INDIANAPOLIS -- The physical sight of the Steelers coming off the hard RCA Dome turf was not a good one, particularly for a team that has its season on the line Sunday against the Bengals.
Defensive tackle Kimo Von Oelhoffen limped off the field with the help of a trainer in the final two minutes Monday night, stopped and doubled up with pain as he got acclimated to a leg injury. Right tackle Max Starks gingerly walked into the locker room, bothered by cramps. Left tackle Marvel Smith, already aching from an ankle injury, couldn't play the second half after injuring his other ankle. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, returning to the lineup after three weeks off, limped toward his locker on a heavily taped, sore knee.
The Gold and Black were black and blue following their 26-7 dismantling at the hands of the now 11-0 Indianapolis Colts. If this were an AFC Championship Game preview, the Steelers had better burn the tape. The Colts' defense played more physical than the Steelers' offense.
The proud Steelers defense tried trickery and deception with nickel and dime packages that featured only two defensive linemen at a time. Schemes didn't get them anywhere. Though Peyton Manning occasionally came to his sideline either talking to himself or shouting some frustrated suggestions to younger offensive players, the Steelers could only look up at the scoreboard and see they were out of the game by the third quarter, trailing 23-7 after Manning tossed a 12-yard touchdown pass to Bryan Fletcher.
"There's not much to say. They pretty much dominated us out there," Steelers coach Bill Cowher said. "Our offense against their defense, they were pretty smothering out there. We couldn't get anything going."
This year's Colts team is so good on offense and defense that good teams, like the Steelers, know the margin for error is small. The Steelers had a secret weapon of sorts -- his name is Dick LeBeau, Cowher's defensive coordinator. LeBeau has seen it all. He is credited with creating many of the zone blitz schemes that sent West Coast offense coaches scrambling back to their drawing boards. LeBeau was in Cincinnati when Sam Wyche was installing no-huddle offenses, back when Peyton Manning was just a kid.
For Manning on Monday, LeBeau had a plan. It seemed like a good one; through the years of facing Bill Belichick, Manning has seen a lot of things. The Patriots loaded the field with as many defensive backs as he could to drop seven and eight into coverages to limit Manning's ability to throw deep.
LeBeau's plan for this encounter was smart. For most of the game, he'd use only two defensive linemen, usually Aaron Smith and either Kimo von Oelhoffen or Casey Hampton. Linebacker Clark Haggans played a defensive end. LeBeau would use five defensive backs and sometimes replace a linebacker with a sixth defensive back. The novelty of the scheme was having Joey Porter, who usually rushes from a three-point stance in the nickel, playing multiple roles. Porter would either rush or drop into coverage to confuse Manning.
At one point, Manning became so confused trying to figure out what the Steelers were trying to do, he was called for delay of game. A couple of other times, Colts offensive linemen made rare false starts.
But what sent the Steelers into a depression was the Colts' first play from scrimmage -- Manning threw an 80-yard touchdown pass to Marvin Harrison after a play-action fake to Edgerrin James. LeBeau had the Steelers defense in a cover three, in which cornerback Ike Taylor, who drew Harrison as his assignment most of the game, had the right third of the field. Taylor made the fatal mistake of looking toward Manning and reacting to the fake.
Harrison ran by him for the easy touchdown. With only 84 seconds gone by the Colts led 7-0, and the Steelers never really had a chance.
"It's totally my fault," Taylor said. "I looked at the play-action and I got burnt. In three-deep coverage, my eyes aren't supposed to be in the backfield anyways. I was trying to be aggressive and I got caught. I let Marvin get by me."
From the opening moment, the Steelers knew they were in for a battle they might not win. In the next series, Taylor and Harrison got into two shoving matches in which they grabbed face masks or anything they could get their hands on. Harrison was flagged for a personal foul even though it appeared he was retaliating.
"We play physical, they play physical," Taylor said. "I've got to bring what I got to bring to the table and he brought what he brought to the table."
Despite the exchange, the Colts led and never looked back. Taylor can take solace in the fact he could trade swats with Harrison, but his efforts were much like his defenses. LeBeau's schemes did frustrate Manning to a minor degree; Manning completed only 15 of 24 passes for 245 yards, a half's worth of stats to him in some games. Four drives ended in Mike Vanderjagt field goals instead of touchdowns, which the Steelers could take as a minor victory.
This was no moral victory. What concerns the Steelers more is what's happened to their offense. Since Roethlisberger's knee injury a month ago, the Steelers have lost their confidence running the football. For weeks, they were using the quickness of Willie Parker instead of the power of Jerome Bettis and Duce Staley to puncture defenses.
Cowher tried all three backs at his disposal Monday night. Parker ended up with 43 yards on 12 carries but 29 yards came in fourth-quarter garbage time. Bettis had 9 yards on six carries, Staley had 6 yards on three carries, and overall the Steelers had 86 yards on 25 carries. Roethlisberger, who usually throws fewer than 20 passes, had to put the ball up 26 times.
"The Colts didn't allow us to run the football, which is something we pride ourselves on," Bettis said. "That was frustrating. They do a great job."
What has to concern Cowher is that the usually confident Steelers weren't confident about the running game after the game. Staley can't figure out from week to week whether or not he's going to be active or inactive. He bides his time awaiting chances. Bettis has bounced back from his knee problems and is ready for service. Parker is getting most of the action, but the running game isn't moving.
"It's frustrating," Bettis said. "It's been a long time since we've consistently run the ball. When you are a running football team and you can't run, what are you? You are a shell of yourself."
The Colts are so good that they toyed with the Steelers' confidence. Steelers offensive linemen couldn't hear Roethlisberger, their false starts burdening the offense with name-the-down-and-long situations. Once the Colts established a 10-0 lead in the first quarter, the Steelers couldn't generate a consistent running game or any passing game.
Roethisberger may have looked a little rusty coming off his knee injury, but the Steelers' running game -- the personality of this team -- looked as though it was in mothballs.
"The Colts are a cover-two team, and you are supposed to be able to run the ball against cover-two teams," wide receiver Hines Ward said. "We weren't able to do that. We had false starts. We had third and longs. Running the ball, that's our identity."
Even though the Steelers found a few defensive looks to frustrate Manning, they didn't leave the RCA Dome a confident unit. They face the Bengals at Heinz Field in Week 13 and if they can't shake this loss to the Colts, Pittsburgh might be looking up at Cincinnati in the AFC North for the first time in more than a decade.
John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.