3 key factors for the Texans to steal a win in Pittsburgh
The last time the Houston Texans dropped two consecutive games, it came during a Week 2 loss to their AFC South rival, the Tennessee Titans. Former kicker Ryan Succop connected on a 31-yard field goal to give his Titans a 20-17 victory over the Texans inside Lucas Oil Stadium. Following the loss, the Texans would go on to drop three consecutive games before reeling off nine straight wins to save their 2018 season at 11-5.
Their bounce-back performance was a testament to the team's resiliency, but the Texans (0-2) are not trying to replicate history two years later. On Sunday, Houston will try to avoid their first 0-3 start since 2018 during their Week 3 match against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
"I don't want to talk about two years ago back in 2018 when we started off 0-3," Justin Reid said via Zoom on Thursday. "I definitely don't want to do that again but it is about pride. That's what we said at the end of the game and even in the course of the game in the first two games. This is about pride. We're not a defense that's going to turn over and roll on our belly, be belly up, give up, play soft. We're going to fight tooth and nail regardless of what the situation is."
Can the Texans sustain their run defense through four quarters?
Four hundred and seven total yards. Two hundred and thirty yards on the ground. The final numbers displayed in Sunday's box score does not justify how well the Texans' defense played against the Baltimore Ravens. At one point during the game, Houston held Baltimore to 98 rushing yards — 44 at the half — while members of the Texans' defensive line accumulated four sacks on reigning MVP, Lamar Jackson.
Their impressive defensive performance against the Ravens lasted up until the 12:05 mark in the fourth quarter when Mark Ingram scored a 30-yard touchdown run on 4th-and-1. Following Ingram's run, the Texans gave up a total of 102 rushing yards the remainder of the game.
Outside of the final 12 minutes — or just the fourth quarter alone — Houston's run defense was a silver lining during their 33-16 loss to the Ravens. The success they showcased for three quarters will be beneficial against the Steelers and running back James Conner.
Creating a defensive scheme for Pittsburgh's run game can go a tad under the radar. It may not be as dangerous as their five-year tenure with Le'Veon Bell, but the Steelers run game can still carry the team to victory on any given Sunday. Conner is one of the most underrated tailbacks in the league, and if not for a few injuries, he would be at the top of most team's scouting reports.
The 25-year-old running back made his return to the starting lineup during their Week 2 victory over the Denver Broncos. Conner carried the ball 16 times for 106 yards (6.6 AVG) and a touchdown. Since his lone Pro-Bowl performance in 2018, Conner has registered seven games of recording 100 or more yards on the ground — six out of the seven resulted in wins for the Steelers.
For a team that has given up nearly 400 rushing yards (396) through the first two weeks, the Steelers may look to exploit the Texans' run defense. Houston must find a way to successfully defend the run for four total quarters.
"To that point, I think we had done a good job as a defense of limiting their rushing yardage," defensive coordinator Anthony Weaver said. "What happens is you have so many competitive guys and when they see the game kind of slipping away, everybody wants to be the guy to make that play. When you come out of structure on defense, big plays happen and that happened a little bit. But it's better to learn the lesson now rather than in January and February."
Can the Texans contain the Steelers three headed monster at receiver?
The Steelers can attack the Texans in a multitude of ways, but none more so than with their receiving core. A wide-out group that features JuJu Smith-Schuster, Diontae Johnson and Chase Claypool, Pittsburgh's receiving group is swiftly emerging into a three-headed beast. Houston's secondary will have their work cut out for them inside Heinz Field. The trio of receivers has recorded a combined 393 receiving yards on 32 catches — with Johnson leading the way in targets (23), receptions (14) and receiving yards (149).
Bradley Roby and Vernon Hargreaves have had a less than stellar start to the season. The twosome is responsible for a combined 77.8 percent of completions on 18 targets in pass coverage — with Hargreaves accountable for the latter.
Hargreaves has been the most reliable corner through the first two games and may take on the assignment of containing Smith-Schuster. But the remainder of the Texans' secondary may not be enough to contain the likes of Johnson and Claypool.
If Robey continues to struggle, this could be an opportunity for Philips Gaine to reinsert himself back into the Texans' secondary rotation now that he is fully healthy. In 2019, Gaine appeared in six games for the Texans and allowed 58.3 percent of pass coverage completion on 24 targets, to go along with 13 tackles, 12 solo hits.
"Physical guy [JuJu Smith-Schuster], definitely at the bottom and top of the route," Reid said. "He loves to get handsy. Not afraid of a fist-fight at the bottom or top of the route. Good hands, catchability. He's definitely stepped up his game, especially with the departure of Antonio Brown from last season. I feel like he's stepped into that number one role a lot better starting off this year than he did last year."
Can the Texans get a win with their passing game?
The Steelers have arguably the best defensive line in the league, which will make it challenging for the Texans to establish a run game in Pittsburgh. For Houston to put points on the board, they will have to depend heavily upon their revamp receiving core. Pittsburgh has a trustworthy secondary, but their play can be inconsistent at times.
Against the Broncos, the Steelers gave up a total of 319 yards with 215 coming through the air. If the Broncos' second-string quarterback, Jeff Driskel, could put up over 200 passing yards against Pittsburgh, success for Deshaun Watson should come easy. The only problem, the chemistry between Watson and his new receiving core have looked disjointed thus far.
Against the Ravens, there was a glimmer of hope between Watson and Brandin Cooks, as the two connected for 95 yards on eight targets. Will Fuller had a noble season opener against the Chiefs, but a hamstring injury limited the Notre Dame product to 37 snaps (63%) with no targets on Sunday.
Although both receivers' best attribute is their ability to get down the field, the Texans should look to utilize shorter routes against the Steelers. Not only will it help against Pittsburgh's blitz defense, but it can help Watson get his primary two receivers on the same page — including Randall Cobb — who only has seven receptions through the first two games.
Following their last contest, Watson said he and his receivers are starting to pick up a rhythm, and each week is another opportunity to continue to grow. The Steelers secondary has a history of playing down to the level of their competition, and the Texans receiving group — and offense in its totality — is far from a threat.
"We want to do all the things that we need to do to get on the same page and make sure we're on the same rhythm," Watson said. "We're building that week to week and building that chemistry. We're just where we want to be and just going to continue to grow and get better."
Texans 20 Steelers 17
Coty M. Davis is a reporter for ESPN 97.5 Houston/SportsMap covering the Houston Texans. He is also the co-host of Locked On Texans, a part of the Locked On Podcast Network. Follow Coty on Twitter @CotyDavis_24.