The Indianapolis Colts appear to have the same challenge the Pittsburgh Steelers had last season when they opened the season without their star quarterback. For Jim Caldwell's team to have similar success, the Colts are going to have to do their best Steelers impression.
The Colts might have been hoping Manning would be ready for Week 1, but the star quarterback seems likely to miss the opener and potentially more. At least the Steelers knew months in advance that they would not have Roethlisberger and had time to psychologically and physically prepare.
As much as Roethlisberger has turned the Steelers into a passing team, their roots are tied to running the ball and playing great defense. Those two elements got the team to 3-1 until Roethlisberger returned.
Conversely, the Colts have not been built to play without Manning. Indianapolis' offense is geared to throw 40-45 times a game and run it 20-25 times. It will be very difficult to switch gears at this point, but that's the task ahead.
If the Colts are really capable of replicating the Steelers' formula, it will have to start on first down. The Steelers ran the ball 58 percent of the time on first down last season at an average of 4.2 per yards per attempt, while the Colts were at 46 percent and 3.5 yards per carry. The Colts' ground game has always been predicated on running when the opposing defense was playing the pass, typically against two high safeties. Teams wanted the Colts to run and always played the pass first.
The Colts' offensive line is filled with pass blockers, and until recently, the team didn't even have a legitimate fullback on the roster to get in 21 personnel (two running backs, one tight end) to be able to just pound the ball. The tight ends on the roster are pass catchers who stalk block more than they double team, with most of their snaps coming in slot formations.
The Steelers adjusted their offensive game plan with Charlie Batch and Dennis Dixon each starting twice while Roethlisberger was suspended. During that stretch, Pittsburgh threw 81 times for 591 yards, three touchdowns and four interceptions. The Steelers ran 123 times for 534 yards (an average of 31 times per game and 133 yards) and had 16 runs of 10-plus yards. The team averaged 21.5 points per game and lost just one fumble during the first four games.
While the offense played things close to the vest Pittsburgh's defense was spectacular. The unit held teams to 12.5 points a game, had 11 sacks and six interceptions. Opponents averaged 2.6 yards per carry with the longest run being 12 yards. Keep in mind, Pittsburgh saw Michael Turner (19 carries, 42 yards), Chris Johnson (16-34), LeGarrette Blount (6-27 with a touchdown) and Ray Rice (8-20) during that opening month. Can you imagine the Colts holding those four guys to 2.5 yards a carry?
Keep in mind, Indianapolis' defense is a unit built on pure speed that rushes the passer. The Colts score fast -- they were second in points scored in the first half last season and fifth in 2009 -- and consequently come after the quarterback when their opponent is playing catch-up. Now Indianapolis will have to play the run a lot more.
The Colts were 25th against the run in 2010 and see Arian Foster (if healthy), Peyton Hillis, Rashard Mendenhall, and Blount in the first quarter of the season. Those four guys combined for 5,073 rushing yards and 46 rushing touchdowns last season. There's a challenge if I ever saw one.
The Colts also were 23rd in points allowed, tied for 30th in interceptions and tied for 23rd in sacks. Unless there's a dramatic improvement on defense, the Colts are facing a rough road without the same offense that scored 27 points a game last season.
Veterans like Jeff Saturday, Reggie Wayne and Dwight Freeney have never played a regular-season game without Manning. The Steelers have played 13 regular-season games without Roethlisberger since he was drafted in 2004. Batch and Dixon combined to go 6-3 in the nine games they had to substitute. Can Kerry Collins or Curtis Painter deliver similar results?
The Colts need a Steelers-type effort right away to overcome the lofty challenge of playing without Manning. It's not impossible, but it's uncharted waters for the entire organization. It all starts in Houston, where the Texans scored 34 points to beat the Manning-led Colts in the 2010 opener.