No team is the same from one year to the next, but one can learn about where a team is going by studying where it has been. We've watched each Steelers game last year play-by-play and pulled out a certain amount of trend-setting and trend-extending plays that earned the Steelers both a 12-4 record and a first-round playoff loss. We'll highlight what each of those plays meant from a bigger picture perspective on the season that was in 2011.
The Steelers, for better or worse, have been a WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get) kind of team over the last several years. Outside of the standard few anomalies, one could review the stats of any given game and have a pretty good chance of picking the winner and a good approximation of the score.
Pittsburgh's Week 4 17-10 loss at Houston was one of those anomalies. Statistically, it looked close. The score said it was close.
It just never felt close. Upon further review, this game, more than any other in the 2011 season, shows how our preconceived notions affect our objective viewing and ultimately, our opinions. The lessons learned? Penalties are the great equalizers, and don't ever count the Steelers out.
It was to be Houston's signature game. Hosting the defending AFC Champions, the Texans looked poised to take their first division crown, and qualifying for the playoffs for the first time in franchise history.
ESPN The Magazine was on hand doing a big feature issue on everything involved with game day in the NFL, and it was the perfect game for them to pick. Every year, it seems there is an inter-conference showdown between the chased and the chaser.
In the interest of full disclosure, I loved this Texans team. I love the way they played the game. I write that in past tense because, as the intro to this article suggests, no team is the same year in and year out. This Texans squad, though, had all the makings of a champion, and this game was pivotal in their maturation from also-ran to contender.
The Target Tattooed on the Steelers' Backs
The fans of the Steelers brawl with fans of the Ravens, Bengals and Browns all the time. They all hate the Steelers and get particularly fired up for each of the two games their team plays against Pittsburgh. Their arch rival is Pittsburgh. The Steelers only get one arch rival, and it doesn't even matter who it is. They are the arch rival of basically every team they play.
Each year, they have an out-of-division game like this, and it's a true measuring stick of where the Steelers are at that point in time, and usually, we can trace back their ultimate success or failure to this kind of a game.
In 2010, it was the all-out whipping of Oakland in the worst officiated game ever played. That set the tone for the Steelers' run to the Super Bowl. In 2008, it was the win against Dallas (a game they had no business winning if not for sheer resiliency).
Early in Week 4, we'd see a clear picture of how the Steelers would respond to direct and adverse competition with the league's best.
The Opening Drive
If the Ravens' victory over Pittsburgh in Week 1 can be described as a catharsis, the Texans first drive against the Steelers should be described as "dominance."
I don't recall an offense putting as savage a beating on any Steelers defense in recent memory. I couldn't help but slink deep in my couch and numbly accept all the barbs of the Steelers being too old, and being past their prime.
As a fan of pure football, it was a thing of beauty. I'd love to ask Texans fans if they'd ever had a drive so efficient, so physical and so brutally dominant as that one.
Houston overcame two holding penalties to go 82 yards on 19 plays, chewing up 10:22 off the clock. Some of the holes the Texans offensive line created were worthy of their resumes.
The Steelers' defensive line was flat-out owned. It was depressing to watch. Despite getting completely dominated, though, the Steelers re-grouped as the game went on, and only surrendered another 10 points.
If you would have bet me $100 after that first drive the Texans would only have two more scoring drives, I would have taken it and forced you to go to an ATM immediately to get my money. Maybe it was simply the experience the Steelers' defense had. Age has its advantages. They had seen it all. Maybe not to that extent, but as the game drove on, the defensive front seven (behind James Harrison, who played an outstanding game), held their ground when it didn't appear they had any ability to do so.
Crazy thing was, he was just back from a hamstring injury that held him out of the first two games of the year, and had 10 carries going into Week 4.
An injury to Ben Tate gave Foster probably way more carries than he was supposed to. All told, he had 30 carries for 155 yards and a touchdown. Just a warrior's effort. Impossible not to respect him after that.
What sets Foster apart (and makes him, I believe, the best running back in the game) is a combination of his vision and his feet. No one has a better combination of those two critical traits for a running back. The Texans' zone running is better than anyone else's, and Foster is perfectly built for that offense.
Granted, many of his runs were through holes large enough to drive a semi through, he often made six yards out of nothing. You don't have 19-play touchdown drives without being able to run the ball at a high level.
The Steelers were gashed a bit on the ground more often than in recent years, but none quite as impressively as Foster's performance. It was a slap in the face, and one the Steelers would learn from as the year progressed.
Offensive Line Reaches a New Low
The hope in this series wasn't to solely point out the sieve-like ability of the Steelers' offensive line. It just happens to be a main focus of the first quarter of the season.
All the credit in the world to Texans' defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, and probably the best coached defense in the AFC in 2011, but this could have been the worst pass protection game by a Steelers offensive line in Roethlisberger's career.
With Jonathan Scott on the bench, LT Trai Essex provided little reason to feel positive about pass protection from the left tackle position, and LG Chris Kemoeatu would find himself on the bench the following week. Phillips noticed that early as well, and he made pressure rain all over the offensive left side of the formation.
The Steelers' opening series was a lesson in dysfunction. After a 15-yard penalty on Mike Wallace, who was jawing with Houston's sideline after a nice 22-yard catch-and-run, and a 10-yard short catch-and-run by Emmanuel Sanders, the Steelers looked to be establishing some rhythm.
Until, of course, they weren't.
On first down, Roethlisberger drops five, and fires to the short seam, where TE David Johnson is neither in a position to make a catch, nor is he looking for the ball. Roethlisberger had to release it, because Kemoeatu lunges for DE Antonio Smith on the line, grabbing nothing but jersey. Smith would have buried Roethlisberger if he held the ball any longer (side note, a graphic flashes on the screen of how the Steelers were -9 in turnover differential. It's the first quarter of Week 4).
Second down, the Steelers look to exploit the hard-charging Texans' defensive front with a screen pass. Roethlisberger is nearly sacked, and throws the ball in the area where RB Rashard Mendenhall should be. He is not, because he has his shoulder in ROLB Mario Williams after RG Ramon Foster didn't even come close to reaching Williams on a pull. The ball falls harmlessly incomplete. Neither Williams, nor ILB Brian Cushing, were blocked in any way.
Third down, at the snap, Kemoeatu is whipped off the line again by Smith, who forces Roethlisberger to cut off his drop and step up to avoid him. He's met immediately by OLB Conor Barwin, who took one step to his left, which was too much for Essex to handle. Barwin forces a fumble, which is also recovers.
There's a penalty for illegal contact on Houston, which appears to be a bogus call, considering the Texans dropped into a deep zone, and no defender is tight on a receiver five yards from the line of scrimmage. The Steelers get bailed out on a phantom call (they didn't even put a jersey number with the penalty).
Automatic first down. Next play, Kemoeatu thanking his lucky stars Smith is taken out for the play, replaced by seldom-used Tim Jamison. The result is the same, as Jamison shoves Kemoeatu - who's horrendously late out of his stance, never a good thing when you're pulling on the play - deep into the backfield, and is hit by Mendenhall, the ball carrier, four yards in the backfield. The play goes for a yard loss.
Roethlisberger gets crushed by CB Daniel Manning on the next play, forcing an incomplete deep pass to Jerricho Cotchery. Not sure how the Steelers could have thought a deep pass could work in this series, considering the amount of pressure they were facing.
On third down, it's J.J. Watt coming off the offensive left edge, barely touched, for the sack.
Let's summarize the last six plays: Incomplete pass (hurried), incomplete pass (hurried), sack/fumble (recovered by Houston) overturned on a mysterious penalty, blown running play (1 yard loss), incomplete pass (hurried) and sack.
Credit to the Steelers, they managed to regroup and play some competitive football, particularly in the second half, but a slew of ill-timed Texans penalties and the inconsistencies that often plague a team on the verge of Super Bowl contention held them back just enough to give the Steelers the ball with a chance to tie the game late.
But the Steelers offense, particularly their pass protection broke down again at the end, leading to Roethlisberger's one official turnover of the day.
We would see sweeping changes the following week, as this Week 4 loss triggered a huge offensive uptick during the team's subsequent four-game winning streak.