The Houston Texans were a playoff team in 2019, and they qualified for the postseason by winning the AFC South Division. They started by winning four of their first six games and ended by winning four of their last six. In the playoffs, they defeated the Buffalo Bills in the Wild Card Round before being eliminated by the eventual Super Bowl Champions. The 2020 season has been unkind to the Texans, though, and it began with a brutal start to their season.
And so it was that the Texans arrived in Pittsburgh with an 0-2 record and an understanding that an 0-3 start makes a return to the playoffs as likely as bi-partisan cooperation in Congress. Essentially that made Sunday's game against the Steelers a must-win for them, as close to do-or-die as exists in a sport that won't complete its regular season until the calendar flips over to 2021.
That was the level of urgency the Texans carried with them onto the grass at Heinz Field, but the Steelers were up to the challenge of locking horns with a team for which there apparently was no tomorrow.
"I do (believe in the concept of a team being desperate this early in a season), but I also believe we're desperate as well," Coach Mike Tomlin was saying 48 hours before kickoff. "We're desperate every week. There's a required victory for all of us week in and week out, and regardless of what's in our rearview mirror we all proceed on Mondays and Tuesdays with that same mind-set. I think if you're in this league, you have to assume that's the mentality of those you compete against and that way you're never shocked. We understand they have big-time urgency, but so do we."
What the Steelers also have is Ben Roethlisberger at quarterback after nearly a full season without him, and on the afternoon he set a franchise record for career games played with 221 he made many of the plays that proved integral to their 28-21 victory, a handful of plays that wouldn't have been made last year when his right arm was in a sling, a handful of plays the team's fans should etch into their memories because it's special and rare to be able to enjoy a player of his caliber for as long as they've been able to enjoy him.
The Texans employ a dynamic quarterback as well, and Deshaun Watson is the kind of multi-dimensional threat who can force defenses to play against type simply because of what he's capable of doing on his own. One glaring example of Watson's impact was reflected in the way the Steelers played pass defense, or the way it appeared they weren't playing pass defense because of the ease with which the Texans were exploiting the middle of the field.
By a conservative estimate, Watson completed eight passes for 118 yards in the middle of the field against the Steelers' zone. And the Steelers played zone and stayed in zone, because that allowed their coverage to face Watson and keep track of his movements. Teams that elect to take away those passes down the middle often do it with man-coverage, and while that strategy can be effective, a byproduct of it is that defenders have to turn their backs on Watson to run with his receivers. Lose sight of Deshaun Watson, and you might not find him again until he's 50 yards down the field.
The Steelers mostly stayed with their zones, but they went after Watson with their pass rush, which finished with five sacks and a dozen more hits on him after he got rid of the football. They also depended on Roethlisberger and the offense to possess the football and do a little better than match him point-for-point.
One of the anomalies of the game was that the Texans offense did one of two things just about every time it had the ball: it either drove for a touchdown or went three-and-out. Of 10 possessions in the game, the Steelers forced the Texans into six different three-and-outs, but allowed touchdown drives of 74, 54, and 75 yards, all of which came in the first half. That allowed the Texans to take an 11-point lead early in the second quarter, but their advantage ended up being 21-17 by the end of the first half, and that only was so because of what has come to be known over the course of his previous 220 games in the uniform as "Ben being Ben."
The touchdown that made it 14-10 came on a big-time throw and catch by Eric Ebron, one play after Roethlisberger got pinched for intentional grounding that threatened to turn a first-and-goal at the 1-yard line into the most aggravating of red zone field goals. The touchdown that gave the Steelers the briefest of leads followed on the next possession with a perfect touch-pass to JuJu Smith-Schuster who had little to do after cradling the ball except to waltz into the end zone to complete the 26-yard play.
By the time the fourth quarter rolled around, the constant pressure on Watson forced him into his one mistake on the afternoon – a late throw into what he believed was a window in the zone but instead turned out to be a late throw that Mike Hilton jumped and turned into an interception.
With 13:27 remaining and staring at a 21-20 deficit, it was rug-cutting time for the offense, and Roethlisberger was up to the challenge. On a third-and-5, he was on time and on target to Ebron for a gain of 14. On a third-and-2 with the Steelers in their jumbo package, he was on time and on target to Vance McDonald over the middle for a 14-yard gain. And then after James Conner's 12-yard touchdown run, Roethlisberger stuck a dart right into Smith-Schuster's chest on a quick slant with Eric Murray draped over his back for the 2-point conversion made the Steelers' lead a tidy 28-21.
T.J. Watt's sack on the first snap of the ensuing Houston possession was the start of a three-and-out that put the Steelers into ice-the-game mode. Five plays in, it was fourth-and-1 with 3:11 left and too much distance to the goalpost to risk a field goal attempt. Roethlisberger converted with a 7-yard completion to James Washington.
And maybe best of all was the third-and-9 from the Texans 27-yard line with 2:19 left. Because the Texans were out of timeouts, a first down sends the Steelers into victory formation. Tomlin chose to go for the win right there, and Roethlisberger delivered once again. The Texans were stacked to stop a run, and so Roethlisberger took the snap and fired toward the sideline to Chase Claypool, who caught the ball at the line of scrimmage, broke Murray's tackle, and raced 24 yards to the Texans 3-yard line. Ballgame.
"Well, if they can go zero (coverage), I mean … You can't run the ball into that," said Tomlin. "So, you know, we had some (run-pass) options. We trust Ben, we trust our run game. We're not going to allow people to cheat to that extent where they are in a goal-line defense in open grass. We'll do what we've got to do to win the down."
And with Roethlisberger, "doing what you've got to do to win the down" becomes a high-percentage move. Just as it has been for 221 regular season games. And counting.