8:30 PM EST, ESPN – Line: Pittsburgh -3
A pair of teams meandering away at .500 face off at Heinz Field, as the Pittsburgh Steelers host the Houston Texans on Monday Night Football. After a dreadful 2-14 campaign that saw them lose fourteen consecutive contests, the Texans (3-3) have been one of the pleasant surprises in the NFL this season. Bill O’Brien arrived from Penn State and immediately whipped this floundering team into shape, making the most of some very limited parts. With that said, don’t get it confused, for this team still possesses plenty of talent; the fact that they went 2-14 with largely the same roster that won the previous two AFC South Titles was confounding in itself, for they still have the likes of Arian Foster, Andre Johnson, Duane Brown, Brian Cusing, and J.J. Watt along their roster, all of which have been Pro Bowlers throughout their careers. The only major difference is that former Quarterback Matt Schaub is gone after a turnover-prone campaign, replaced by journeyman Ryan Fitzpatrick, whom O’Brien has sought to maximize. Remember, the former Penn State skipper was once Tom Brady’s Quarterbacks’ Coach and Offensive Coordinator in New England, and is regarded as one of the best teachers of the game at that position. Through six games he has molded the former Bill into a bonafide Game Manager, which is precisely what this team needs as they continue to rehab from last year’s season-long debacle.
Don’t get us wrong though, for Fitzpatrick has been far from a a godsend under center this year, he’s just been better than “Mr. Pick Six” Matt Schaub. Through six outings, the oft-traveled Harvard graduate has completed a career-high 65.0% of his passes for an average of 211.3 yards per game (7.9 yards/attempt), for six touchdowns and six interceptions with a Passer Rating of 86.1, also the high-water mark of his ten-year career. The key to maximizing his potential is by limiting his opportunities; O’Brien has relied upon Foster and the running game to lay a foundation so that he can efficiently build the passing game upon, as Houston has averaged 30.5 rushes (7th overall) for 128.5 yards (11th overall) on 4.2 yards per carry this season (16th overall). In turn, they by far and away the fewest passes in the league (26.8), yet have netted a healthy 7.3 yards per attempt, the seventh-highest figure overall. In laymen’s terms, they judiciously pick their spots in the passing game, but when they do drop back to throw they make it count. The ever-reliable Johnson and youngster DeAndre Hopkins have been playmakers downfield, accounting for 419 and 366 receiving yards respectively, with the former logging one touchdown and the latter posting three scores. But it all starts up front with Foster, who has rebounded nicely from an injury-riddled campaign to rush for an average of 102.6 yards on 4.8 yards per carry, with five touchdowns, along with 26.2 yards through the air on 8.2 yards per catch. However, the Texans have put up 156.0 yards per game on the ground over the last two games against the likes of Dallas (20-17 OT) and Indianapolis (33-28), only to receive 175.0 yards through the air, with both contest ending in defeat. Fitzpatrick clearly has his limits, but if this offense is to truly succeed, then O’Brien may have to take some more chances, particularly against some of the higher scoring teams in the league.
That approach would definitely help their defense, which while keeping their opposition out of the end zone has yielded yards wholesale. It’s a sizable disparity indeed, as the Texans have relinquished the fourth-fewest amount of points in the NFL (20.0), but have done so on 397.2 yards per game (27th overall). In three out of their last four games, Romeo Crennel’s defense has given up up at least 400 yards, and on each occasion they met defeat; in Houston’s three losses this season, they have allowed an average 443.7 yards per game, while in their victories they have held their opponents to just 350.7 yards. the reason for such a big chasm is turnovers of course, which this unit has specialized in, leading the league with a hefty fourteen turnovers. Impressively, eight of that total has been fumble recoveries, as O’Brien’s boys have been the proverbial “Johnny On the Spot” when the ball has hit the turf. It’s been quite the change in approach under Crennel’s guidance, as the Texans are trend far more towards the “read and react” end of the spectrum, opposed to the “attack, attack” state of mind of former Defensive Coordinator Wade Phillips. However, you wouldn’t have been able to tell the difference in J.J. Watt, who continues to raise hell in whatever scheme he plays in; after signing a $100 million contract in the offseason, the former Defensive Player of the Year has repaid his franchise in kind with 26 tackles, four sacks, six deflected passes, and an interception. Furthermore, he has scored a total of three touchdowns thus far; one returning a touchdown, with another returning a fumble, and one as a receiver in O’Brien’s Red Zone Package.
Meanwhile, it’s safe to say that this not where the Pittsburgh Steelers (3-3) expected to be at this point of the season, languishing in last place of the competitive AFC North. After missing the postseason in each of the last two campaigns, there is a sense of urgency in the Steel City, but through six games Mike Tomlin’s charges look like a mess, particularly on the defensive side of the ball where they have been so stout for over 40 years. Simply put, this is not only the worst defensive team that Tomlin has had in his eight years on the sidelines, but it is easily the most underachieving unit that revered Defensive Coordinator Dick LeBeau has presided over in his thirteen years in Pittsburgh. Take a moment to digest this statistic; with LeBeau in charge, the Steelers ranked in the top nine in total defense for eleven seasons, including number one overall on five occasions, but over the last two seasons have ranked thirteenth and twelfth respectively. Indeed times are changing, and while offenses continue to get more diverse, it’s very likely that LeBeau’s schemes and tactics have become antiquated.
Granted, allowing 337.0 yards per game is far from terrible, and in today’s NFL, it’s really not that bad, but given the standard that the Steelers have set in year’s past, it’s very disappointing. Though they haven’t yielded more than 389 yards at any point this season, they have been uncharacteristically soft in the trenches, as they’ve been gashed against the run on a number of occasions this season. Despite shutting down the run against the likes of Carolina (42 yards), Tampa Bay (63 yards), and Jacksonville (56 yards), they have been pummeled against their division rivals Baltimore and Cleveland. Against the AFC North, Tomlin’s club has allowed an average of 168.7 yards on the ground, including 158 in last week’s embarrassing 31-10 loss at the Browns. Furthermore, they are permitting 4.4 yards per carry, the highest such figure in LeBeau’s tenure as the Steelers’ Coordinator. With that said, the other problem is health, for Pittsburgh has suffered a number of debilitating injuries on this side of the ball. Defensive Ends Brett Keisel (knee) and Cameron Hayward (ankle) are both listed as Probable for tonight’s contest, while Linebackers Ryan Shazier (knee) and Jarvis Jones (wrist) are both expected to miss, with the latter already on Injured Reserve. Veteran Cornerback Ike Taylor suffered a gruesome arm injury in the team’s Week Three victory at Carolina (37-19), with the timetable on his return indefinite. Add offseason acquisition Mike Mitchell to the mix, and you have a whopping six starters out with an assortment of ailments, leaving a young, rebuilding unit short on precious depth. That does not bode well against the Texans, who have been hellbent on establishing the run this season.
It’s a shame that the defense has been so inconsistent, for Pittsburgh’s offense hasn’t been this balanced since Bill Cowher was stalking the sidelines. Through six games, the Steelers have averaged 20.7 points (23rd overall) on 409.8 total yards (6th overall), with 272.5 coming through the air (11th overall) on 6.5 net yards per attempt (15th overall), and another 137.3 courtesy of the rush (5th overall) on a healthy 4.9 yards per carry (4th overall). Sophomore Tailback Le’Veon Bell as helped reignite their dormant rushing attack, which had been a stable for this franchise for as long as the defense has. Bell currently ranks second the league with 542 rushing yards on 5.2 yards per carry and a touchdown, while also factoring heavily into the passing game with 251 yards on 28 receptions. And just how rare is this rushing renaissance in Pittsburgh, you ask? Since Tomlin took over in 2007, he has presided over a ground game that has ranked in the top five just once, finishing third overall back in 2007. They’ve ranked no higher than eleventh since that point, finishing twenty-sixth and twenty-seventh in 2012 and 2013. Of course, rushing successfully makes life easier on Ben Roethlisberger, who is quietly having one of his best campaigns under center. Thus far, Big Ben has completed 65.3% of his passes for an average of 265.6 yards per game (7.3 yards/attempt), with eight touchdowns and three interceptions, along with a Passer Rating of 93.3. With Bell helping to keep defenses honest, he’s had more time to attack downfield in Offensive Coordinator Todd Haley’s uptempo approach. However, despite moving the ball with ease between the 20-yard lines, this team struggles mightily inside the Red Zone, where they have gone to score a touchdown on just seven opportunities.