Steelers vs. Texans: 10 Observations from the Week 4 Loss in Houston
When they last met at Heinz Field on the opening weekend of 2008, a hit by Houston's Mario Williams separated Ben Roethlisberger's shoulder. Today, Big Ben left limping, and Mario again wreaked havoc, though the two events were not directly related.
Unlike the last affair, it was the Texans who claimed a home victory.
The 17-10 final score did not appropriately demonstrate the Steelers struggles in all phases of the game. In a weekly theme, the offensive line failed to hold up against a premier defender, the running game failed to get into any sort of rhythm and the defense gave credence to those who recently proclaimed they were an aging and deteriorating unit.
In the original American space city, Arian Foster rocketed for 155 yards against a Steelers defense that appeared completely out of orbit. Houston took steps toward eradicating the notion that they are unable to close out victories against quality opponents.
Meanwhile, in a contest to test their mettle, the Steelers attempt at a comeback fell short, while their early season struggles continued to manifest themselves.
Can the Steelers get back to playing the championship football that defined their roster in the past half decade? Will the Texans build on today's victory toward becoming serious contenders?
While those questions will remain unanswered, today's contest did provide a few insights that are more certain.
Here are 10 observations from today's game between a historical NFL juggernaut and an upstart franchise looking to eventually earn their first trip to the playoffs.
Memo to Steelers Defense: Tackling and Gap Control Are NFL Defense 101
Thomas B. Shea/Getty Images
While notices of the decline of a few key defenders may be premature (namely, Troy Polamalu), the diagnosis of the Steelers defense as susceptible is starting to prove itself as accurate.
Should we start singing, "This old man, he ain't what he used to be.." in unison? No.
Nevertheless, Casey Hampton has struggled more this season that earlier campaigns from his challenging nose tackle spot, a position with magnified difficulty and enhanced importance in a 3-4 scheme.
Further still, things went very awry today for the whole defensive front that prides itself against the run. For the second time this season, they were gashed.
If it continues (and I still say "if), then we will have to hope that the Tomlin era has a focus on depth and the ability to revamp and rebuild.
When a team fails to stop the run, it is normally for one of two reasons: bad tackling or unsound discipline with gap assignments, or the ability of a defender to cover his "hole" along the line.
Today, it was both for the proud Steelers, who were punched in the mouth again.
Arian Foster deserves a great deal of credit for his agility and shiftiness, but I can't remember a time when Steelers defenders tackled more poorly that the start of this season.
Atop of hitting open holes and benefiting from ankle-shattering cutbacks, the Houston running back benefited from some missed tackles.
Though a limited scope compared to a number of misses, here are a few that stood out.
Specifically, on a drive where the Steelers defense later stopped the Texans, Troy Polamalu timed his jump into the backfield almost perfectly. His inability to wrap up and complete the tackle on Foster allowed the runner to cut around the left tackle and pick up a sizable gain.
Later in the second half, Foster nearly broke free from Troy again. While the runner's knee was down, it was clear Troy had assumed the play as over before this was obvious. Had his shin caught more of the ground, Arian would have been able to pick up additional yardage after a missed tackle in the backfield.
While this was not a missed tackle, it easily could have been!
In truth, Troy played a decent game and made a solid stop on a late fourth quarter screen pass that looked promising or Houston. Still, he had a few lapses in tackling along with many of his teammates.
Worse than a few missed tackles were the lack of gap control the Steelers defensive line demonstrated. Foster had gaping holes to run through all day, many of them on counters and cutback runs against an overly aggressive front.
Gap control also requires defenders to get off of blocks. With a cornucopia of five and six-yard gains for Houston runners, the Texans offense had a feast.
For the defense's ill performance, let this not negate the observation that...(see next slide)
Arian Foster Had an Amazing Comeback Performance
Bob Levey/Getty Images
Arian Foster is an excellent running back. Without his presence, the Texans may have lost in a contest they should have won easily.
His shiftiness and ability to change direction frustrated aggressive Steelers' pursuit all afternoon. His balance and power allowed him to free from would-be tacklers on seemingly every drive.
How many backfield losses did the runner turn into positive gains?
Demonstrating his vision and speed, the rusher took advantage of running lanes and a lack of gap discipline by Pittsburgh. As the Steelers came inside, the Texans cut off right tackle for the game-winning touchdown on a perfectly designed and executed play.
While he led the league in rushing last season, I admit to wondering if Arian Foster was the real deal.
Today, my doubts were silenced. Foster is a fine runner.
The Offensive Line Is Simply Offensive
No more free soup for you!!!!
So, Ben, still want to hook these guys up with free meals?
For the sake of avoiding redundancy, I will call this slide (as I anticipate it being a weekly tradition) the "Offensive Line Weekly LVP" for the remainder of the season.
After such a lousy performance, I will note just how devastatingly awful the unit has been for one last time.
The 1996 Jets offensive line left former Steelers quarterback Neil O'Donnell rendered useless. What are the 2011 Steelers doing along the line that is any better?
Seriously, Ben. Until your "boys" start to actually carry half their weight for the team (realizing that linemen are enormous), you can stop treating them to fancy dinners out of appreciation.
Perhaps, they should leave their checks for the rest of the team offense this week after another unbelievably lousy Sunday.
Ben Roethlisberger lines up under center for the Black and Gold, and his mobility presents problems for opposing defenses. With a healthier offensive line heading into this season, along with three fine backs and a plethora of passing targets, the year was full of promise.
From inopportune penalties, poor run blocking and lackluster pass protection, the unit has allowed the premiere player on both the Colts and Texans to absolutely dominate the trenches in consecutive weeks.
Aside from a home win over Seattle, the Steelers offense has scored 23 total points on the road this season. The result is not for a lack of effort by other members of the offense.
With his raw athleticism, Ben has been able to make some plays downfield. In recent seasons, fans have criticized Roethlisberger for holding the ball too long, and it is not without merit. Truthfully, Big Ben could benefit from a faster delivery, especially against premier rushers.
Still, the offensive line has been downright putrid. Imagine if an immobile quarterback were asked to take the reins of this offense.
With his knees wobbly after a few shots at Reliant Stadium, Roethlisberger walked off the field a battered man. Mendenhall finished with 25 yards rushing, and short of a few spurts to start the second half (and deceptive averages), other runners did not have consistent success either.
Without simply decent line play, a team loses so much.
1) The ability to run and control the clock.
2) The versatility of a full playbook.
4) Deep passing routes (and, occasionally, intermediate routes, such as a short throw to Heath Miller on third and two early in the game).
5) Play action.
6) The ability of the quarterback to scan the field.
While they have compensated for the unit against low-caliber opponents, the Steelers will not beat a quality team unless the play of the offensive line improves.
For the record, the "LVP" was Trai Essex, who was beaten around all day like a man stealing a paycheck.
Antonio Brown Rebounds: The Tale of Two Halves
In the first half, Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown were simply out of sync.
On a few passes, Ben's reaction indicated his expectation for Brown to make a different adjustment to the football, thus resulting in misfires and a short throw on a quick read during the Steelers' final drive of the first half.
Later in the half, the two misconnected on what could have been a touchdown in the final seconds. From their reactions, it was obvious that they were not on the same page, lacking the chemistry necessary for success.
For his struggles in the first 30 minutes, Brown became a go-to receiver for Roethlisberger after halftime.
On the Steelers' lone touchdown drive, Brown caught three consecutive Roethlisberger passes. Of these receptions, one came on a critical third down, and the next was a 23-yard reception to set the ball up at the Houston 15-yard line.
After another 16-yard catch and fine punt return, the duo failed to connect on a desperate deep heave from Ben to the young receiver on a ball that was intercepted to secure the Houston victory.
Showcasing the ability to rebound and step up his game, Brown made significant strides in his progressionone of the lone positive facets of today's Pittsburgh loss.
Special Teams Are Capable of Making and Breaking the Steelers
Bob Levey/Getty Images
I'm going to predict that the special teams will both win and lose a game for the Steelers before the 2011 season ends, albeit in the regular season or playoffs.
In a phase of the game that many fans forget, Steelers fans know too well the impact that special teams can have on a season.
Who can forget the 2001 AFC Championship Game? Who can forget the name Troy Brown?
Who can forget 1993 in Cleveland and the name Eric Metcalf?
We all remember the stability of Gary Anderson and also recall Kris Brown's four misses against the Baltimore Ravens in a 13-10 loss in 2001.
What impact will the special teams have on the 2011 Steelers? There are indicators for both the good and the bad.
With an electrifying returner in Antonio Brown and fine play by the coverage units so far, the special teams has been a source of added stability in certain areas. Hopefully, these elements continue to hold strong for the team.
Still, there's one area of extreme concern—the kicking game. Namely, the anxiety for Steelers fans is kicker Sean Suisham.
Today, a low trajectory kick was blocked by Houston. The Texans returned the football for a back-breaking touchdown...or did they?
As one yellow towel fell to the turf indicating the penalty, other yellow towels waved throughout the Steel City. Despite a first half of being dominated, the Steelers trailed by only 10 points.
Despite the good fortune of a reversed touchdown, the play was only negated by a silly penalty that was utterly unnecessary considering its lack of impact on the outcome of the return. In truth, the Texans should have led 17-0 at halftime.
Steelers fans have had concern about Suisham's weak leg and accuracy, as evidenced by a complete shank on a long attempt in last year's Super Bowl. It was likely the worst field goal attempt in the history of football's premiere game.
While many say "don't break a leg," Suisham's questionable leg got a break today in Houston. Going forward, such opportune and fortunate events will not save the Steelers.
At any point, Brown can change the momentum of a football game, while Suisham can completely negate the promise of an offensive drive. Even more confusingly, for every horrible miss by Sean, the kicker has redeemed himself with clutch kicks.
In the ultimate make or break proposition, the Steelers special teams could do both on any given week.
Marcus Gilbert's Déjà Vu and Ben Roethlisberger's Fumbling Issues
Bob Levey/Getty Images
Sacks are going to mount, and the problem is only going to be exacerbated if Ben continued to fumble. Roethlisberger has to do a better job of protecting the football during contact.
For Marcus Gilbert, one particular blocking assignment will continue to haunt his dreams for another week!
The offensive tackle is blocking a defensive end, forcing his momentum to carry him around the pocket and behind the quarterback.
For most offensive tackles, this would constitute a fine job of pass blocking.
With the mobility of Ben Roethlisberger, the offensive line in Pittsburgh has an added challenge of protecting a quarterback in a moving pocket. In each of the last two weeks, Gilbert has blocked an assigned end around the original pocket, only for the defensive end to sack Roethlisberger from behind.
With Ben scrambling to his left, he has left himself exposed, nearly fumbling the football against Houston in an encore performance of a turnover against the Colts. The play was nearly identical to a fumble forced by Mathis last week.
Considering his penchant for holding onto the ball against the line's struggled to pass block, Roethlisberger must be more aware outside of the pocket. Sacked five times today, Roethlisberger also fumbled for the fifth time this season on the playwhich was negated by another Texans penalty.
His mobility will inevitably lead to contact, and those eyes that are described in the back of his head have not done a great job of picking up pressure from behind this season.
Pittsburgh Must Sweep Jacksonville and Tennessee During the Homestand
Matt Sullivan/Getty Images
In fact, is there any hot seat with a whiter flame than that of Jacksonville coach Jack Del Rio?
Beyond their team struggles, both former division rivals (from the AFC Central) field is mediocre, if not downright poor, pass-rushing defensive lines.
The Titans and Jaguars have combined for nine total sacks and lack the prowess along the defensive front that Pittsburgh has competed against the last two weeks. It is the perfect tonic for what ails them but should not be viewed as an opportunity for a reprieve.
Both squads fare better against the run.
While both Jacksonville and Tennessee sport fine runners, the Titans recently lost their best receiver (sound familiar to today?) while the Jaguars offense starts a signal-caller inferior to Tavaris Jackson, a quarterback who was shutout against the Steelers in Week 2.
The Steelers need to make progress against these teams in order to prepare for much stiffer assignments shortly thereafter.
If Pittsburgh is unable to play better along both the offensive line versus the Jaguars and Titans, their hopes for victory afterwards are slim. In fact, much like the Steelers served as the perfect tonic for Houston's defense today, the Jags and Tites (sorry, had to add the "e" for the children) need to do the same for the Steelers.
It would be foolish to overlook either opponent, especially considering that the franchise has traditionally stuggled against both. Still, both matchups are promising, and the Steelers should be favored in each.
Can they take advantage?
Assuming they can win both games to reach 4-2, they'll have regained some of the momentum lost in a pair of weeks that demands some soul searching for the proud champions. To lose either game would drop the squad to 3-3.
After losing at home to a seemingly inferior AFC South opponent, they'll travel to Arizona to play an improved Cardinals squad with a coaching staff hellbent on vengeance after their Super Bowl loss.
Then, they'll come back home to play the Patriots and Ravens in a very demanding set of games at Heinz Field.
If they cannot sweep these next two weeks and utilize the subsequent momentum against tougher opponents, they will be at serious risk for a losing record heading into the season's second half.
Mike Lipps-Wallace Is the First Quarter MVP
Tim DeFrisco/Getty Images
In the first half, after the Steelers accomplished noting on offense, Wallace and Roethlisberger connected an a third-down pass for 40 yards.
While he did not extend his streak of 100-yard games, the leading receiver caught four passes for 77 yards to lead the team for the fourth straight week.
He is on pace for 1,816 yards and could potentially vye for the NFL's all-time receiving record. Wallace has been the team's best offensive player by far, and the defense has failed to come up with opportune plays or big turnovers.
With four games played, 25 percent of the NFL season has already elapsed. In the first month of play, Mike Wallace has been the clear team MVP, likening back to the 1980s whenever the team struggled and Louis Lipps continued to fill the highlight reel.
The Texans Won Their Biggest Game...and They Will Win the AFC South
Thomas B. Shea/Getty Images
The Steelers happened to be the quality opponent today. In Houston, it could have been any from a list of reputable NFL opponents.
The Texans needed a signature win to showcase their rise from mediocrity to contention. Despite a dominating first half, the notion of being unable to seal the deal began to reverberate through Reliant Stadium in the second half of today's game.
Things were adding up to the same storyline: Houston takes lead only to blow it.
Pittsburgh, deserving to be down by more than 10 points, rallied to tie the score. Houston's best player was out of the game, and momentum had shifted.
In the fourth quarter, the new character of the Texans was revealed. While the events were not absolute indicators of the Steelers' mettle, considering their title as AFC Champions and the difficulty of playing in Houston, the contest was a huge cornerstone for Houston.
Arian Foster's long touchdown run gave the Texans a lead that their defense would not relinquish. With the pressure of the defensive line getting to Ben Roethlisberger, including constant harassment from Mario Williams, the revamped secondary only needed to hold up to secure a win.
It held up beautifully, timing hits to dislodge catches, intercepting desperation passes, and making the plays necessary to bolster Houston's record to 3-1.
Management in Houston has surrounded coach Gary Kubiak with great talent; in this 2011 season, Kubiak needed to put together a winner on the field to prevent a reputation for losing.
Today, as the momentum began to slant in favor of the experienced champions, Houston reclaimed control and rode their best players to victory.
One could easily argue today's contest as the most important win to-date in the history of the young Texans franchise.
How Predictable Was Owen Daniels' Performance?
Bob Levey/Getty Images
Many Steelers fans feel the team's tight ends are not utilized enough. Meanwhile, opposing tight ends have had a field day against Pittsburgh.
Today, Owen Daniels was a key contributor for the Texans, and I have to say that everyone should have seen it coming.
Houston entered Sunday having struggled in the red zone, and they started the second half without one of the finest receivers in the NFL.
The Texans set up for a 1st-and-goal from the 1-yard line on the game's first drive, having run the ball down the Steelers throats. In recent weeks, tight ends had killed Pittsburgh, and Owen Daniels was returning to form after a setback season in 2010.
So..."who 'ya gonna' call?!"
For the second straight week, Owen put in a yeoman's work, recording a fine performance and getting into the end zone.
With so much emphasis on stopping the run, containing receivers, executing the defense,and confusing opponents, teams seem to be gashing Pittsburgh with tight ends and backs on intermidiate passing routes. Are teams catching up with the Steelers' 3-4 defensive philosophy?
Did last year's game against the Patriots really set up that much of a blueprint?
Adding to ths mix, the team's struggles with stopping the run, and it was no wonder that Daniel found success against the Steelers secondary.
It can't be said that I didn't warn everybody!