Steelers @ Texans: Taking Care of Business
Photo via Steelers.com
The recurring theme of the coverage of this game is “business-like.” The Steelers were supposedly reeling from a last-minute, emotional loss to the Patriots. Furthermore, this is a team who under Mike Tomlin has proven, at least in recent years, that they are capable of losing to anyone. The Texans’ roster was banged up almost to the point of being unrecognizable, and the Steelers, by contrast, got back a couple of important players, Marcus Gilbert and Joe Haden. But the general feeling prior to the game was that while the Steelers should easily handle the Texans, despite the absence of Antonio Brown, the big question was, would they?
The answer was a resounding “yes.” Let’s look at some of the details, and see whether it seemed like “business as usual” for the players.
Before the coin toss there was a lot made, and rightly so, about Houston team captain for the game David Quessenberry, making his NFL debut. Four years after being drafted, and after three years of chemo for the non-Hodgkins lymphoma which was diagnosed shortly after he was drafted. The excitement of Quessenberry and his teammates was palpable, and is a good reminder to all of us that this game we love is played by men—men with hopes, fears, problems and personal triumphs that have nothing whatsoever to do with what is going on in the games. Sometimes those problems overwhelm them and they disappear almost without a trace. Other times they demonstrate the amazing resiliency of the human spirit and lift our spirits in the process.
Here in Pittsburgh we lived through a similar situation with James Conner while he was still at Pitt, and the courage and determination he displayed while going through his battle with lymphoma was impressive and inspiring to watch. I couldn’t have been happier when the Steelers drafted him, and his knee injury in the Patriots game would have been more impactful had it not been overshadowed by Ryan Shazier’s situation. Shazier is sidelined, perhaps forever, and Conner will certainly be out until, possibly, partway through next season. Let us not forget, in the excitement of the coming weeks, the men who helped to put the Steelers in the situation they are now.
A nice touch at the beginning of the broadcast was Christmas wishes from various of the players. Strangely, considering that the game was in Houston, the montage ended with Mike Tomlin’s Christmas wishes. They seemed more like Christmas orders, as they were accompanied by Tomlin’s signature finger point. It was, however, actually appropriate, considering that most of the fans in the stands appeared to be Steeler fans. The Texan fans apparently decided to give this one a miss, and, given how the game played out, who could blame them?
This made Houston’s decision to defer more logical, as I hadn’t given it much thought before, I suppose, but Tony Romo pointed out last week that visiting teams generally defer if they win the coin toss, as they will get to have an offensive series at the beginning of the second half when the stadium is rather empty due to bathroom and concession lines. And since they were practically visitors in their own house, you can see why they would want this.
One of the narratives coming into the game was that while the Texans were exceedingly banged up on defense, with both of their good pass rushers, J.J. Watt and Whitney Mercilus, on IR, Jadaveon Clowney, the No. 1 overall draft pick in 2014, has emerged as a force to be reckoned with. He lines up all over the field, in multiple positions, and rather like Troy Polamalu of old the offense always has to account for him. If the Texans were to pull off the upset, he would have to have a monster game, in conjunction with a better game than one might expect from The Replacements on the offensive side of the Texans team. And to add to the intrigue, Ramon Foster was out and B.J. Finney was playing left guard after being on the bench for most of the season.
The game began with a short pass to Martavis Bryant for 12 yards. Then Vance McDonald shows why the Steelers picked him up, despite his history of fragility and inconsistent hands. If he can stay healthy and keep playing like this he could make a big impact in the coming games. But after four first downs, moving with ease down the field, the Steelers faltered in the red zone. Clowney made the difference on this, beating Gilbert to get to Ben and send his throw awry. And one of the things we all hate to see is promising drives ending in field goals. It is a lot better than interceptions, though, as the Texans were soon to find out.
At one point the camera panned to Todd Haley, who was rocking his “50” t-shirt. It isn’t only the defense who wants to make Ryan happy…
Next up—the Steelers’ defense, who has, oddly, struggled against unheralded and unregarded quarterbacks, as we know. But unfortunately for Houston T.J. Yates was playing behind what is undoubtedly the worst offensive line in the league, and that was before they lost their “best” player last week. It’s easy to make a big deal about how most of their offensive line is undrafted players, but last week the Steelers’ line consisted of three out of the five undrafted, and they still gave Ben great protection (although we won’t peruse their run blocking too closely.) There is no way to overstate what Mike Munchak has done with the offensive line.
The series began, if you will, with the first flag of the game, which was the Texans shooting themselves in the foot with a holding call on the kickoff return. Not the start they could have used. And life only got more unpleasant for the offense, Who ended up at their own 10 yard line after beginning at their 15. Mike Hilton presaged his fabulous game with his first sack on a 3rd and 9. The Texans punt from their own end zone ended in a fair catch by Eli Rogers at the PIT 44, which also presaged a big day for the return teams.
The series began with a long bomb to Bryant, who I don’t think is missing AB as much as you might think. The defensive back who got burned on the play pointed out the replay to the official, but to no avail, as Bryant got both feet inbounds and somehow managed to not fall afoul of the catch rule. Two plays later the officials continued to show that they don’t consider it pass interference, just because a Steelers receiver is wearing an opposing DB. It didn’t matter, though, as Ben just threw it to Justin Hunter, a rather unlikely hero. Hunter didn’t appear to think it was business as usual. He looked positively excited…
Life didn’t get any better for the Texans at first, as Jordan Todman, former Steeler and kick returner, managed to tackle himself at the HOU 15. (Todman has now played for eight teams, including over a third of the AFC…) But thanks to Quessenberry, the Houston run game got going. The coaches clearly decided that the aerial attack was more like an aerial surrender and put in a jumbo package consisting mainly of offensive linemen. Seriously. Thanks to this, Lamar Miller and Alfred Blue matriculated the ball down the field for a while, punctuated by the occasional sack, pass defensed against DeAndre Hopkins, and a neutral zone infraction by T.J. Watt. While it didn’t result in points, or anything close, it did at least mean the Texans weren’t giving the Steelers great field position, which had to be worth something.
The subsequent Steelers drive began at their own 7. However, a 3rd and 6 was easily converted by a little toss to Vance McDonald. The subsequent catch by JuJu Smith-Schuster was overturned after Bill O’Brien challenged, which left the Steelers with a 3rd and 12, and they ended up with their first punt of the game. This was followed by a huge run by Alfred Blue ending at the PIT 20, and it suddenly looked as if the Texans might actually score after Yates ran for a first down, ending up at the PIT 6. But after it was 1st and goal at the one, the coaching staff made the mistake of thinking maybe they could throw for a score on 4th and goal, and Artie Burns got his first interception. It was a great catch by Burns, and he looked pretty happy as well.
The Steelers got a touchback out of the interception, as it was in the endzone, and the Steelers got another chance to score with 10 minutes or so left in the half. A promising drive that looked like it might be stalling on a 3rd and 12, Martavis Bryant made a great second effort on his catch to get the first. I expect he was pretty excited. The next throw drew a PI, amazingly enough. The DB apparently thought he had asked for this dance with Eli Rogers, and the ref actually noticed… On 1st and goal from the one, Roosevelt Nix got one of his first ever carries, and he got the touchdown. Nix looked like a kid who just discovered that every single present under the tree was for him, and the rest of the offense was almost as excited as he was.
The score was now 17 to nothing, and the Texans were desperate to get some sort of score on the board. However, after two plays which gained five yards, Cam Heyward got a sack/fumble and Bud Dupree recovered. So the Steelers got the ball back at the HOU 28. On the first play Clowney threw Villanueva to the ground and somehow injured himself in the process. He came back, though, but couldn’t stop the Steelers from scoring, although they had to settle for a field goal. In the remaining :53 seconds of the T.J. Yates was taken out by Hilton, and then by the training staff. The backup quarterback, Taylor Heinicke came in to make his NFL debut after being signed off the practice squad two weeks ago. He was no more effective than Yates, and the Steelers took a knee after the punt and went into the tunnel with a 20 to nothing lead. At that point the Texans had -7 net passing yards.
Although T.J. Yates was not diagnosed with a concussion and eventually came back, Heinicke started the second half, and they actually got a first down. After actually making it past midfield, Mike Hilton got tired of that crap and sacked the QB for a 17-yard loss, and a possible concussion to Heinicke. Time to punt, and Eli Rogers took advantage of the kick coverage team with a big return.
But the Texans’ defense had stiffened up a bit, and the Steelers went three and out. Of course, Eli Rogers was completely mugged, but of course there was no flag. Well, whatever. As long as the calls aren’t being made on either side, let ‘um play… The Steelers D matched, with a three-and-out with Yates back in the game. On the ensuing punt Rogers had another big punt return. Good sign, although perhaps it would be different against a top-flight special teams unit.
An end-around to JuJu was no more successful than the ones to Bryant have been. Dear Todd, please take that play out of the playbook—unless, of course, they are playing the long game by putting ineffective end-arounds on tape. And of course as soon as I write that the call is an end-around to Bryant, which gains eight yards. And JuJu makes an awesome catch for the first down, and a few plays later Bell runs the ball into the end zone. But first Jadeveon Clowney added his little part by giving the Steelers a first down on a 3rd and 7 by sacking Ben—using his facemask. I don’t think Ben thought that was business as usual…
A big run by Lamar Miller and the first catch for Hopkins on the next series put the Texans in the red zone again, and their passing yardage on the positive side of the ledger. Then came “The Catch,” an amazing circus catch by Hopkins in the end zone. Somehow or other it wasn’t overturned, and while it really should have been Offensive PI on Hopkins, as he had more of Haden’s jersey than Haden did, and it was a shame the Steelers’ D didn’t get their first shutout in living memory, I’m glad the PI wasn’t called. Of course the Texans were also the beneficiary of a holding call on Haden on the previous play, but whatever… And naturally the Texans manage to screw up the two-point conversion attempt, so those six points were the final Texans points of the game.
Another huge and sick catch by JuJu Smith-Schuster gained 49 yards on the next series and put the Steelers in the red zone, or close, and JuJu followed it up shortly thereafter with a TD catch. These were also the Steelers’ final points of the game, and they were plenty. And yes, he was pretty excited. The Texans still had over nine minutes to work with, but never again threatened. Cam Heyward added another sack to make the point that he wasn’t worthy of a Pro Bowl slot.
So was it “business as usual?” I don’t think so. But the Steelers did take care of business in Houston, left with no significant injuries as far as we know, and Mike Hilton proved he’s not too small. All in all a nice Christmas present for Steeler Nation. I don’t think anyone is complaining about how little resistance the Texans were able to put up. Amazing how soothing it is to have a game whose outcome is in little doubt for once.