Two teams that missed the playoffs last season aiming to get on the right side of .500 will finish off Week 7 in the NFL when the Houston Texans take on the Pittsburgh Steelers on ESPN’s “Monday Night Football.” The Texans (3-3) are hoping to put an end to their two-game losing streak while the Steelers (3-3) are looking to bounce back at Heinz Field after a somewhat surprising 31-10 divisional setback to Cleveland last week.
After going 2-14 last season, results that netted Houston both a new head coach (Bill O’Brien) and the No. 1 pick in the draft (Jadeveon Clowney), the Texans got off to a 2-0 start, but have lost to the Cowboys in overtime and at home to the Colts in their last two games. Pittsburgh has gone 8-8 in each of the last two seasons, missing the playoffs both times, and has started this season by alternating wins and losses. Both teams are looking up in their respective divisions, but a win tonight would allow the victor to keep pace with the current leader.
Houston Texans at Pittsburgh Steelers
Kickoff: 8:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Pittsburgh -3.5
Three Things to Watch
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1. J.J. Watt, 2014 NFL MVP?
With apologies to early MVP contenders like DeMarco Murray (league’s leading rusher by a wide margin), Andrew Luck (1,987 yards passing, 19 total TDs), and Philip Rivers (117.6 passer rating, 15:2 TD:INT ratio for 5-1 Chargers), there’s a guy on the other side of the ball who’s putting together an impressive award-worthy season of his own. Six games into the season, not only is J.J. Watt well on his way to taking home his second Defensive Player of the Year award (2012), he also is on the short list of MVP candidates. Houston’s All-Pro defensive end has four sacks and a league-leading 20 quarterback hits, but he’s much more than just a pass-rushing specialist, as evidenced by his six pass breakups (tied with Baltimore DT Haloti Ngata for most by a DL), two fumble recoveries, an interception and a blocked extra point on special teams. Watt also has three touchdowns – one on an 80-yard interception return, another on a 45-yard fumble return and the last coming on a one-yard catch when he lined up as a tight end. So not only has Watt scored more touchdowns thus far than the likes of Calvin Johnson, Frank Gore and many others, he also has as many receiving touchdowns as Reggie Wayne, Larry Fitzgerald and teammate Andre Johnson. Watt is making the six-year, $100 million contract extension he signed in September look like a bargain. And if Pittsburgh’s offensive line, which has already given up 17 sacks, and Ben Roethlisberger (3 INTs, 2 lost fumbles) aren’t careful, they may inadvertently end up endorsing Watt’s MVP candidacy tonight.
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2. A More Balanced Pittsburgh Offense?
Entering Week 7, the Steelers rank sixth in the NFL in total offense (396.5 ypg). Their ground game is fifth (137.3 ypg), while the aerial attack checks in at No. 11 (259.2 ypg). Mike Tomlin’s offense is in good hands with Ben Roethlisberger orchestrating things and Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown leading the way, but this unit needs to figure out how to get more production from others, especially in the passing game. Bell is second in the league in rushing (542 yards) and Brown is second in receiving (629) and they also are their team’s leading pass-catchers (Brown 41 receptions, Bell 28). Combined, this duo has been responsible for 60 percent of the team’s total offense and nearly half (6) of the offensive touchdowns (13). Tight end Heath Miller has been a reliable and productive target for Roethlisberger for years and wide receiver Markus Wheaton was expected to emerge following an injury-plagued rookie season, but both have had minimal impacts thus far. They have combined for 50 catches and just one score. This is one of the reasons why despite all of the yards gained, the Steelers are just 23rd in the league in scoring offense (20.7 ppg). Others need to step up on offense or else Bell and Brown’s Pro Bowl-caliber efforts could wind up going to waste. And the same could be said for the Steelers’ postseason hopes too.
3. Houston, We’ve Had a Problem… Passing the Football
The Texans are a top 10 team when it comes to running the football (128.5 ypg), but languish in the bottom five in passing offense (208.5). This is why Bill O’Brien’s squad is middle of the pack or worse in both total (337.0 ypg, 19th in NFL) and scoring (22.0 ppg, tied for 21st) offense and is seeking to put an end to its two-game losing streak. Despite missing some time because of a hamstring injury, Arian Foster is third in the league in rushing (513 yards) and has five touchdowns, which is already more than all of last season (two TDs in eight games). Ryan Fitzpatrick on the other hand, hasn’t been near as productive in his first season as Houston’s starting quarterback. Fitzpatrick is averaging 211 yards passing per game with as many touchdowns as interceptions (six each). He’s ranked 12th in completion rate (65.0), but only 24th among starters in passer rating (86.1). All-Pro Andre Johnson and 2013 first-round pick DeAndre Hopkins have combined for just four touchdown catches and only 11 plays of 20 or more yards. And after Foster’s 16 receptions, the only other Texan with at least 10 is tight end Garrett Graham. Houston’s offense has been effective on the ground, but that could change if the passing game continues to sputter. It’s very hard to win in the NFL with a one-dimensional offense, unless that one dimension is throwing the football. And even then you need a Pro Bowl-caliber quarterback to get the job done. Care to guess how many Pro Bowls Fitzpatrick has been invited to?
J.J. Watt is a grown man and one of the few players in the NFL who is capable of winning a game by himself. Pittsburgh doesn’t have a defensive playmaker close to Watt’s level, but the Steelers are a more talented, well-rounded team. As talented as Watt is, even he can’t do enough as a tight end to make up for Houston’s inefficiencies on offense. Another heavy dose of Ben Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown will be enough to counter a big night from Arian Foster on the ground and Watt’s unrelenting and imposing presence on defense. Pittsburgh sticks to the script it has written thus far by following up last week’s disheartening loss with a satisfying win in front of the home crowd.