A teams play-off chances when starting the season 1-2 sits at a modest 24.8%. Though when starting out 0-3, a teams likelihood of playing any knock-out football drops to 2.7%. Many will point to the Texans 0-3 start in 2018 which saw them win 9 games in-a-row. But that run posed the luxury of an amenable schedule and they enjoyed multiple last minute field-goal misses. Since then, the defensive talent have been drained, making a repeat, even less likely. Whichever way you look at it, Houston need to win at Heinz Field or face another season of mediocrity to add to a long list.
The Keys to Sunday’s Game:
Handling The Blitz
The Steelers defence have maintained their menacing presence in 2020, giving up the least rushing yards and a pass-completion rate of only 53%. The method of attack by DC Keith Butler is blatant but has been disproportionately effective, in the opening weeks. Playing with a Blitz rate over 60% has delivered 40 quarterback pressures thus far, a threat the Texans will need to show they can adjust to, if they are to have a realistic chance of winning.
The long held issue for the Texans offence, that even backdates to the 2017 encounter, (with TJ Yates under centre) is the nickel blitz. Corner Mike Hilton, racked up three sacks that night and has posted two already this season. The offence’s ability to manage this threat will hinder on attacking short & intermediate hot routes, to stifle the creativity of the Pittsburgh blitz packages that have notched 10 sacks. Thought that will be a significant ask considering the lack of proficiency shown in recognising such pressures but progress will be required to move the chains consistency on Sunday.
Deshaun and Nick Martin will have to be consistent in identifying the front as getting behind the chains will only amplify the pressure that the Steelers unit brings. In week 1, against the Giants, they continued to stack the box and move around TJ Watt in finding the desired miss-match. This front will provide a true test of the pass protection, for a position group who’ve been the single biggest disappointment through the two weeks, relinquishing pressures too frequently on to their signal caller.
The Steelers 4-3 defence deployed has shown a number of fronts over the first few weeks. The rotation and depth beyond Heyward, Tuit, Dupree and TJ Watt is a source of strength that will stress Deshaun’s trust in this offensive line group, a connection that has not yet yielded the desired stability.
Balancing With Run Game
Running the ball and the David Johnson’s impact will crucial. If the Texans find themselves throwing 35+ pass-attempts, that desperation to move the ball will fall into the Steelers lap. Tim Kelly will need to diverge his focus on running between the guards and stretch the run game to outside zone & misdirection concepts. As the Bronco’s showed last week, racking up 90 yards on 22 attempts.
The likely return of Duke Johnson could be a timely return to help the Houston offence find its feet. This play design from Denver shows a way to attack when the Steelers are in Zone. A perfect play for Duke to execute, which leaves the tight-end wide open.
Finding the Slot Receivers and Tight Ends will be the way to win over the middle. In both opening Steelers games, they sat in either deep cover 1 with Minkah Fitzpatrick or cover 2 deep from the line. So there was numerous crossers and outs, particularly against Vince Williams (98) and Terrell Edmunds (34) who are match-ups Watson should look to take advantage off.
Taking the Shots To Stress The Secondary
As was the question in week one and will ever-present significance this year: can the Texans stress the defence on the outside? Tim Kelly is yet to show any promise as the OC, but watching the Giants and Bronco’s combine for 688 all-purposes-yards, opportunities will present themselves, but will the level of execution rise to take advantage of them.
The answer to the favourable cornerback match-up in week-1 was a resounding no. But a cornerback unit lead by Joe Haden can be exposed by the speed and Cooks, Fuller and Stills (if healthy). Deshaun will need to add this dimension to the passing attack, to spread the field, as this defence flies to the ball and the more they respect the long-ball, the more space it will create.
Finding Pressure Of Their Own
The Texans defence will be able to attack Roethlisberger more freely that they were able to, as the 17-year pro doesn’t have the spry abilities to extend plays with his legs. So Anthony Weaver will be able to dial-up a greater variety of pressures without the nagging thought of losing contain on the edge. The Texans will be required to show further improvements against the run, where Pittsburgh will lean on James Connor after 106 yard in week 2, after Benny Snell’s second fumble in as many games saw his carries drop.
The Steelers do expect to welcome All-Pro-Guard David DeCastro back to right side of the line, after a number of injuries. The Steelers have a continuous linage of lineman, who if they are able to keep a clean pocket, their Quarterback will be able to freely spread the ball to it’s ever growing lineage of receivers. Beyond Smith-Schuster, Eric Ebron & James Washington the emergence of former Toldeo wideout Diontae Johnson and Rookie Chase Claypool will provide an able supporting cast to the arm of their quarterback who shows no signs of decline, just yet.
Mixing Coverages & Turning Over the Ball
A surprise highlight has been the defence’s ability under Weaver to play a blend of personnel and coverages. They have been fundamentally sound, limited their biggest play given up to Mark Andrew’s 29 yard catch, on his only reception of the game.
That won’t be enough as the Texans are looking for their first turnover of the season. Partly, down to the run heavy attacks they’ve faced but they will undoubtedly have to turn that boxscore column in their favour if they are to come out with the victory.
A Test of Character
Facing the previous two MVP’s, where the offence failed to reach a functional performance level for sustained periods, hasn’t provided an accurate barometer of the Texans quality. But they are facing a team that saw a re-building Giants and Daniel Jones consistently move the ball against. Just as Denver back-up, Jeff Driskel, threw for 256 yards & two touchdowns in a close fought win five-point win. That included two Denver missed field goals and a safety on special teams.
The broader outlook of this offence after week three will be will become much clearer. Last year, the Texans came in their third game, with a 27-20 win over the Chargers. A week where Watson threw for 351 yards and 3 touchdowns, a repeat of such heights will be required if they are to get their season back on track.
HOUSTON @ PITTSBURGH, HEINZ FIELD, CBS, 12NOON KO (CT)