Houston Texans (0-2) @ Pittsburgh Steelers (2-0)
When: Sunday, September 27 at 1:00 PM ET
Where: Heinz Field, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
Broadcast team: Ian Eagle, Charles Davis & Evan Washburn
Spread: Steelers (-4)
In true Mike Tomlin "style points don't matter" fashion, the Pittsburgh Steelers find themselves 2-0 ahead of their week three match-up with the Houston Texans. A healthy Ben Roethlisberger is very much a welcome sight for the Steelers, yet Pittsburgh's defense continues to be the winning side of the ball when it matters most.
The Texans stroll into Heinz Field without a win to their name, yet don't let their record fool you. Tough tussles with Kansas City and Baltimore to begin your season would leave nearly every team in a 0-2 hole.
To avoid a 0-3 hole, the Texans must first and foremost protect quarterback Deshaun Watson, a task that's proven to be too tall through two weeks of football. Watson has been sacked eight times thus far, tied for the most in the league. Top that with a Texans offensive line that has also allowed a league-high 57 pressures, and you find an obvious hole in Houston: The big men up front.
Although left tackle Laremy Tunsil was limited in practice with an elbow injury, Houston expects to retain their starting offensive line from week two:
LT- Laremy Tunsil
LG- Max Scharping
C- Nick Martin
RG- Zach Fulton
RT- Tytus Howard
It's worth noting prior to the start of the season, Pro Football Focus had the Texans as the only team whose entire 2020 offensive line finished with a 2019 pass block grade north of 70. It remains to be seen exactly what the problem is in Houston, but a date with a Steelers defense that has led the league in sacks for three years straight emphasizes figuring things out sooner rather than later.
We all know Watson's talent at the quarterback position is undeniable, as his ability to make plays with either arm or leg makes him one of the more valued gun-slingers in the league. 2020 hasn't been kind to Watson after losing go-to target DeAndre Hopkins, and Houston's play reflects that: Watson's numbers (528 yards on a 66.2% of completion and a QBR of 55.1) remain average through 120 minutes of football. Despite a pedestrian start and less than ideal offensive line play, Watson's dynamic abilities are still to be taken very seriously on the field.
His supporting cast isn't any chumps, either. Brandin Cooks headlines a Texans receiving corps that also features Randall Cobb, Will Fuller, Kenny Stills and Keke Coutee. Although Cooks paces Houston in targets (13) and receiving yards (115), Fuller is only slightly behind in both categories. I suspected Houston would struggle to find a true number one receiver after Hopkins' departure, and no receiver has established themselves as precisely that, although each receiver brings a different skill-set to the offense. Cooks, Fuller and Cobb all have played nearly the same percentage of snaps thus far at about 71% of plays.
The Texans are one of seven teams in the league to utilize 12 personnel (one RB, two TE) more than 26% of the time on offense, using both Jordan Akins and Darren Fells often. Akins has emerged as Houston's primary tight end, as he ranks fifth in routes ran for tight ends (73) although Fells caught a touchdown pass in week two.
When the Texans aren't throwing the ball, backs such as David Johnson and Duke Johnson are getting touches out of the backfield (although both are pass-catching backs). Houston has run the ball less than all but one team in the league through two weeks, but that's likely due to throwing the ball while down in games. Although David has seen less of the field than Duke, he still holds the majority of carries, although Duke has only played in one contest thus far.
Defensively, the Texans operate out of a base 3-4 defense that features none other than superstar defensive end J.J. Watt. Watt has two sacks and one pass defended through two games and will look to take advantage of a rather inexperienced Chukwuma Okorafor on Sunday. Opposite of Watt is P.J. Hall, whose emergence has been a bright spot for Houston's defensive line, and will likely see more time against Pittsburgh on Sunday. Charles Omenihu notched his first sack of the season last week vs. Baltimore, with Brandon Dunn anchoring the middle of Houston's defense at nose tackle.
Inside linebacker Zach Cunningham leads Houston with 22 tackles through two games while also adding a sack to his resume as well. Benardrick McKinney features as Houston's other inside linebacker, trailing behind Cunningham in tackles (17) while also being the only Texans linebacker to have a pass defended through two games. On the outside, long-time Texan Whitney Mercilus pairs with a combination of Brennan Scarlett and Jacob Martin.
Defensive back Bradley Roby reigns as Houston's number one corner, shadowing Marquise Brown last week and allowing a three catches for 40 yards on three targets when following Brown. While Roby's play in 2020 has been stellar, the same cannot be made for fellow cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III thus far. Defensive back Lonnie Johnson has been a versatile piece of Houston's defense, possessing the ability to play at either safety or cornerback.
Free Safety Eric Murray hasn't impressed thus far after signing a 3-year/$20 million deal with Houston, grading as one of Houston's worst defenders in Pro Football Focus' system. Fellow safety A.J. Moore, one of Houston's team captains, patrols the defensive backfield to complement Murray.
Through two weeks, Houston is just one of two teams in the NFL not to produce a turnover on the defensive side of the ball.
To gain an even greater insight into Houston ahead of week three, I had the privilege of speaking with Anthony Wood, beat writer for Sports Illustrated's dedicated Texans channel Texans Daily. Follow Anthony on Twitter @arwoodNFL for more updates on Houston.
Donnie- The Texans currently find themselves in a 0-2 hole following tough match-ups with the Chiefs and Ravens. What's the general feeling surrounding the team heading into week three's meeting with the Steelers?
Anthony- Overall, it’s undeniably negative. The amount of positives the media and fans alike have had to say recently would struggle to fill a side of A4. However, while the players have showed their frustration at times in press conferences, they have also repeated the message that they’re just finding their rhythm. People forget how many changes this offense has gone through in 2020 with DeAndre Hopkins leaving, followed by Randall Cobb, Brandin Cooks, and David Johnson all joining. Then top this off with a new play caller in Tim Kelly and it was always going to take time for them to find their way.
Donnie- Are the Texans clearly missing DeAndre Hopkins, or is that an overreaction this early in the season? Who are some players on the offensive side of the ball that have stepped up for quarterback Deshaun Watson?
Anthony-At the moment, yes, they are missing Hopkins. There can be no denying that he was a safety net for this offense over the years. When all was going wrong, you knew you had a cheat-code in D-Hop thanks to his hands and athleticism. But, their struggles on offense aren’t solely around their lack of receiving yards. Remember, Will Fuller recorded 112 yards receiving against the Chiefs, and Cooks 95 against the Ravens - they do have playmakers, they just haven’t figured out how to get the best out of them all. Hopkins could have helped those situations, but he wouldn’t have completely fixed them.
Houston’s defense had a poor opening game and had a big hand in their loss. Their missed tackles and lack of rhythm really hurt them. Anthony Weaver is still finding his way as a defensive coordinator, and kicking off his career in the role against the reigning Super Bowl champions was a baptism by fire if I’ve ever seen one. They came along leaps and bounds in Week 2, looking more organized and cohesive. They still have a ways to go, but their defense ultimately kept them in the Ravens game.
So while they do miss Hopkins, as any team would, he isn’t the reason they lost. Mistakes, a lack of urgency at times, and inexperience across both offense and defense did that.
In terms of players to watch for, the aforementioned Cooks and Fuller have huge roles in this offense. Kenny Stills and Randall Cobb have been underutilized so far, and both are more than capable of making big plays. David Johnson had a great start to the season but without Duke Johnson alongside him in Week 2 the blocking wasn’t there and their run game was too predictable which hampered him. He’s still got plenty of juice left and is in a system that should fit him moving forward.
One player not getting enough recognition is tight end Jordan Akins. He’s a threat after the catch and against the Ravens in particular showed he can be a good safety net for Deshaun Watson.
Donnie- Protecting Watson has been a problem thus far in 2020, as the Texans have allowed more quarterback pressures through two weeks than any other team. What adjustments are needed to slow down a Steelers front seven that just registered 19 quarterback hits and seven sacks last week?
Anthony- A lot of the mistakes so far have come down to the basics. Blown blocks and not keeping their eyes on the rushers have been consistent mistakes so far. But the line is by far not the only issue. Blocking by the backs and tight ends has been inconsistent and has cost them as well, so you’d imagine Watson would find it hard to feel confident in the pocket at the best of times so far this year.
However, Watson has to shoulder some of the blame as well. Not adjusting protection prior to the snap has cost them, as has indecision during the play on his part.
Houston needs Duke Johnson back. Their two back sets have really helped them in the past in both blocking and confusing defenses. Why they didn’t use C.J. Prosise more in Week 2 is a mystery, but regardless, bringing Duke back would be a great addition. I’d also love to see them utilize full back Cullen Gillaspia more as well given his blocking skills.
The offense would also benefit from speeding up. When they go no huddle and bring in a sense of urgency, that’s when Watson shines. They have a tendency of waking up as a unit in those situations and by speeding up on offense they give this vicious defense less time to adjust and slow them down as a result. Urgency has been lacking over the past two weeks, and it will be crucial if they are to stand a chance against this defense.
Donnie- Defensively, J.J. Watt nabbed his first multi-sack game in nearly a year despite the Texans allowing Baltimore to rush for 230 yards. What's the current state of Houston's defense?
Anthony- Houston’s defense is improving. Week 1 was one to forget, and given the number of changes they have undergone its not a huge surprise. If you focus on Week 2, their tackling was far more solid, they looked more cohesive, and individuals have started to stand out. Watt had a great game all around. They used him less overall, but he was made a huge impact when on the field. With defensive tackle D.J. Reader now in Cincinnati, they’ve been moving guys around upfront, including Watt. He’s been very effective at defensive tackle, and free agent acquisition P.J. Hall has begun to come into his own in the run game.
Linebacker Zach Cunningham picked up his game too. An absolutely key member of this defense, he’s fifth in the NFL in total tackles with 22, ranked second in the league for tackles in Week 2 with 15, and his speed and athleticism were clear to see against the Ravens. They need more productivity from their outside linebackers, and hopefully, this will come when we finally get to see rookie Jonathan Greenard. Given he’s now off the injury report, this may be the week.
The question mark is who are their starters in the secondary. Safety Justin Reid is a rock, his tackling last week was exceptional and he did a great job holding Lamar Jackson back on run plays. Bill O’Brien has said he likes second-year cornerback Lonnie Johnson at safety, so we may see more of him there with free-agency signee Eric Murray not a huge standout thus far. The Texans miss Gareon Conley opposite Bradley Roby on the outside. Conley won’t be eligible to return from IR until next week, so they’ve been splitting reps between a number of backups.
JuJu Smith-Schuster being listed as a non-participant on this week’s injury report would be a big disappointment for anyone watching, but certainly could help Houston’s secondary.
Donnie- What's a positional match-up you believe can dictate the outcome of the Steelers/Texans game?
Anthony- Whoever lines up against either of Houston’s guards Max Scharping and Zach Fulton is a concern. Scharping, in particular, had a poor game against the Ravens, with Senio Kelemente coming in at the position for multiple plays. Going up against Tyson Alualu, Bud Dupree, Vince Williams, or T.J. Watt to name just a few that stand out, will be worth keeping an eye on.
If, and it’s a big if, Houston can shore up their offensive line play this week then they stand a chance.
Donnie- Fill in the blank: If the Texans are able to do (blank), they will walk away victorious.
Anthony- If the Texans are able to protect Deshaun Watson, and Watson is able to get his mojo back, they will walk away victorious.
Oh and by the way, we have the best Watt brother.