Lolley's 10 Thoughts: The running (on empty) defense

HOUSTON – Many people will look at the Steelers' 30-6 loss here to the Houston Texans and blame the offense.

And that unit certainly is not without blame.

But the stench from this whipping at the hands of Texans should settle heavily on the defense. For the third time in four games, the Steelers' defense, particularly the run defense, wasn't up to standard.

And it led directly to defeat in this game.

Now, understand that the Steelers didn't give up the 188 yards on the ground they did to the 49ers in their loss to San Francisco in the opener. And they didn't allow the 198 yards they gave up in a win over the Browns in Week 2.

But the only difference between this game and those was that the Steelers didn't allow a run of 60-plus yards as they did to the 49ers and Browns. Had the Texans added one of those to the tally, and they would have had yardage totals similar to those first two games.

Allowing the Texans to run the ball right out of the gate, with Houston gaining 39 yards on eight rushing attempts on the opening possession of the game, showed the home team that the Steelers' rushing defense, which had held the Raiders to 69 yards a week ago, hadn't been fixed. Not by a long shot.

"They were doing a good job of staying on schedule, but it just came down to us not being able to stop the run," said outside linebacker Alex Highsmith. "We've got to be able to do that. I feel like we took a step last week and a step back this week."

More like two steps back.

Houston's long run of 13 yards came on the game's opening play and just emboldened a team playing with a makeshift offensive line missing four starters to stick with it. And because of that, the Steelers never got much of an opportunity to play to the strength of their defense, their pass rush.

They failed to sack rookie quarterback C.J. Stroud one time, hitting him six times, with Highsmith accounting for three of those.

"We were on our heels a lot," said cornerback Patrick Peterson. "Those guys had a really, really good game plan to get us on our heels."

This against a team that had been averaging a league-worst 2.8 yards per rushing attempt coming into this game.

When the Steelers did slow the running game in the third quarter, they made life tough on Stroud.

After giving up 92 yards on 21 carries in the first half, Houston had four carries for 14 yards in the third quarter as the Steelers got back into the game, cutting the score to 16-6. Without a running game to support him, Stroud completed 1 of 5 passes prior to quarterback Kenny Pickett's injury and exit from the game late in the third quarter.

After that, the Texans fired up their running game again and salted the game away.

"We honestly haven't done good enough so far," Highsmith said of stopping opposing running backs.

"It's not the standard. And so we've got to live up to that. It starts next week."

With whom they do that remains to be seen.

All-Pro defensive tackle Cam Heyward, one of the team's defensive captains, remains on IR after having surgery to repair a groin injury. He can't come back until after next week's game against the Ravens – at the earliest. But there's a good chance he might be out a little longer than that.

But head coach Mike Tomlin has certainly seen enough of poor run defense. As a coach with a defensive background, he's definitely not happy seeing his defense run over, around and through.

Game action photos from the Steelers' Week 4 game against the Houston Texans at NRG Stadium

"We've got to be better versus the run. We're not going to get to where we desire to be defensively until we settle the run down," Tomlin said. "We didn't do that. They were in manageable possession downs. If you don't get them one-dimensional, you don't get an opportunity for the splash that we thrive on. So, It's a moot point until we get better at stopping the run, making the pile fall the correct direction."

And Tomlin isn't opposed to making changes to do that. In fact, you can bet on them – though what they might be won't be known until later in the week.

"Hell yeah we've got to make some changes," Tomlin said. "That was an ugly product we put out there today. We're not going to do the same things and hope for a different outcome. What those changes are, we'll put together a plan in preparation."

• Tomlin's statement about changes just as easily could have been about the offense.

While the defense was struggling to get off the field – allowing the Texans to get at least two first downs on five of six possessions in the first half – the offense didn't do anything with the opportunities it got.

The Steelers got their first two first downs of the season on the opening possession of the game this season, but that possession ended with an interception. That wound up being the offense's lone possession of the first quarter because the defense couldn't get off the field.

Then, however, when the offense did get four possessions in the second quarter, it ran 16 plays for 40 yards, punting four times.

That's obviously not good enough, either.

"We had these spurts where we look good, but we're not doing it consistently," said center Mason Cole. "I think we're waiting for the splash plays and when we don't get them, we're not converting third downs. It's just inefficient, bad ball."

• The Steelers very nearly ran themselves back into this game, turning the tables on the Texans.

Najee Harris broke off a bruising 15-yard run on the first play from scrimmage in the second half, and then later on that drive, Jaylen Warren had an 18-yard run.

Trouble was, when it came down to third-and-2 at the Houston 15, Warren got dropped for a 2-yard loss.

That would become significant on the Steelers' third possession of the third quarter. Trailing 16-6 and facing fourth-and-1 at the Houston 33 – and it was a long 1 yard, as the ball was over a yard away from the first-down marker – instead of running the ball with Harris, who had nine carries for 55 yards in the quarter, following a timeout, the Steelers went with a passing play.

After scanning his initial read, Kenny Pickett spun to his left, right into the waiting arms of defensive end Jonathan Greenard, who was working against rookie left tackle Broderick Jones.

Pickett wound up injured. The ball was turned over to the Texans on downs. And the game was essentially over.

Running the ball in that situation seemed the thing to do. But after getting stopped in their previous short-yardage situation, the coaching obviously staff didn't trust it to get blocked up.

"There's times when we're running the ball really well," said Cole. "And then one bad or negative run will scare us away from it. We're behind the chains and we're playing catch up, and we're in bad situations. We just have to be more consistent across the board. We're not being good enough consistently. It's killing us right now."

• On the play before that, Nick Herbig's helmet went flying off while pass protecting on 14-yard pass to George Pickens. Typically, when that happens, a defender got his hands up on the helmet and ripped it off.

In the second quarter, there was an obvious open-field facemask grab by a Houston defender on a screen pass to Warren that clearly slowed him down and helped limit that play.

Finally, on Houston's initial drive, Minkah Fitzpatrick was called for a pass interference penalty at the 2 that gave the Texans a new set of downs. If that play was pass interference, every passing play should bring a penalty flag.

This is not to cry about the officiating. Bill Vinovich's crew was spotty for both teams. They've had better days.

But those were three pretty big calls.

• So, at the quarter point in the season, the Steelers sit at 2-2, tied with Cleveland for second place in the AFC North, a game behind Baltimore.

The Ravens come to Pittsburgh next Sunday.

Obviously, you hate to give games away. And that's largely what this game was about. The Texans played well, but the Steelers also didn't give them their best shot.

Win next week, and this game will be forgotten.

Of course, with Pickett, tight end Pat Freiermuth (hamstring), offensive tackle Dan Moore Jr. (knee) and defensive lineman DeMarvin Leal (concussion) all dealing with injuries – on top of already being without Heyward and wide receiver Diontae Johnson – can the Steelers figure out a way to get that done?

Things could be worse.

The Bengals are now 1-3 after losing 27-3 to the Titans Sunday. That was the same Titans team the Browns beat 27-3 the week before.

The NFL is a week-to-week league. Next week is a new one.

• After giving up 7 receptions for 168 yards and two scores to Nico Collins, the Steelers have now allowed three of the four No. 1 receivers against which they have played to go over 100 yards.

The lone exception was Cleveland's Amari Cooper, who they "held" to 7 receptions for 90 yards in Week 2.

Not playing run defense well allows the opposing team's top target to run free all too often because resources must be used to stop the running game.

• One of the real positives for the Steelers was the play of Harris.

He finished with 71 yards rushing on 14 carries. He also had a 32-yard catch-and-run that set up the Steelers' second field goal.

"We all feed off of it," Warren said of Harris' punishing running style.

"That's our workhorse."

But you do have to find ways to get the workhorse more than 15 touches in a game like this. Understandably, Harris didn't do anything in the fourth quarter once the Steelers fell behind 23-6.

But he also had five carries for just 16 yards in the first half when the Steelers ran 24 plays compared to 41 for the Texans.

• Dale Lolley is co-host of "SNR Drive" on Steelers Nation Radio. Subscribe to the podcast here: Apple Podcast | iHeart Podcast

• Losses and failure in sports reveal character.

Moving forward, we'll see how much character this particular Steelers team has.

They responded from the failure in their regular season opener against the 49ers with a big win the following week against the Browns.

Now, the question is how they'll bounce back following a second "embarrassing" loss to quote Highsmith.

"Every loss is disappointing, but it's how you respond to them," said linebacker Elandon Roberts. "We've got a lot of responding to do."

• The Steelers' slow start to this game never allowed a very large contingent of Steelers fans who attended the game to become much of a factor. That's a shame.

There were very nearly as many Steelers fans at this game as there had been in Las Vegas last weekend.

• We'll find out Tuesday what the injury fallout is from this game. But the Steelers go into the week with the idea they won't have Pickett, Freiermuth, Moore or Leal.

That could tell us a lot about the team's rookie draft class.

Broderick Jones stepped in for Moore. Not having Freiermuth would mean rookie tight end Darnell Washington would play a more prominent role next week. The same goes for rookie defensive tackle Keeanu Benton if Leal is out.

The Steelers have been happy with the progress of their rookies. But they've been trying to work them in slowly.

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