WALK THE LINE

Here's where the Texans must find success against the Steelers

The O-line has to give Watson time to throw against Pittsburgh. Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images

The offensive line for the Houston Texans made some significant improvements in 2019. A year after they allowed Deshaun Watson to take a career-high 62 sacks, the Texans' offensive line helped their franchise quarterback nearly cut his sack total in half (44), and entered this season with a top-20 O-line, according to Pro Football Focus.

The 2020 season was supposed to be the year Houston's offensive line took another step forward in the right direction, especially considering all five starters from the previous year were returning. A group of offensive linemen who posted a pass-blocking grade of 70.0 or above.

Two weeks into the regular season, that could not be further from the truth.

In some ways, Houston's pass-protection has reverted back to how they performed in 2018. They are currently tied for the most sacks allowed through the first two games of the season with eight, and their offensive line (or lack there of) has played a massive part in their 0-2 start. During their Week 2 loss against the Ravens, the Texans allowed Baltimore to rush Watson 14 times, which resulted in four sacks.

There is reason to be optimistic that the line will make positive strives as the season progresses following a shortened offseason. But Houston's Week 3 opponent featuring the Pittsburgh Steelers (2-0) could leave their offensive line in the most vulnerable position of the season.

"We're just building chemistry," Watson said via Zoom on Wednesday. "Some of that stuff is myself. Protect myself and get rid of the ball a little faster. Some of the stuff is the play call and sometimes I put myself in the run game to get hit and things like that. We're just coming along and that's just part of the game. I'm expected to take some shots because that's the game of football and the way I play the game. It's not a big issue for me."

Headlined by T.J. Watt — the reigning AFC Defensive Player of the Week — the league's best defensive line arguably resides in Pittsburgh. They have had a top-five defense in two of the past three seasons, and are on track to replicate their success.

During their Week 2 victory over the Denver Broncos, Pittsburgh became the first of two teams to record double-digit sacks on the season (Washington) — as the Steelers totaled seven inside Empower Field at Mile High on Sunday. Their D-line excels in nearly every aspect Houston's offensive line has struggled with in their pass-protection thus far.

Throughout the first pair of games, the Steelers' defense has blitzed their opponents 61.7 percent of the time — more than any other team in the league. They have accumulated a league-best 40 QB pressures, 20 QB hurries and have tied for second in QB hits with 10. And with veteran defensive end Stephon Tuitt coming off the right side of the line, the Steelers have an opportunity to assail the Texans' most vulnerable section of their O-line.

"I think we've done some decent things," head coach and general manager Bill O'Brien said via a Zoom conference on Wednesday. "People look at quarterback pressures and quarterback hits. But a lot of that is not just the line. Everybody's involved in it. Everybody's got to improve. I think our line will continue to work hard and will continue to get better."

The tandem of Zach Fulton and Tytus Howard has been alarming — to say the least. Fulton appears to have regressed from the improvements of the previous season, while injuries have hindered Howard from returning to the player he was prior to his MCL tear in 2019. Together, both players have combined for a grade of 61.8.

The most dependable element of the Texans' offensive line has been their success in run blocking. Following Week 2, the Texans saw two of their linemen finish among the top players in run-game metrics. According to ESPN, Nick Martin placed in the sixth percentile among centers in run block win rating (98%), while Howard placed second among offensive tackles at 89 percent.

However, similar to their game against the Ravens, do not expect Houston to depend on their run game. The Steelers have given up the least amount of rushing yards so far this season — allowing an average of 66.5 yards on the ground.

So if the Texans have any chance to pick up their first victory of the season inside Heinz Field, they may have to do so while depending on their passing game. And it is going to take more than Laremy Tunsil to stave-off the Steelers front seven.

After all, a much improved offensive line who can protect Watson is the key to unlocking the Texans' full potential on offense.

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.

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