This week, we are scouting the match-up between the Pittsburgh Steelers (2-0) and the Houston Texas (0-2) at Heinz Field. Before we do that, let’s check our scouting report from last week and see how the Steelers did with the keys to victory in their 26-21 win over the scrappy Denver Broncos.
Be patient against Denver’s zone defense
Denver’s four-deep zone scheme requires an offense to be patient and take what is given. Ben Roethlisberger largely complied, distributing the football to nine different receivers and, other than a bad interception on the opening drive of the second half, did not force the ball into coverage. Roethlisberger’s one notable deep shot, an 84 yard touchdown pass to rookie Chase Claypool, came on one of the most few snaps where Denver played man-coverage. All things considered, it was a disciplined performance from the veteran quarterback.
The pass protection battle
The Steelers dominated Denver in pass protection, recording seven sacks on defense and yielding just one. They needed each of their sacks, especially the last one from safety Terrell Edmunds on Denver’s final drive, to turn back a valiant relief effort from backup quarterback Jeff Driskel:
Neither the offense nor defense put together a sixty-minute performance against the Broncos. The Steelers seemed complacent at times and kept a young Denver team in the game with two second-half turnovers. Pittsburgh will have to muster a more complete effort against the Texans to get to 3-0.
The NFL schedule-makers did the Texans no favors with their three September games. Houston opened with a 34-20 road loss at defending Super Bowl champion Kansas City before coming home to play a Super Bowl contender in Baltimore. The Ravens prevailed in that contest, 33-16. Now the Texans must travel to yet another contender at Pittsburgh. Houston has won the AFC South in back-to-back seasons but desperately needs a win to avoid an ignominious 0-3 start, from which only six teams since 1980 have rebounded to qualify for the playoffs.
Head coach Bill O’Brien was widely criticized for engineering an off-season trade that sent Houston’s electric wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins to the Arizona Cardinals for aging running back David Johnson. Johnson had a nice opener with 77 yards rushing on 11 carries but was a non-factor against Baltimore. Quarterback Deshaun Watson has been solid, throwing for a combined 528 yards and rushing for another 44. But he’s been sacked eight times and pressured consistently. That does not bode well against a Steelers defense that has ten sacks in two games and is on pace to record an absurd 80 sacks for the season.
There are issues for Houston on the defensive side of the ball as well. The Texans have surrendered 396 yards rushing through two games, worst in the NFL. They yielded 166 yards on the ground to Kansas City in the opener and a whopping 230 against Baltimore last week. Their inability to stop the run has created a time of possession deficit of over nineteen minutes through just two games, a disparity they must somehow remedy.
Houston has played a pair of explosive offenses thus far, so they can be forgiven, to a degree, for the points and yards they’ve surrendered. However, with a stingy Pittsburgh defense likely to keep the Houston offense from scoring in bunches, the Texans’ will have to summon their best defensive performance of the season to win on Sunday.
Here, then, are the keys the victory in the contest between the Steelers and Texans:
Get the ball to the Steelers’ athletes in space against Houston’s defenders
Houston has compounded the challenge of facing two elite offenses by tackling atrociously. In the opener at Kansas City, the Texans missed an astounding twenty tackles. Last week, against the Ravens, their tackling woes continued. Plays like this one, where linebacker Zach Cunningham failed to break down, get low or wrap up properly, prevented the defense from getting off the field in a 3rd and 6 situation where a sound tackle would have dropped running back J.K. Dobbins short of the sticks:
Cunningham’s effort was stellar compared to this one by safety Lonnie Johnson. Watch Johnson launch himself at Baltimore receiver Willie Snead, aiming for Snead’s mid-section with his helmet. This effort from Johnson is both dangerous and embarrassing:
Then there’s this attempt by corner Bradley Roby, who avoids contact by diving fecklessly at Dobbins’ feet:
There’s not a coach in America worthy of the profession who would be proud of such shoddy execution. Houston’s failures in this area are a combination of poor fundamentals and a lack of desire. Their defensive backs, in particular, appear either unwilling or incapable of taking players to the ground. It is an area of major weakness the Steelers should attempt to exploit.
How can they do so? By copying the blueprint the Chiefs and Ravens authored. Both teams got the ball into the hands of their play-makers quickly and let them operate one-on-one against Houston defenders in space. The Steelers have been very proficient in the short passing game the first two weeks. Quick throws to the flat, like the one below to Diontae Johnson, will require Houston’s corners to make sound solo tackles:
Crossing routes that force defenders to come downhill aggressively, where Houston’s safeties and linebackers have shown a propensity for bad form and positioning, are another way to make cheap yards after the catch. You can see how much room tight end Eric Ebron has to operate on the Y-Cross concept here. A more elusive runner like Johnson, JuJu Smith-Schuster or James Conner would be a great candidate to man these routes against Houston:
The Steelers may also look to their screen game as a way to make Houston’s defenders tackle in space. Reverses, jet sweeps and play-action flat routes are options as well. Speedy rookie Anthony McFarland, who was activated against the Broncos but did not play on offense, could give the Texans fits on any of the concepts above.
Of course, the simplest way to challenge Houston to tackle well is to run the football. The Texans had a miserable time getting Kansas City rookie back Clyde Edwards-Helaire on the ground on routine inside zone runs. Watch two unblocked defenders, first the right outside linebacker and then the left safety, dive at the legs of Edwards-Helaire instead of moving their feet to get into proper tackling position. Edwards-Helaire had 138 yards on 25 carries against Houston, much of it while running through the teeth of the defense.
Whether Pittsburgh’s patchwork offensive line can open holes for their backs on these types of runs remains a question. The line did a nice job in pass protection against the Broncos, yielding just one sack against predominantly four-man pressures. In the run game, however, the Steelers had just 50 yards on 21 rushes until Conner broke off a game-clinching 59 yard scamper in the final minutes. It will be interesting to see how aggressively the Steelers attack Houston’s beleaguered run defense in lieu of their own issues up front.
Pressure DeShaun Watson... Carefully
Watson is one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL at throwing on the move. In 2019, he threw eight touchdowns against zero interceptions while escaping the pocket. He is a magician at making rushers miss and then finding an open receiver, like he did in this game against the Chargers:
Whether by design or by necessity, Watson has been on the move a lot the first two weeks. In addition to the eight sacks, the Texans have surrendered nineteen pressures on his 76 pass attempts. That’s a pressure rate of 25%. By comparison, Ben Roethlisberger has suffered just three sacks and been pressured ten times (13%) on the same number of drop-backs.
The key to pressuring Watson is to maintain disciplined rush lanes and not get out of position. Sometimes it takes just one false step for Watson to escape. For example, in the previous GIF, watch LA’s nose tackle push the center towards Watson. As the edge rushers close in, the nose ducks out to his left. I’m not sure if he’s attempting to execute a late twist with the defensive end or if he simply tries to take an outside path to the quarterback. Regardless, he leaves a seam through which Watson, after somehow freeing himself from the rush, manages to escape.
Once Watson does escape the rush, he has a talented corps of receivers who are well-versed in breaking off their routes and finding open space. One of the hardest things to do in pass coverage is to stay on a receiver when a play breaks down. Suddenly, the game becomes playground football with guys running every which way trying to get open. Hopkins may be gone but the Texans have a crew of smart, professional receivers in Brandin Cooks, Randall Cobb, Will Fuller and Kenny Stills. They are all crafty veterans who understand how to get open.
Watson made his share of plays against Baltimore but, for the most part, the Ravens kept him in structured situations. Below we see images of their second sack. The edge rushers are working to maintain outside leverage against their blocks and the defensive tackles are pushing the pocket. The arrow indicates the path of linebacker Patrick Queen, who is poised to stunt through the open B-gap.
As Queen (circled) closes in, the positioning of the edge rushers prevents Watson from fleeing outside. The tackles, meanwhile, play soft and situate themselves so Watson cannot escape through the pocket. With nowhere to go, Watson has to eat the football for a sack.
The Steelers will undoubtedly work on hemming Watson in with their rush and on finding ways to lock on Houston’s receivers when things break down. No team has blitzed more than Pittsburgh through the first two weeks but Keith Butler may dial that frequency back on Sunday. I expect the Steelers to work more on coverage disguise to confuse Watson and on line twists and stunts rather than five-man pressures to allow a second level defender to act as a spy of sorts. We may also see more cover-4, which is a nice deterrent to all the RPO schemes (run-pass option) the Texans employ.
Whatever the Steelers decide, limiting Watson’s ability to improvise is the key to slowing the Texans’ offense. And finding ways to get their weapons in space so Houston’s defenders must tackle soundly could lead to explosive plays when Pittsburgh has the ball. Look for these things on Sunday as the Steelers strive to open the season 3-0.