The Pittsburgh Steelers will catch a break on Thursday night in their trip to Indianapolis to take on the Colts (8:30 p.m. ET, NBC): Indy quarterback Andrew Luck is sidelined with a concussion, and backup Scott Tolzien is expected to start. But the game won't necessarily be a walk in the park for Pittsburgh. The Steelers are 5-5, tied with the Baltimore Ravens for the best record in the AFC North (though Baltimore currently has the head-to-head win percentage advantage) and are trying to stay relevant in a conference playoff picture that seems to only get murkier as the season wears on. The pressure to win is high.
Being on the road has not been Pittsburgh's strong suit this season. Besides a Week 1 win in Washington and a Week 11 victory in Cleveland, the three road games in between were all losses. While the Steelers score touchdowns on 72.22 percent of their red-zone appearances at home, they do so only 45.45 percent while on the road, with only six teams in the league struggling more for TDs while traveling. Their points per game drops from 28.8 to a mere 18.8 when away from home.
It may not matter that the Colts' defense ranks 26th in points allowed and 30th in yards if the Steelers' offense is too busy mounting long drives that lead to only field goals -- the Steelers had two 16-play drives of over nine minutes in Cleveland last week, yielding just six points -- or, even worse, none.
There are positive signs, though. First is simply the fact that Pittsburgh's offense boasts three of the most talented players at their respective positions: Roethlisberger, Le'Veon Bell and Antonio Brown. And Roethlisberger has done well in previous meetings with the Colts. Their last two contests saw Roethlisberger complete 64 of his 88 pass attempts, for 886 yards, 10 touchdowns and zero interceptions. If Big Ben can keep that pace, the odds are slim that the Tolzien-powered Colts will be able to keep up.
It should be noted, though, that the power trio of Ben-Bell-Brown works best when there are other players on the roster to help draw defensive attention. But with Sammie Coates dealing with broken fingers, the rest of the roster is thin. Receivers Eli Rogers (an undrafted rookie) and Cobi Hamilton (a recent promotion from the practice squad and 2013 sixth-round Cincinnati Bengals draft pick) and running back Daryl Richardson (who in 2016 is seeing his first regular-season action since 2013) are, as a whole, untested.
But Roethlisberger must shake off his road issues as well. His completion percentage drops from 71.3 to 59.2 away from Heinz Field. He has thrown 15 touchdowns to two interceptions at home this year vs. only five touchdowns (to five interceptions) elsewhere. And his yards per game drop by 101 when playing on the road. Simply put: Roethlisberger must play well in order for the Steelers to win, regardless of who his other teammates are or how his defense performs.
Both Pittsburgh and Indianapolis are 5-5 and, as of now, sit just on the outside of the AFC's playoff picture as its eighth and ninth seeds, respectively. A win for Pittsburgh would put them one game up over Baltimore as the Ravens prepare to host another AFC North rival, the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday. The Colts would be tied for wins with the AFC South-leading Houston Texans. Both teams are verging on must-win territory, especially given this is Week 12 and the time crunch is on.
Pittsburgh can ill-afford to be its average, on-the-road self on Thanksgiving night. A loss in Indy coupled with a Ravens win on Sunday would almost certainly make it a win-out (with help) situation in order for the Steelers to have a place in the postseason.