For most Steeler fans, Week 4’s game against the Texans is one of those games Pittsburgh should win. Houston is a very young team with rookies starting at several key positions.
However, if anyone remembers the Steelers-Texans game from 2002, strange things happen. In that game, the Steelers gained a whopping 422 yards, with over 20 first downs. Pittsburgh held the Texans offense to a total of 47 yards and three first downs. It was a dominating performance... in which Pittsburgh lost 24-6. Five turnovers doomed the Steelers and Tommy “Machine Gun” Maddox in a type of game that only the Steelers ever seem to play.
The Steelers would love to duplicate that performance, only this time with a different outcome. Here are three keys to victory as the Pittsburgh Steelers face the Houston Texans on the road,
We’re going to skip over “ball security” which, as just described, can doom even the best teams’ efforts. It’s a given, but it still needs to be noted.
Key #1: Make Texans QB C.J. Stroud look like the rookie that he is.
Because he does not — at all. In C.J. Stroud’s first three starts, he has a 98.0 passer rating, averaging just over 300 yards a game. Those are not rookie numbers. He is playing like a veteran. But he’s not. This will be his fourth professional start.
The second overall pick in this year's draft, Stroud was receiving high praise through the off-season. He was named the starter early. Typically only the team itself as well as it’s fans buy into the hype until the player or team proves it on the field. Stroud, however, has done so admirably.
He has a very calm demeanor. Coming out of Ohio State, he has played in big games. He’s been under duress and overcome. He didn’t lose to the Georgia Bulldogs; the team did. However, in that game, Stroud did everything he possibly could to try and secure a victory, and that player is who Pittsburgh needs to expect to see Sunday afternoon.
The middle of the field is somewhat of a playground for offenses playing Pittsburgh this season. The Steelers' new-ish secondary has had some breakdowns and communication issues, allowing receivers to get free for chunk plays.
While the secondary is learning it’s way, it will be up to T.J. Watt and Alex Highsmith to do what they can to remind Stroud that he is, indeed, a rookie. Don’t look for Pittsburgh to try and confuse the rookie too much with scheme but rather ask their front seven to apply pressure continually.
Pressure up front elevates the play of even the worst back-ends. If the Steelers are able to apply the pressure the team shows it can, this should be a reality check for the Texans young signal caller.
Key #2: Protect Kenny Pickett at all costs.
The Steelers are a team that still has not found itself. Improvements have come from all three units since Week 1, as well as from the coaching staff, showing a spark of offensive ingenuity in last week’s win versus the Raiders.
A little spark.
The offensive line needs to become the “Pickett Fence” advertised in the preseason. To start the season, Pickett has looked more like a rookie than the actual rookie on the other side of the field in C.J. Stroud. Part of that is due to a lack of protection. It’s also partially due to playing two of the top defenses in the league in two of three games to start the season.
Although there are no tune-up games in the NFL, as evidenced by the Arizona Cardinals victory over the Dallas Cowboys, Pittsburgh needs to put together a week where it gives Pickett time to slow down and not run for his life.
Do not misunderstand, as the team, much like Houston, has been progressing, the offensive line included. However, Pittsburgh needs stabilize and play consistently. Unfortunately, they’ll be faced with a particularly big test in the absence of RG James Daniels, but with a versatile backup in Nate Herbig ready to step, this team can hopefully still keep Pickett upright.
Will Anderson will eventually have a breakout game… just not this week. The “Pickett Fence” is being forged in Steel!
Key #3: Run. the. ball.
The Steelers finally evened up the play calling in last week’s contest, and it showed across the board. After being pass-heavy the first couple weeks of the season, Matt Canada served up a healthy dose of Najee Harris, who totaled 19 carries on the day.
Largely, this yielded a similar results to what has been seen out of the Steeler run game… until the second half. It looked as though Canada moved away from zone runs, and when he did, Harris resembled the player to end the season last year breaking off a couple chunk runs.
This works for the Steelers, and they need to build upon it. The Steelers need to be as patient with it as they were last season. Though Pittsburgh’s offense is still a work in progress, they starting to look like the team that they were to close out the season last year. That team controlled the clock, and they did that by running the ball. Maybe learning something from last week, Canada will employ the plays that worked well last week with subtle set changes.
When Pittsburgh runs the ball well, any team for that matter, it sets up play action nicely for Kenny. And while Kenny is still learning, getting the run game going is absolutely necessary for the young signal caller.
There have been signs of progression for the Steelers this year. After getting buried in Week 1, they’ve been looking better in several areas over the next couple of weeks. Pittsburgh is a team on the rise that needs to learn what they do and don’t do well — crap what doesn’t, lean on what does, yet don’t be predictable.
Expect to see some bully ball this Sunday, as the Steelers vs. Texans kick off at 1 p.m. ET from NRG Stadium.