Texans travel to the Steel City to face rejuvenated Steelers
If you're a big fan of the Watt brothers trio (J.J., T.J., and Derek), boy, do I have something for you to watch on Sunday afternoon. No, it's not another Watt saturated Subway ad, or whatever that "Ultimate Tag" show was this summer — but an NFL football game.
The younger Watt brothers and their fellow Steelers are thinking big this season as Pittsburgh is looking to dethrone the Ravens and Chiefs atop the AFC. Yes, the Steelers are 2-0, but it's hard to gauge how good they truly are with wins against the lowly Giants and the Jeff Driskel-led Broncos. Facing a legit star quarterback in Deshaun Watson should be a better barometer for a Steelers team with such high hopes.
The Texans have arguably the toughest September schedule of any team this year. After an opening night loss to the reigning Super Bowl champion Chiefs, Houston followed up with a 33-16 beating from the Ravens. While the Steelers aren't yet in the Chiefs' or Ravens' class, they are still very a tough matchup for a Houston team trying to find its rhythm on both sides of the ball.
Houston at Pittsburgh
Kickoff: Sunday, Sept. 27 at 1 p.m. ET
Spread: Steelers -3.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Keeping Watson upright
Stop me if you've heard this before... the Houston Texans have to do a better job of protecting their franchise quarterback. Coming into this season, Deshaun Watson had been sacked an absurd 106 times in the previous two years. In 2018, he was sacked a league-high 62 times. So far this year, the Texans are back to not protecting their $150 million investment. Watson has been sacked eight times so far in 2020, four in each game, and pressured on almost 30 percent of his dropbacks. Outside of $66 million left tackle Laremy Tunsil, the Houston offensive line has been a sieve and leaving Watson out to dry.
The situation doesn't get any better for the Texans on Sunday as they face arguably the most aggressive defensive unit in the NFL. The Steelers blitz on 61 percent of dropbacks, 15 percentage points more than any other team in the league. They also lead the NFL in quarterback hurries (21 percent of dropbacks) and quarterback pressures (40). Last week, the Steelers were able to sack Drew Lock and Jeff Driskel seven times and hit the Denver quarterbacks a whopping 19 times. T.J. Watt led the charge with 2.5 sacks and four quarterback hits of his own.
If the Texans have any shot at stopping their early-season slide, it has to start by keeping Watson on his feet.
2. Big Ben playing it safe
Fresh off of offseason elbow surgery, 38-year-old Ben Roethlisberger is trying to prove he can still lead an elite offense and make another run at a Super Bowl. So far this season, Big Ben (5 TDs, 68 percent completion rate, 107.1 passer rating) has played well enough by playing it safe. Only 8.2 percent of his throws are "aggressive," the third-lowest rate in the league, while his 6.6 intended air yards per attempt is sixth lowest. Essentially, Roethlisberger isn't trying to fit passes into tight windows, nor is he taking shots downfield. In fact, half of Roethlisberger's 73 pass attempts this season have not traveled beyond five yards, including 14 thrown behind the line of scrimmage.
I would certainly expect the Houston secondary to play physical at the line of scrimmage against Pittsburgh's receivers. Perhaps a tougher approach will throw the timing of the Steelers' short-yardage passing game out of sync. So far this season, opposing quarterbacks have had their way against Houston's pass defense with an average passer rating of 118.6. Of course, those two quarterbacks are the last two league MVPs in Lamar Jackson and Patrick Mahomes. Let's see how the ripened Roethlisberger fares against a defense desperate to make a stand.
3. Texans' floundering run defense
Houston's pass defense isn't the only thing that needs correcting. The Texans' rush defense has been nothing short of perforated, allowing 396 rushing yards in the season's first two games, including a whopping 230 yards to Baltimore last week. Perhaps the loudest alarm bell from last Sunday was the complete collapse of the Texans' defense in the fourth quarter. The Ravens marched for 153 yards and averaged 6.2 yards per carry before first contact in the final frame.
Yeah, you read that correctly. When the Ravens carried the football in the final 15 minutes, they would be untouched for almost six and a half yards on average.
Opposing teams are running the ball against the Houston on 53 percent of snaps, and 39 percent of those runs are good enough for first downs. I'd expect that Steelers running back James Conner will have more than the 16 carries he had last week against Denver and for backup Benny Snell Jr. (5.4 ypc) to also get some run as well.
I think the Houston offense finds more of a rhythm in Week 3, even against a stout and aggressive Steelers defense. However, I don't think Houston's defense is up to the task should the game turn into a shootout.
Prediction: Steelers 31, Texans 28
— Written by Jake Rose, who is a part of the Athlon Sports Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @JakeRose24.