Steelers’ Opponent Preview: The Houston Texans

Photo via Steelers.com This is from the session in which the Steelers recorded their annual Christmas carol video. You can watch it here if your stomach is strong enough. Strangely, the kicking unit was better at singing (if you can call it that) than any of the others. Which isn’t saying much. And Robert Golden should never, ever be put front and center again. That was a crime against nature.

The Texans seemed to be one of those Cinderella stories earlier this season. After years of trying they had finally found a franchise quarterback at the top of the draft in Deshaun Watson. And then he got injured. The face of their defense, J.J. Watt, big brother to rookie T.J. Watt—you may have heard of him—is also injured. There are many more reasons than those two for the Texans’ 4-10 record, but those make a pretty good start.

Of course, our Steelers have shown this season that they can lose to anyone. And to keep alive their hopes for a first-round bye, they must at least win more games than Jacksonville at this point. To get a first round bye and home field throughout the playoffs the Steelers have to win out and the Patriots have to obligingly lose a game. All I can say is, Go, Bills!

So the Steelers can’t let down their guard against what on the surface doesn’t sound like a very good Texans team. Let’s have a look at the numbers (as usual from Football Outsiders and Pro Football Focus) and see what they have to say.

Defense:

▪ Team Defense (for the FO metric of DVOA, lower is better for defenses:) Houston: 4.3%—No. 20. Pittsburgh: -4.5%—No. 12 (PIT dropped from No. 11 last week—HOU from No. 18.)

▪ Passing Defense: Houston—No. 23; Pittsburgh—No. 11

▪ Rushing Defense: Houston—No. 6; Pittsburgh—No. 17

Defensive Lines:

▪ Run Blocking: Houston—No. 8; Pittsburgh—No. 10

▪ Pass Protection: Houston—No. 17; Pittsburgh—No. 4

▪ Sacks: Houston 31, (No. 17) Pittsburgh 43 (No. 4)

I looked at some specific stats, and PIT is tied for 9th in the league with 14 interceptions, HOU tied for 17th with 11. PIT is still No. 4 in the league in yards allowed per game, with 307.8—the Texans’ defense is allowing 354.7 yards, for the 25th spot, and they are allowing the most points per game in the league, at 27.1. (The Steelers are allowing 19.9 PPG, although that has been inching up steadily, but they are still 7th in the league, right behind, wouldn’t you know it, the dang Patriots. The difference between them is just about the margin of the last game—4 points.)

Offense:

▪ Team Offense (higher DVOA is better): Houston: -7.5%—No. 25; Pittsburgh: 17.8%—No. 3. (NE is No. 1. Of course.)

▪ Passing Offense: Houston: 6.1%—No. 19. Pittsburgh: 37.9%—No. 4. (This is a considerable move up for PIT, from No. 7 last week.)

▪ Rushing Offense: Houston: -12.8%—No. 22; Pittsburgh: -1.2%—No. 11.

Offensive Lines:

▪ Run Blocking: Houston: No. 21; Pittsburgh: No. 8

▪ Pass Protection: Houston: No. 26; Pittsburgh No. 1

Houston quarterbacks (there have been a number of them) have been sacked 45 times. Ben Roethlisberger is up to 21. The “adjusted sack rate” (sacks + intentional grounding penalties per pass attempt, adjusted for down, distance, and opponent) is 3.7% for the Steelers, 8.3% for the Texans.

On to the Pro Football Focus numbers. As usual I’ll look at how they view the matchups between players. First let’s look at the Houston defense, since this is presumably what they are best at.

Looking at the grades for the Houston defensive players, one gets the sense that they have been less than the sum of their parts. A couple of players are poorly rated—one of the defensive ends, the left OLB, and one of their corners, but most of the defensive players are good to very good. The top-graded player is Jadeveon Clowney, at 87.4, but both safeties are well-regarded, and their linebackers are more than competent. However, D.J. Reader, the nose tackle and one of the best-graded players on the team, was just put on IR. The Texans signed defensive tackle Chunky Clements from the practice squad, presumably to replace him. That’s a nose tackle name if I ever heard one.

The Killer Bees will be without the best Bee, ABee. Which stinks. His grade of 93.7 is really quite astonishing. Ben’s grade continues to climb, and he is firmly in the “elite” category with a grade of 88.1. Bell’s grade also continues to climb. The next best player after Brown is David DeCastro, whose grade went up slightly this week to 91.9. Hubbard’s grade has climbed steadily, just in time for him to be replaced by Marcus Gilbert (who should be an upgrade nonetheless.) Oddly, PFF, who is pretty on top of things, is still showing Brown in the lineup, and Eli instead of JuJu.

Now let’s give Houston the ball and see what PFF thinks. And the answer is, not very much. I’ve looked at the grades for what are supposed to be some bad O-lines this year, and they’ve got nothing on the Houston line. The highest-graded player on the line is center Nick Martin, who was just put on IR. They signed David Quessenberry off the practice squad. Quessenberry is a cancer survivor (non-Hodgkin lymphoma) who hasn’t played in an NFL game in quite some time. This is awesome for him—I just hope it doesn’t provide one of those emotional lifts to the home team.

To return to our regularly-scheduled critique of the O-line, as mentioned, Martin was the best O-lineman. His PFF grade? 44.9, which ranks as No. 27 in the league. (Remember, anything below a 60 is supposedly “poor.”) All the other linemen grade in the 30s, with right tackle Breno Giacomini the worst of the lot with a grade of 33.5. (The grade in combination with his name inevitably makes me think of Playing for Pizza…) This is good for a rank of No. 82 among all tackles, which presumably means he’s not only worse than any of the starting tackles in the league, he’s also worse than some of the backups. (Chris Hubbard’s grade, for instance, is now 72.4.) It’s no wonder they are going through quarterbacks at such a rate.

Their best-graded offensive player, at an elite 89.4, is DeAndre Hopkins. I will remind my readers he was a Momma’s BLA draft pick back in the day. His grade ranks him at No. 4 in the league, behind AB, Julio Jones, and the Saints’ Michael Thomas. The next best player is running back Lamar Miller, at a grade of 77.3. Although Miller isn’t what he was at his peak, in 2014 and 2015, he’s still playing well for a sixth-year back.

As for the PIT defense, the two best-graded players are still Cam Heyward and Stephon Tuitt (89.7 and 87.0 respectively). It is a travesty that Heyward didn’t make the Pro Bowl, and goes to show just how much that means…

Javon Hargrave officially broke the plane from “average” with an “above average” rating of 80.6. So far Al Riveron hasn’t overturned it. He’s on the phone with Belichick, though, I hear…

T.J. Watt’s grade has risen as well, to 77.7, and even Bud Dupree’s grade is inching up. Strangely, PFF hasn’t noticed that Mike Mitchell played last week and will continue to do so this week, as they still have Robert Golden at FS. Sean Davis plunged even further in their estimation, with the lowest grade on the team for a starter—33.4. (It would be interesting to look at the grades of safeties charged with covering Rob Gronkowski to see how much their grades drop.) Mike Hilton’s grade went up to an 81.9. And of course it is looking as if Joe Haden (who had a grade of 80.8 at the time he was injured) will be replacing Coty Sensabaugh’s 48.9.

The injury report is still incomplete. What we do know is that Joe Haden, Tyler Matakevich, and Vance McDonald practiced fully on Thursday. Not mentioned on the injury report, because he wasn’t injured, was Marcus Gilbert, but as mentioned he’s back and ready to roll. Neither Antonio Brown nor Ramon Foster (concussion) practiced.

The Texans’ report is not out. We do know about the two players mentioned above who were put on IR, and although reports have circulated that quarterback Tom Savage is going to IR, they haven’t done it as of this writing. It’s moot either way, though, and T.J. Yates will be the starter.

Yates is a journeyman QB whom the Steelers have seen before, rather recently. However, Yates was on the sideline, as he was the backup quarterback for the Dolphins last season in the playoff game. They have, as far as I can tell, never faced Yates in a game.

6 comments

  • JJ Watt seems to be always hurt. Dude can’t catch a break.

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  • This will be an important measuring stick. Going off the road against an awful opponent after an incredibly emotional loss would be really easy to come out flat, and we’re missing the reliable presence of AB who dragged our offense through games when everyone else was flat. If the Steelers come out flat they could theoretically lose the game and the #2 seed, but more realistically would end up with another game winning FG, which would mean just that they still are a team that saves their best games for when they matter.

    On the other hand, the team could come out angry and blow out the Texans. This might even include Martavis Bryant catching a deep ball if things get really crazy, but all I would hope for is a nice long run after the catch. A dominating win, though, would be a sign that last week was a “good loss” that lit a fire under the team that will have them that much more dangerous in the playoffs.

    For this game in particular, I hope we actually lean on the passing game despite the loss of Brown. Why? We’ve got good depth at WR, and it can’t hurt to get these guys some extra touches with AB gone to get them really in sync with Ben. Just as importantly, though, is because of the injury to Conner. Bell has been durable enough the past 2 years that we should probably stop considering him in injury prone, but we’ve seen the effect of missing him in the playoffs too many times and without Conner we don’t have much depth to replace him. You can’t put Bell in bubble wrap, and winning the next game certainly takes priority over living in our fears regarding injury, but you don’t have to give Bell 30 touches to win. We should focus our game plan on passing the ball the next couple of weeks, and let Bell run hog wild when he safely gets to his 3rd career playoff game (a couple minutes in the AFC Championship game doesn’t count).

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  • Hopefully the Steelers win by 20. That way we don’t all have to wait to see if the NFL is going to throw the game to Houston.

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    • The NFL doesn’t really have a reason to throw this to Houston. They had a benefit by helping the Patriots win. By forcing a Pittsburgh loss, they pretty much guaranteed that Pittsburgh, New England and Jacksonville will be playing the last game with something to play for so they are unlikely to be resting starters. If Pittsburgh won, the regular season could have pretty well been over if Pittsburgh and New England win this weekend and Jacksonville loses. It’s more likely that they will err on the side of Pittsburgh so they show their “lack” of bias. Overall I’d bet it’s a pretty evenly called game.

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      • Agreed. My comment was sarcasm and intend to vent a small bit of the anger I have toward the NFL. If the Steelers weren’t such a part of who I am, I would have stopped following the sport by now.

        Thanks for a more rational approach!!

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        • I’ve been a rabid fan since the 70s, but I am pretty discouraged by the way the NFL tries to make games go the way they want them too. Have you ever seen a game where one team didn’t have a holding call? Particularly when some of them were so obvious, like the last play of the game. I think I will take this off season to decide whether it is worth the frustration.

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