1. Gardner Minshew II played his best game of the season.
The directive for Minshew leading up to Saturday's game began with taking care of the football, which he did: Not only did Minshew not turn the ball over, none of his 28 throws were graded by Pro Football Focus as "turnover-worthy" plays.
"The offensive line did a heck of a job protecting for him. He got the ball out of his hands quick," head coach Shane Steichen said. "Just clean, precise decision making, knowing where to go with the football and then making the plays that he did. That big third down to (Michael) Pittman Jr. getting out of the pocket, that was a heck of an individual effort by him making that play – kind of directing Pitt to go deep there to hit that chunk play. Managing the game, the operation, obviously taking care of the football was huge going into that game. We didn't want T.J. Watt obviously to wreck that game."
(More on Watt in the next Colts Thing.)
Minshew completed 18 of 28 passes for 215 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions, good for a season-high passer rating of 123.4. He did more than just protect the ball – he made a handful of big-time plays, like the one Steichen referenced: Minshew, on third and five near midfield, escaped pressure to his right, drifted toward the sideline and dropped a pass into the hands of Michael Pittman Jr. for a 42-yard gain.
The Colts scored their first touchdown of the game a few plays later, when Minshew hit Zack Moss for a catch-and-run score.
"He played really good," Steichen said. "I mean, he was concise with his reads, his decisions, getting the ball out of his hands quick, and making plays. He just operates at a high level. It was awesome to see."
2. The Colts had a good plan to limit T.J. Watt's impact.
Watt entered Week 15 with 14 sacks, and the 2021 AP Defensive Player of the Year got on an early game-wrecking streak with two sacks and four total pressures on the Colts' first four possessions. The Steelers, as expected, mostly lined Watt up over rookie right tackle Blake Freeland to test the fourth-round pick's mettle.
But over the Colts' final seven possessions, Watt was credited with no sacks, no quarterback hits and a single quarterback pressure; his lone tackle in 16 run defense snaps came in the first quarter.
On a quarter of those run plays, Freeland didn't engage as a run blocker and simply routed Watt upfield – giving the rookie a breather, but also taking Watt completely out of a play. When the Colts did block Watt on run plays, they got creative: Left guard Quenton Nelson pulled and stonewalled him; tight end Kylen Granson sprinted across the formation for a cut block; perhaps most impressively, tight end Drew Ogletree locked up Watt one-on-one to help spring Tyler Goodson's 31-yard rush in the third quarter.
And then Steichen calling 13 consecutive run plays in the second half sapped the energy out of not only Watt, but the Steelers' defense.
"Certainly that progression in the game, running it over and over and over, wears them down," center Ryan Kelly said. "They don't want to keep getting up off the ground and do the same thing over again knowing it's going to happen. It's a real special feeling."
Tight end Mo Alie-Cox said the Colts emphasized wearing Watt down and making things as difficult as possible on the three-time first-team AP All-Pro. On passing plays, Watt was frequently chipped by a tight end – like when Ogletree chipped him on Alie Cox's third quarter touchdown, with Minshew releasing his throw before Freeland could even get his hands on Watt.
So even while Watt got on the board with those two early sacks, the Colts made sure he didn't wreck the game in bigger situations as the evening progressed.
"He had a sack early," Alie-Cox said, "but over the course of the game we did a good job taking him out of it."
3. Michael Pittman Jr. is in the concussion protocol.
Steichen said Sunday Pittman is in the NFL concussion protocol and, most importantly, is doing well after a scary collision with Steelers safety Damontae Kazee, who was flagged and ejected for his hit on the play.
"I'm glad Pitt was able to get up and move around, because those are one of those hits that you just don't know," wide receiver Josh Downs said. "Really, I'm glad he's good."
Pittman will get the benefit of an extra day to pass through the concussion protocol ahead of the Colts' Week 16 trip to Atlanta to face the Falcons. But the NFL's concussion protocol is a deliberate process that can't be rushed; and all players need to be cleared by an independent neurologist before playing in a game again.
"We will see how the week progresses," Steichen said.
Pittman, prior to exiting Saturday's game, crossed the 1,000-yard mark for the second time in his career; he needs one catch for 100 in 2023.
4. EJ Speed sparked the Colts' second-half surge.
Speed missed the Colts' Week 14 loss to the Bengals with a knee injury, but immediately made his presence known on Saturday. Pittsburgh handed off to running back Najee Harris on the first play of the game, and Speed identified his gap, came down in it and thumped Harris in the hole, piledriving him into the turf for no gain.
So that's where Speed's return from a one-week absence started. Coming out of halftime, the Colts' offense went three-and-out – not the kind of momentum they hoped to carry into the third quarter with a one point lead.
The Steelers opened the ensuing possession with a run to Harris. Defensive tackle DeForest Buckner quickly blew the play up by blocking tight end Pat Freiermuth into Harris, who had to bounce outside to avoid being taken out by his own player.
Harris then broke inside to evade a tackle by cornerback JuJu Brents. During all this, Speed slipped past center Mason Cole and then began pursuing Harris to the boundary. He hit Harris on his left shoulder and wrapped his right around around the Steelers running back, punching at the ball and knocking it out.
"We knew Najee was a guy that had trouble holding the ball tightly going to the ground," Speed said, "and we took advantage of it."
Safety Julian Blackmon was one of seven Colts who pursued the play – only one Steelers offensive linemen was in the vicinity of Harris when he fumbled – and recovered the ball at the 18-yard line.
Minshew floated a pretty pass to Alie-Cox for an 18-yard touchdown on the next play, putting the Colts up, 21-13, early in the third quarter.
"It set the tone and let everybody know this half is our half," linebacker Zaire Franklin said. "I feel like he made that play, follow up with Mo's touchdown, it was like, okay, we're running away with this one."
Speed's punch-out was the Colts' second of three takeaways on Saturday. The Colts are tied for third in the NFL with 24 takeaways, behind only the San Francisco 49ers and Jacksonville Jaguars, who each have 25.
And the Colts now have a takeaway in 19 consecutive games, the longest active streak in the NFL and the longest takeaway streak since the Miami Dolphins forced a turnover in 26 consecutive games from 2019-2021.
"We just got to keep going," Speed said. "19 isn't enough. Let's just keep going and how long we can ride this thing up."
5. The Colts owned the trenches on defense.
The Colts had four sacks: Dayo Odeyingbo and Samson Ebukam each had a sack and a half, while Grover Stewart and DeForest Buckner had a half-sack apiece. Those four sacks brought the Colts' season total to 46, which tied an Indianapolis-era record set in 1989 and 2005, with the latter year when Robert Mathis and Dwight Freeney combined for nearly half that total.
In 2023, fourteen Colts players have had a hand in a sack – just the ninth time in franchise history that many players have registered at least a half-sack or more. Ebukam has 9 1/2 sacks (his previous career high was five), Odeyingbo has eight (his previous career high was also five) and Kwity Paye has 7 1/2 (his previous career high was six) to lead the team.
Saturday's showing was much more in line with what we've come to expect this season from the Colts' defensive line, which was coming off a zero-sack Week 14 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals. The Colts' pass rush was slowed down by the Bengals' screen game and some early productive running plays; those issues were thoroughly corrected against the Steelers.
The Steelers called three screen passes, completing two for a total of one yard, and rushed 24 times for 74 yards (3.1 yards/attempt).
"I think everyone (had a chip on their shoulder), right? We didn't play up to our standards in Cincinnati and we wanted to get that corrected," Steichen said. "I thought we did. Obviously, we played the screen game really well. We were all over those. Those guys were rushing together – obviously using those one-on-one pass rush moves that they do. It was great to see. It was a great team win – great effort by the defense all day."