in the NFL. The Pittsburgh Steelers' Ben Roethlisberger is sixth on his list after Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees and Andrew Luck.

Roethlisberger
"Jaws" performed his usual exhaustive film review in compiling his list, and he offered strong praise for Roethlisberger as well as an astonishing statistic:
I thought Big Ben had one of his best seasons in 2013. We all know he has a unique skill set, with the ability to be a pocket passer but also extend the play when it's necessary. Ultimately, there are two sets of numbers that stand out to me for Roethlisberger. The first is that he has 156 career starts and has won 67 percent of them. That's astonishing. The second is that veteran quarterbacks understand the necessity of coming away with touchdowns and not field goals in the red zone. In the last two seasons, Roethlisberger has 27 TDs and zero INTs inside the 20-yard line."


You can debate where Roethlisberger ranks among NFL quarterback but one thing that can't be disputed: Big Ben is the player the Steeler can least afford to lose for an extended period in 2014.

The 11th-year veteran makes the no-huddle attack go and that will again be an important component of the Steelers' offense. Roethlisberger, who turned 32 in March, is still playing at a high level and he is coming off a season in which he took every snap. Bruce Gradkowski is a capable backup but nothing would help the Steelers more as they try to return to the playoffs after a two-year hiatus than if Gradkowski spends most if not all of the upcoming season on the sidelines.

Here are four other players whom the Steelers cannot afford to lose this season.

WR Antonio Brown: The Steelers' wide receivers become average if Brown is sidelined by a significant injury. The reigning Steelers MVP caught 110 passes for a team-record 1,499 yards last season and he will again make the other wideouts better simply because of the attention he commands from opposing defenses.

C Maurkice Pouncey: The Steelers got lucky that Fernando Velasco and later Cody Wallace played so capably at center after Pouncey tore his ACL eight plays into last season. They cannot count on that fortune again if Pouncey goes down. The three-time Pro Bowler is the unquestioned leader of the offensive line, and he is eager to reward the Steelers for the lucrative contract extension they gave him last month.

LB Lawrence Timmons: Durable and incredibly productive, Timmons should have at least one Pro Bowl on his resume by now. He will call the defense until rookie Ryan Shazier is ready to assume that responsibility. Simply getting lined up properly proved to be a problem for the defense after Larry Foote went down in the 2013 opener with a season-ending arm injury.

DE Cameron Heyward: The 2011 first-round pick is the one proven commodity that the Steelers have at defensive end. Heyward pushed his way into the starting lineup after the fourth game of last season, and he led the Steelers with 31 quarterback pressures in 2013 and tied for the team lead with five sacks. To say there is a significant drop-off after Heyward at defensive end is an understatement.
Examining the Indianapolis Colts' roster:

QUARTERBACKS (2)
This is the safest position on the roster for the Colts. They plan to always keep a veteran backup if Luck ever goes down with an injury.

RUNNING BACKS (4)

The Colts will have a solid running combination if -- and we’re saying if until proven wrong -- Richardson can bounce back from a poor first season in Indianapolis and Bradshaw and Ballard can stay injury-free. Havili, a fullback, gets the edge over Mario Harvey, who switched from linebacker to fullback during offseason workouts.

RECEIVERS (5)

The final receiver spot will come down to Rogers and Griff Whalen. If the Colts want to play it safe, Whalen is the guy because he’s familiar with Luck and offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton, but Rogers has the size and speed the team likes. There’s also the possibility of the Colts keeping six receivers.

TIGHT ENDS (4)

Allen, who missed all but one game in 2013, and Fleener have the potential to be one of the top tight end duos in the league. Doyle and Saunders are both familiar with the system after backing up Fleener in Allen’s absence last season.

OFFENSIVE LINEMEN (9)

There are plenty of questions surrounding the offensive line outside of tackles Castonzo and Cherilus. The one thing general manager Ryan Grigson wanted with this group is depth. The Colts have plenty of it.

DEFENSIVE LINEMEN (6)

Like the offensive line, the Colts want depth on the defensive line so they can constantly rotate in players, so come the fourth quarter they still have fresh legs to get after the opponent. Jones was the key offseason acquisition for the Colts. Chapman showed flashes last season; now he needs to do it every snap that he’s on the field.

LINEBACKERS (10)

All eyes will be on outside linebacker as the Colts look to find a replacement for Mathis, who is suspended for the first four games of the season. Werner gets the first crack at starting in Mathis’ spot. McNary is a player for whom Grigson has high expectations. It’ll be up to defensive coordinator Greg Manusky on how he uses McNary.

DEFENSIVE BACKS (10)

It’s anybody’s guess how the secondary will perform. It’s anybody’s guess who will start alongside Landry at safety. It looked like it would be Howell for most of the offseason, but the Colts signed the veteran Adams in June. Can Toler finally remain healthy? Can Davis live up to his contract? So many questions with no answers at the moment.

SPECIALIST

This only changes if an injury occurs.

Camp preview: Indianapolis Colts

July, 17, 2014
Jul 17
10:00
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NFL Nation’s Mike Wells examines the three biggest issues facing the Indianapolis Colts heading into training camp.

Khaled Holmes: Colts general manager Ryan Grigson took a big gamble in the offseason by not heavily pursuing a veteran center. He signed Phil Costa, who was beaten out by a rookie in Dallas, only to have the veteran suddenly retire before ever playing a snap for the Colts. Even with Costa on the roster, the plan all along for the Colts was for Holmes to start. This is the same Khaled Holmes who managed to play a total of 12 snaps as a rookie, despite poor play by Samson Satele at the position last season. Grigson has constantly defended Holmes ever since, pointing out that the second-year player would be his starter. The goal is for Holmes to team with franchise quarterback Andrew Luck for years to come. Holmes needs to have good chemistry with Luck and control the line of the scrimmage, all while making sure the rest of the offensive linemen know the correct calls. That’s a lot to put on the shoulders of a player who is basically a rookie, especially when you think about the expectations the Colts have this season.

Safety: Similar to his decision at center, Grigson didn’t look far outside the organization to address a position of need. Veteran Antoine Bethea left Indianapolis to sign with San Francisco, and it appeared Delano Howell was the frontrunner to start alongside LaRon Landry at safety. Things seem to change in the middle of June, when the Colts signed veteran Mike Adams. Adams has started 73 games in his 10-year NFL career, but even though he says he feels like he’s 26 years old, he’s actually 33. Howell has started only four games in his career. And speaking of Landry, he didn’t exactly ease anybody’s mind about whether he’ll be able to rebound from a disappointing first season with the Colts. He didn’t attend any of the voluntary offseason workouts, then showed up at the mandatory minicamp with what was described as a soft-tissue injury. While the offseason workouts are voluntary, it would have helped Landry if he had at least attended a few of the sessions. Grigson and Colts coach Chuck Pagano didn’t criticize Landry for not showing up, but they did point out their preference of wishing he was in attendance. If anything it would have showed that Landry cared about working on chemistry with the rest of his defensive teammates. There are too many questions surrounding the safety position on a defense that was way too inconsistent last season.

Trent Richardson: The excuses are no longer available for Richardson in the Colts organization. The ready-made line of, “Richardson is still learning the offensive system,” is in the trash on the curb. Richardson, who the Colts acquired from Cleveland just days before Week 3 last season, has had an entire offseason to learn the playbook. Now he can use his natural instincts when he’s on the field, instead of constantly trying to remember the plays. The Colts clearly are trailing the Browns in the who-got-the-better-of-the-trade race. Cleveland turned the No. 26 pick into hotshot quarterback Johnny Manziel after using it to trade up to No. 22. The Colts? All Richardson gave them was 2.9 yards a carry and a demotion to the second unit last season. Richardson and the Colts have to hope this season is different. The pressure is on Richardson, because Grigson said earlier this year he would make the trade again if put in the same position. Richardson, the No. 3 overall pick in 2012, had offseason shoulder surgery and will head into training camp as the starter, with Ahmad Bradshaw ready to take some snaps from him if he struggles.

Colts' biggest key to success

July, 10, 2014
Jul 10
12:00
PM ET
Quarterback Andrew Luck isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. He’ll remain in an Indianapolis Colts uniform for the foreseeable future.

Luck
 Owner Jim Irsay will make sure of that.

The Colts look at Luck in the same way they looked at Peyton Manning (minus having to part ways with him at some point). They want to keep Luck under center and have him lead the Colts to the Super Bowl multiple times.

If the first two years are in any indication, the Colts are in a good position to accomplish those things with Luck. The only real question -- one that has been burning since Luck’s rookie year -- is whether he will be as durable as Manning because of poor offensive line play?

Luck has been sacked so many times (73) during the first two years of his career that you’re left wondering at times how he has yet to miss any snaps in a game because of an injury. He has shaken off countless hits to lead the Colts to 22 regular-season victories and three playoff games in just two seasons.

 Still, the Colts are flirting with danger when it comes to their franchise player because of poor pass protection.

The Colts are set at tackle with Anthony Castonzo and Gosder Cherilus on the left and right side, respectively.

The interior part of the line has remained poor, however.

Luck has a new center in Khaled Holmes, who played only 12 snaps last season. Hugh Thornton is the frontrunner to retain one of the guard spots, while the other guard position is uncertain. Rookie Jack Mewhort could end up starting at guard. If so, Luck and the interior part of the offensive line will grow together. Luck, in just his third season, is the elder statesmen of the group. Holmes and Thornton are both in their second season, and Mewhort has yet to play an NFL snap.

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