Steelers vs. Texans: 10 Things Steelers Fans Should Watch for in Week 4
While the Men of Steel's record is 2-1, many curious eyebrows were raised after the team struggled against the Colts on national television as a result of turnovers and bad line play.
Considering that these were focus areas for the squad heading into the contest against Indianapolis, even loyal fans are alarmed with an ominous feeling that this year could be similar to the most recent Steelers' post-Super Bowl campaigns.
With so much talent, predicting such a recurrence is certainly premature. Simply, Pittsburgh needs to get back to executing in the manner that we all know they can.
A win over the upstart Texans would provide legitimacy, while a loss would drop the Steelers back to .500.
While everything may be bigger in Texas, nothing is larger than Steelers Country—a fervent band of loyalists who travel better than any fanbase in football. With a little help from some twirling towels in the Reliant Stadium crowd, the Steelers hope to improve on their play and obtain a keynote victory over a dangerous Houston club.
To that end, here are 10 things for Steelers fans to keep an eye on Sunday afternoon in Houston!
Quarterback Rating Differential and Turnovers: A True Double Whammy
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Historians have always looked for key indicators in determining the outcomes of contests.
In basketball, there is rebounding, free throw shooting, and many other critical measures experts rely on to determine the quality of a team's play.
In football, quarterback rating differential and turnovers—two components that go hand in hand—both have heavy influence. The former is the gap between the rating of a team's passer against the average cumulative ratings of opposing passers. The latter speaks for itself.
So far in 2011, Houston's Matt Schaub has a passer rating of over 101, while Roethlisberger's score rests at 85.
The key difference in their play? Turnovers.
Despite dominating both of their most recent opponents (Seattle and Indianapolis), Pittsburgh had to squeak by in a nailbiter last week. Three turnovers kept the Colts game close.
Playing well and avoiding mistakes, the Seahawks fell at Heinz Field 24-0.
In both games, opposing passers were held to an anemic yards per attempt, unable to establish big gains in the air. Yet, those enemy quarterbacks avoided the momentum turning mistake.
Facing an improved Houston secondary and a fine pass rusher in Mario Williams, it is critical that Roethlisberger avoid turnovers and make smart decisions. Naturally, Ben's skill set requires taking a few chances, especially downfield, but those risks must be well-timed and opportunistically executed.
It's all about the where, when, and how—which is typically related to the who.
Typically, with his voluminous gains and backbreaking key plays, Ben is the difference in Steelers wins.
With a few flubs in early weeks, a bit of premature hysteria has made impatient fans anxious. And, who can blame them? With the window of opportunity still open for championship football, no win can be wasted!
On top of Ben's mistakes, the defense has not forced a single passer into an interception. Matt Schaub's weapons allow him the playmaking luxury not afforded to most quarterbacks. Getting pressure and forcing a key mistake will be critical for the defense!
In a season where interceptions have weighed down No. 7's performance, an encore performance must be avoided to obtain an road victory in Houston. By avoiding untimely turnovers and achieving sound play at quarterback, Pittsburgh will accomplish two key indicators toward victory.
It'll be like reviving two birds with one breath!
Steelers Receivers Versus Revamped Houston Secondary
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No longer the extreme liability of last season, Houston took measures in the offseason to improve their pathetic secondary. The results in 2011 have been mixed.
Kerry Collins and Chad Henne combined to complete less than half of their passes, but Brandon Marshall and Reggie Wayne averaged nearly 100 yards receiving in those contests.
Both quarterbacks had a key similarity in their statistics: limited targets. Forgetting the talent in place, Collins only connected with four pass catchers, while Henne's five receivers included two men (Daniel Thomas and Reggie Bush) with one catch each.
Against New Orleans, Drew Brees utilized all of his weapons in his typical style; hitting eight receivers (five with at least three catches), New Orleans moved with success, forcing all members of the Texans secondary to be charged with stopping the pass.
Houston picked up Jonathan Joseph and Danieal Manning this summer, a huge infusion of talent and boost to the unit. The two cannot cover everybody, and the Steelers gallery of receiving targets could again spell trouble for the Texans secondary.
While the successes of Wayne and Marshall have to be inspiring to Mike Wallace, who looks to extend his streak of 100-yard games and keep up his torrid pace, utilizing the full scale of the team's offensive talent is the best approach.
With Emmanuel Sanders, Antonio Brown, Hines Ward, Mike Wallace, and Heath Miller, the Houston secondary has its hands full.
Jericho Cotchery is also ready for his shining moment in this 2011 campaign.
Now, if only one more thing could be improved, the Steelers passing game would take full flight.... (next slide)
The Broken Record: Where Is the Running Game?
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The Steelers must run well against the Texans. Or else, "In Houston, we have a problem!"
The offensive line needs to improve in run blocking for the skill of Isaac Redman and Rashard Mendenhall.
Like last week, the Steelers face a premier lineman in Mario Williams, a feared pass rusher who can create havoc. Hopefully, the line learns something from the tape and puts improvement into action on Sunday.
The Texans have allowed nearly five yards per rush this season, but the Steelers couldn't run against the Colts.
Overall, the offensive line has been the focus of brutal scrutiny through September. There are two reasons for frustration.
First, there is no excuse for the complete inability to run block that was demonstrated last week.
Secondly, the first quarter against Indianapolis showcased the ability of Pittsburgh's offense when teams are forced to honor the run. When the threat is real, it opens up the passing game and allows the Pittsburgh offense to control the clock without making mistakes.
How does Mike Wallace get 100 yards in the first quarter? Play action certainly helps!
Inevitably, the running attack has to find success at some point during the 2011 campaign.
Last week, I asked this question: If you can't run on the Colts, who can you rush against?
Well, how 'bout the Texans?
In Houston, the Steelers will not find an undermanned squad struggling to win its first game. If they cannot run the ball, Pittsburgh will walk in a buzz saw with no chance for victory.
Getting Pressure on Schaub Is a Must
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Standing back, looking the devil in the eye, and pulling the trigger. This can be used to describe the approach of a marksman.
It also works as an appropriate descriptor for the play of Houston quarterback Matt Schaub.
He has two consecutive 4,000-yard seasons, completes well over 60 percent of his pass attempts, and throws footballs to Andre Johnson.
Even Texans tight end Owen Daniels seems ready to get back into the Houston pass catching mix.
Despite his aerial good fortunes, Schaub accomplishes none of these feats while off of his feet.
In recent weeks, the Steelers defense has not gotten the quarterback pressures that they're accustomed to producing.
Against Seattle, experts speculated the team's goal was to prevent Tavaris Jackson from getting outside of the pocket, thus forcing him to throw the football. The result was an anemic yardage total despite an efficient completion rate.
In Indianapolis, the outcome was similar.
In Houston, the defense must get pressure on Matt Schaub. Allowing him to drop back and survey the field is not a winning option, as the Texans passer is nearly unstoppable in a groove.
Step One for Avoiding a Shootout: Stop the Run
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Ben Tate has averaged nearly five yards per carry, and the Texans offense is running for 138 yards per game. With balance on offense, the Texans have scored over 30 points in two of three duels.
This week, Arian Foster is expected to return to the lineup. Houston knows that their offense is nearly unstoppable if they're able to run the football.
Beyond the threat of a top three receivers and fine quarterback, Tate ran for over 100 yards in each of his first two NFL games. Only limited opportunities in a shootout with the Saints prevented a third consecutive century mark for the young running back.
The running game and passing game work together, where the success of one opens the opportunity for the other.
Pittsburgh's defense cannot afford another fine day on the ground for Houston. Tate's success translates to time in the pocket for Schaub.
With time to throw and the ability to utilize play action passing, the Texans offense will execute with frustrating efficiency, and Pittsburgh could be lured into a shootout that they naturally wish to avoid.
Both go hand in hand. Forcing the Houston offense to become one-dimensional will allow the defense to be more creative against Schaub.
A failure to accomplish this goal allows the Texans the luxury of their full playbook, opening the floodgates for a Texas-style shootout. While it may not be Cowboys pulling the trigger, Texas's other football team has enough offensive firepower to embarrass opposing defenses.
The defensive front has a huge responsibility this weekend, a sizable test that requires them to stop the run and get pressure on Matt Schaub.
To win, the Steelers will need the finest performance in the defensive trenches of the season to-date.
Foster, Essex, and the Patchwork Offensive Line: Nothing New, so What Gives?
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Well, thank goodness Ben Roethlisberger is a lumbering quarterback with deceptive speed, great balance, and strength.
After all, one must suspect Big Ben will be quite mobile this weekend. With standout Mario Williams across the line, the matchup would be a tall order for any offensive line.
The Steelers will likely have two replacement players in the lineup.
Trai Essex takes over for injured Jonathan Scott, while Ramon Foster will start for Doug Legursky.
While this could be analyzed to death regarding the approach on either side of this match, the line really can't play any worse than they did against the Colts.
Here's hoping that Essex, Foster, and the rest of the line will keep Ben upright, open holes for runner, and showcase the type of potential that other patchwork Black and Gold lines have demonstrated in recent successes.
Let's not forget that the Steelers earned a trip to the Super Bowl last season largely due to their ability to run successfully in the AFC Championship Game. Likewise, that entire 2010-11 campaign was accomplished with an offensive line that played seemingly no games together as a cohesive unit.
Nobody expects the injured O-line to be the best in football. Yet, despite their hard luck and continued setbacks, the unit does need to be serviceable to allow the team's great offensive talent to do its work.
Andre Johnson vs. Ike Taylor (and the Rest of the Secondary)
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While many Steelers fans have misgivings about some of the defensive backs, few would debate that Ike Taylor has been a solid force in the secondary this season.
Whenever possible, fans would naturally prefer to see Taylor matched up against Andre Johnson. With his blend of size, speed, and great hands, the powerful Houston receiver will be the toughest match to-date for those assigned to him.
Naturally, with Ike assigned to the opponent's best receiver on most plays, the Texans will shift their offense in an attempt to secure favorable matchups.
Can the secondary work together to contain this "man-imal?" Or, will Johnson create a frustrating day for Pittsburgh's corners?
To what degree will safety help be required to contain Johnson? Will this detract from the defense's ability to use safeties in run support or pass pressure?
The value of Ike's coverage skills cannot be understated and should not be underappreciated.
On Sunday, Steelers fans will hope that he can play at his best for four quarters.
If Ike can shadow Johnson and play one of his best games of the season, it will go a long way toward ensuring success for the Pittsburgh defense.
In 2008, two critical interceptions and a fourth down stop at midfield kept the Texans in check in Pittsburgh. However, in the game, Schaub completed 25 of 33 attempts.
Andre Johnson caught 10 passes for 112 yards. He had no touchdowns.
Trading catches for touchdowns is almost a necessity that the defense will sacrifice against such a dominant player.
Houston's Red Zone Woes
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When Houston enters the red zone, most would expect the offense to find the ball into the hands of No. 80, Andre Johnson.
In fact, where the Texans have run often in this territory, the result has been unsuccessful, causing Houston's brass to take a close look at what is hindering the offense in the red zone.
One player the Steelers will need to pay close attention to in these situations is Owen Daniels.
Daniels is second on the club in receptions with two touchdowns on the season. Close to the endzone, the tight end could be an ideal target against a defense that has allowed tight ends to find success.
Houston has scored touchdowns on only five of 16 trips in the red zone this season. In the area, the Texans have lost yardage or been held to no gain on 21 of 51 plays, mostly run attempts.
Looking to solve their anemia deep in opponents' territory, expect the run game to take a back seat as the Texans offense moves downfield against a Steelers defensive front that is typically difficult to run against anyway.
For Owen Daniels, Jacoby Jones, and Kevin Walter, the prospect of favorable matchups near the endzone is promising!
Harrison, Polamalu, and Woodley: Who Wants to Make the Big Play?
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Premiere defenders all over the Steelers defense waited for their first turnover. Late in the contest at Lucas Oil Field, Harrison and Polamalu came through with a critical touchdown that ultimately anchored a Steelers' win.
While he has gathered a sack n' a half, fans are waiting for Lamarr Woodley, along with the rest of the unit, to put their stamp on this 2011 season.
Against Houston, the focus will be on our own execution.
Running the ball and stopping the run.
Protecting the ball.....
And forcing turnovers.
The last item on that list is critical. A talented Houston team will be a difficult assignment, and the three defensive standouts—along with the rest of the unit—needs to bring their A-game.
Make the Texans one-dimensional.
Last week, the first glimmer of aggressive Steelers defense—with the Black and Gold forcing the issue—made its appearance. Troy did was Troy does, timing his blitzes and nearly dislodging two plays in the backfield before scoring a touchdown in the fourth quarter.
Fans can't wait to see the Woodley kicks, flying hair and Polamalu cutbacks, and sheer powerful will of Silverback. All three have been the focus in recent weeks, either for contract extensions or rumors of their decline.
All three would serve the team well with a big performance in the state where (allegedly) everything is bigger!
Big Swing Game
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When I refer to "swing," I don't mean the sacred towel that Pittsburgh fans wave!
If the Steelers can defeat the Texans, it will send a message to the rest of the NFL that the team is still around and more than ready to defend its title as American Football Conference Champions.
In 2011, Pittsburgh is waiting for its chance to send that first vital message, warning other teams' to be on alert. With their backs against the wall and being written off by many, the Steelers tend to play their best football.
After all, who doesn't love the "us vs. the world" mentality that has propelled them in the past?
With a critical win in Houston, the result would not only be validation. The contest is a huge pivot game.
Obviously, the difference between being two games over .500 (3-1) and falling to 2-2 is significant. Atop that gap, with a victory, the Steelers would set themselves up with a legitimate shot (taking nothing for granted) at going 5-1 to start the season.
The incentive for a potential fast start should be cause to root hard for an upset in Houston!