The Pittsburgh Steelers were able to move up to 3-0 with a 28-21 win over the Houston Texans at Heinz Field. Trailing at the end of every quarter entering the 4th, the Steelers lacked consistency on offense as a drop, sack, or penalty stalled their ability to put together a drive in the second half.
Finally, the commitment to the run game broke through late in the game as Pittsburgh moved the ball methodically via James Conner outside runs and clutch third-down conversions to tight ends Ebron and McDonald. Pittsburgh found balance on offense with 35 rushes for 169 yards and 36 pass attempts by Big Ben which led to 237 passing yards and a couple of touchdown throws.
Of course, there wouldn’t be any holes for Conner and the crew to run through if it wasn’t for the stellar run blocking upfront. All-Pro David DeCastro made his debut replacing rookie Kevin Dotson on the line and the difference showed as DeCastro wore out the interior of the Texans line. Not that Dotson was bad last week by any stretch but there is a stark difference in production from a rookie vs an experienced and accomplished lineman in DeCastro.
Credit must also be given to Chukwuma Okorafor who held J.J. Watt to 0 QB hits and 0 TFLs. One of the biggest questions coming in for Pittsburgh was how would the backfield carries be divvied up. We got a clear answer from the coaching staff that, in fact, James Conner will be the main back while McFarland and Snell will come in and bring a different dynamic here and there.
Conner finished the day with 149 total yards from scrimmage and a touchdown run which was sprung by a terrific box out block from Juju Smith-Schuster. While, granted, the Texans are a team that you should be able to run on, it was still a welcome sign to see the Steelers seemingly establish an effective pecking order in the backfield.
There is no true workhouse back on this team as Conner is too injury prone, Snell hasn’t proved he can limit the fumbles, and McFarland works best as a speed back. Speaking of McFarland, he provided some much-needed speed on the outside to jump-start a couple scoring drives in the second half. Nonetheless, the combination of the three has proven to be productive and enough to keep defenses on their toes. The Steelers have rushed for over 100 yards in all of their games to start the year.
There wasn’t anything special in the passing game vs Houston, but Ben and company moved the chains when they needed to down the stretch. The Steelers’ offense was clicking best when they needed to both when down by 11 in the first half and to ice the game late.
48.5% of Ben’s throws were to either a running back or tight end which totaled 17 targets for 13 catches for the game. One standout being Eric Ebron, who led the Steelers in catches and yards with 5 for 52 and a score. Ebron caught a one on one ball in the right corner of the endzone off a beautiful throw from Ben to give the Steelers a much-needed score after the Texans held a 14-3 advantage.
Juju Smith-Schuster’s play was also very underrated today as not only did he get in for a score but he also had an extension for a first down that led to a field goal drive and a big-time block to free Conner for a touchdown late in the game.
The passing game was good enough for the Steelers as it was still a lot of dink and dunk plays and short routes for first downs on third down. One big reason was because of Big Ben’s bad downfield passing accuracy as he took some deep shots but to no avail. Washington and Johnson were targeted early on deep balls but Ben overshot them consistently.
This would explain Pittsburgh’s possible hesitancy to fully let Ben loose when it comes to down the field shots in the Steelers’ first two games. The strategy so far was to ease Ben into form and let him develop chemistry with the young receiver core. Another factor was Dionte Johnson’s injury midway through the game, which definitely forced the Steelers to adjust the game plan which proves his immense value to this team.
A final highpoint for the offense would be that they had no turnovers all game for the first time since week 10 in 2018. That’s a streak they should be happy to finally break.
On defense, the Steelers were very hot and cold in the first half. On odd-numbered drives, they forced the Texans to punt, but on even numbered drives, they allowed three touchdowns. The vaunted pass rush was unable to fluster Watson as he carved them up constantly to move the chains and scored in less than two minutes before halftime.
It was a combination of the Steelers’ defensive front not being able to get home on Watson and letting him extend plays and utilize his best mismatches downfield. Houston had quite a few mismatches vs the Steelers secondary as Nelson and Hilton weren’t able to contain Fuller and Cobb in the first half.
After halftime, the defense flipped a switch and turned on the heat on Watson as they sacked him 5 times total for the game with 3 sacks in the second half. Pressure came from the edge and up the middle, namely from Watt and Tuitt. The front line of the defense made impact plays as Alulu continued his solid start to 2020 with a key pass deflection at the line.
Stephon Tuitt singly handily wrecked one of the Texans’ second-half drives with a TFL and sack on the same drive. And what else could possibly be said about the combination of Watt and Dupree coming in hard from the edge? The best pass-rushing duo in the NFL couldn’t be contained for long, as they ended up with 2.5 sacks and 6 QB hits for the game.
In the backend, Pittsburgh sharpened up the sketchy pass coverage and allowed just one long completion from Watson in the second half. Mike Hilton stepped up with a pass deflection and a critical interception to flip the field which the Steelers converted into the game-winning touchdown.
Additionally, Joe Haden broke up a couple of intermediate pass plays that were targeting Cooks and Cobb. In terms of the run game, David Johnson was shut down all game as the Steelers limited the Texans to less than 2 yards per carry and 30 yards. The defense pitched a shutout in the second half which gave the offense opportunities to control the clock.
Still, not everything should be sunshine and roses for the Steelers as they allowed Houston to carve them up in the first half. While Watson is one of the best players in football, the rest of Houston’s offense isn’t exactly elite. While coverage stepped up late in the game, the Steelers pass rush did as well which forced Watson into errant throws, making the pass coverage look very good.
So far the hard truth is Pittsburgh’s back end of the defense is not what they were last year which is cause for concern when they go up against more capable offenses like Baltimore and even Cleveland later in the year.
The Steelers passed their biggest test yet with a win and got to see how they stack up against the Chiefs and Ravens, who were both of the Texans’ previous opponents. It’s clear that as of now the Steelers are not on the level of the Chiefs or Ravens based on the comparable play against a similar opponent but there were still plenty of positives to draw from this win.