Pittsburgh Steelers (3-3) vs. Houston Texans (3-3)
Monday, Oct. 20, 2014
8:30 p.m.; ESPN
The Pittsburgh Steelers prepare for the game against the Houston Texans.
SERIES HISTORY**: Tied, 2-2 (1-1 in Pittsburgh).
LAST MEETING: Texans 17, Steelers 10, Oct. 2, 2011, Reliant Stadium: RB Arian Foster rumbled for 155 yards on 30 carries, including a 42-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter to propel the Texans. Houston sacked Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger five times, blocked a field goal and finished with 180 yards rushing among its 318 total net yards.
LAST WEEK: The Texans fell behind the Colts, 24-0, before rallying but not quite coming all the way back in a 33-28 loss on Oct. 9 in Houston. The Steelers fell behind the Browns, 31-3, and could only get back to within 21 points in a 31-10 defeat last Sunday in Cleveland.
WHEN THE TEXANS HAVE THE BALL: They'll force-feed the Steelers a steady diet of Foster operating behind an outside-zone blocking scheme that's big on cut-blocks on the back side (the better for the runner to cut back behind). Foster has been nursing a balky hamstring but gained 109 yards on 20 carries vs. Indianapolis and looked better physically than he has all season while doing so. With 513 rushing yards, Foster trails only NFL leader DeMarco Murray of the Cowboys (785) and the Steelers' Le'Veon Bell (542). Foster also has five rushing touchdowns (two vs. Indianapolis).
QB Ryan Fitzpatrick has a history of eventually making mistakes around otherwise steady play. He can also be streaky-good and he's taken a liking of late to finding WR Andre Johnson on back-shoulder throws to the sideline. Johnson can't run by people anymore but at 6-foot-3 and 230 pounds he's still a physical mismatch for most defensive backs, and he can still pluck it. He's fumbled twice for the first time in his career. WR DeAndre Hopkins is the deep threat.
The offensive line was overwhelmed in pass protection by a blitz-heavy scheme in the Indianapolis game. Rookie RG Xavier Su'a-Filo was an injury replacement for Brandon Brooks against the Colts. C Chris Myers (286 pounds) and LG Ben Jones (308) are a little under-sized and susceptible to being over-powered up the middle.
WHEN THE STEELERS HAVE THE BALL**: First and foremost the Steelers will have to deal with DE J.J. Watt. He'll line up all across the line of scrimmage but seemingly likes to rush from the front side as much as the blind side. Watt can bat down passes, return interceptions and fumbles for touchdowns, stuff runs for losses, and chase plays down from behind, mostly because of his relentless motor and freakish athleticism.
The Texans only have 10 sacks, but they're capable of disrupting pockets with pressure and don't necessarily have to blitz to do so. Watt requiring at least a double-team is the starting point to getting him blocked. LB Brian Cushing is the play-maker in a linebacker group that rotated seven players against the Colts.
CB Jonathan Joseph often plays off-coverage to prevent being beaten deep and CB Kareem Jackson has struggled trying to turn and run with receivers. The Houston secondary hasn't tackled well at times, although SS D.J. Swearinger and FS Kendrick Lewis have combined for six forced fumbles (three each). Houston crowds the line of scrimmage on occasion (11 players within 10 yards of the ball), which invites potential opportunities to get behind the secondary and strike for big plays down the field.
SPECIAL-TEAMS HEADLINERS: The Texans are No. 27 in opponent's punt return average (11.8) and No. 26 in opponent's kickoff return average (26.0). The Steelers botched a 35-yard field goal attempt last Sunday in Cleveland and RB Dri Archer failed to reach the 20-yard line on all three of his kickoff returns out of the end zone against the Browns.
THE X-FACTOR: What type of difference might red zone success make for the Steelers offense? They're No. 6 in the NFL in total offense (396.5 yards per game) but No. 23 in points per game (20.7), in part because of their No. 31 ranking in red zone efficiency (seven touchdowns in 19 possessions, 36.8 percent). They'll have to earn whatever they get in close against the Texans, who are No. 3 in red zone defense (45.5 percent).
THEY SAID IT: "He's going to make plays. What we have to prevent are the game-changing plays." – Steelers offensive coordinator Todd Haley on Watt.
"He affects the game just about on every play. Whether it's schematically or with some play that he makes, a batted ball, a sack, a turnover, whatever it is, this guy has a great knack for going to the ball, getting to the ball, making plays on the ball." – Texans coach Bill O'Brien on Watt.