By David Todd
Coming off three consecutive poor performances the Pittsburgh Steelers hosted the Houston Texans on Monday Night Football at Heinz Field. The first of three consecutive home games versus AFC foes, this one had big ramifications for both teams as they came in with identical 3-3 records. The Texans dominated early and the Steelers found themselves down 13-0 with less than five minutes to go in the first half, the season seemingly hanging in the balance. And then things changed. Wow, did they change. In what has to be the most productive short stretch in the history of Heinz Field the Steelers put up 24 points in the final 3:08 of the half. On offense they got big plays and had success in the red zone. On defense they pressured the QB and generated turnovers. They went into the half up 24-13. They managed to hold on through a relatively uneventful second half, recovering an onside kick in the last minute to secure a 30-23 victory. It was the team’s sixteenth straight home win on MNF. Their last loss came against the New York Giants on October 14, 1991 when they lost 23-20 at Three Rivers Stadium. The Steelers have never lost a home Monday night game under Bill Cowher or Mike Tomlin.
The Steeler offensive continue to be enigmatic. Outside of their second quarter flurry they only managed six points on two late fourth quarter field goals. Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown continue to star and Ben Roethlisberger had his best outing in the past month, but the Steelers are having trouble finding others to compliment their three horses. Defensively, this was an encouraging outing. After getting gouged on an opening 10 play, 94-yard drive where they missed at least six tackles, they were able to contain Houston’s outside-zone running scheme and generated a consistent pass rush for the first time this season. They also created three turnovers for the first time this season and turned them into 17 points and a much-needed win.
Right tackle Marcus Gilbert suffered a concussion in the second quarter and did not return. He was replaced by Mike Adams who saw his first extensive playing time of the season.
Steve McLendon, Ryan Shazier, Ike Taylor and Shamarko Thomas were all inactive due to injury. Rookies Martavis Bryant and Daniel McCullers were active for the fist time and both had an impact.
*Every week Le’Veon Bell finds another way to impress. Bell’s ability in the passing game stood out in this one as he had his single game-high with eight receptions and tied a career-high with 88 yards receiving. Mike Tomlin credited Bell’s 43-yard reception on a 3rd-and-10 in the middle of the second quarter as being the play that jump-started the Steelers. (A play that occurred following a J.J. Watt offsides call on 3rd-and-15 from the Steelers 9.) Bell took a read-route over the middle and ran away from the Texans linebackers keying the Steelers first scoring drive. On their next drive Bell took a short pass out in the left flat and turned it in to a 28-yard gain, doing a masterful job setting up his lone blocker, center Maurkice Pouncey who was a beast on the play. Bell capped things off with 2-yard touchdown catch later in the quarter on a well-designed play and good recognition by Roethlisberger. The second-year back has over 100 yards-from-scrimmage in each of the Steelers first seven games, a Steelers record, and his 938 all-purpose yards is second in the NFL trailing only DeMarco Murray. Bell also has not fumbled this season on 153 touches after only fumbling once on 289 touches his rookies season. Bell added 57 yards on 12 carries.
*If there was still any question whether Antonio Brown was one of the premiere players in the game he put that to rest in a four-play sequence in the fourth quarter. With the Steelers trying to put the game away up 24-16, they had a 1st-and-10 from the Houston 46 with 8:20 remaining when Brown made an amazing leaping catch along the sideline. Cornerback Andre Hal was right there with him, but Brown was not only was able to high-point the ball with Hal’s arm in between his, he went to the ground and was able to maintain control through the catch pinning the ball to his body. It was one of the best catches I’ve ever seen Brown make. On the very next play Brown caught a 16-yard TD which was overturned by replay. Touchdown or not, and I’m not sure the refs got this right, Brown did a fantastic job of getting his feet down. But the play that might have been the most impressive occurred two plays later. On 3rd-and-16 from the Texans 22 Brown caught a short cross moving right about 5 yards past the line of scrimmage. Brown took a couple more strides then was able to stop, change direction and hit top speed as fast as I’ve ever seen any player. Texans DB Jonathan Joseph had no chance and Brown turned it into a 15-yard gain. Brown finished the game with 9 catches for 90 yards. He is now second in the NFL with 50 catches and leads the league with 719 yards receiving. Brown also threw a second quarter TD to Lance Moore where he did an excellent job of reading outside in. Markus Wheaton was his first option on the outside but he was tied up and Brown worked back inside and found Moore for the TD.
*Martavis Bryant, the Steelers fourth round pick out of Clemson, saw the first playing time of this career and made the most of his opportunity. He finished with two catches out of five targets for 40 yards highlighted by a 35-yard toe-dragging TD catch in the back of the end zone. Bryant was able to get behind the Texans defense early in the game but Ben overthrew him. He didn’t miss the second time. Expect #10 to be a participant on game days the rest of the season.
*Darrius Heyward-Bey has been a solid special teams performer this season but has seen little work as a receiver, coming into the game with only one catch. His second was a big one. Late in the third quarter the Steelers faced a 3rd-and-9 from their own 2. Ben found DHB for a 17-yard gain in traffic getting the Steelers out of a deep hole.
*The Steelers offensive line got by in this one. They weren’t great, but they at least kept J.J. Watt from dominating the LOS. I highlighted Maurkice Pouncey’s blocking out in space on Bell’s 28-yard screen pass. I should also mention Mike Adams who saw his first extended playing time of the season. He stepped in for Marcus Gilbert and did a solid job at right tackle.
*The Steelers offense continues to struggle while putting up big yardage numbers. Their three touchdown drives consisted of five total plays. That is not to knock the Steelers for scoring quickly on the two drives that started inside the Texans 10 or for big play strikes that having been missing from this offense. But the Steelers have rarely been able to sustain long drives and turn them into touchdowns. That was the case again Monday night.
*There was more good than bad from Ben Roethlisberger in this one, but his inability to accurately throw the deep sideline ball has become a concern. Last week Mike Tomlin criticized a couple Steelers receivers for not getting their feet in-bounds on sideline plays, but the bigger issue is Roethlisberger giving them enough room to work with. In this one he threw his receivers out-of-bounds on multiple occasions or made the catches incredibly difficult (see Brown, Bryant). The positive is that those throws are unlikely to lead to INTs. The negative is they aren’t leading to completions either. I would hope to see Ben/Haley use more verticals in the middle of the field and post routes going forward.
*Two of the three Texans sacks came when Kelvin Beachum and Ramon Foster had trouble handling stunts on the left side. One led to Roethlisberger fumble and ensuing FG. They have to communicate better.
*Paging Markus Wheaton and Lance Moore. Both wideouts were only targeted twice. Moore had two catches for 12 yards, one coming on the TD from Antonio Brown and Wheaton finished with no catches. Wheaton’s snaps decreased markedly. So much for his extra film study with Ben this week.
*It wasn’t a complete game, but the Steelers defense was better in this one, particularly in the second and third quarters. They generated three turnovers for the first time this year, twice giving the offense a very short field, something that has not happened very often the past three seasons.
*Lawrence Timmons was excellent despite having to leave the game in first half after vomiting on the field and while running off. Timmons said he over-hydrated then took a foot to the stomach which caused the problem. Whatever, he led the team with 12 tackles including two for loss and helped sure up the run defense as the game went on.
*Hopefully the light turned on for a bunch of players who have struggled to various degrees so far this seson. After poor first halves both Cam Thomas and Sean Spence played their best football of the year in the second. Jason Worilds was able to bring consistent pressure off the left side and forced a fumble while Arthur Moats made some good plays in the run game.
*After making a couple plays last week for the first time this season, Mike Mitchell created another turnover stripping DeAndre Hopkins after a big catch and run near midfield. It was a good play by Mitchell, but maybe even more notable was the play by Troy Polamalu who recovered the fumble. Polamalu rushed the passer on the play and was on the Texans 25-yard line when Ryan Fitzpatrick released the ball. Hopkins caught it on the Texans 45 and Polamalu was there to recover the fumble on the Steelers 48. Great effort.
*Daniel McCullers saw the first action of his career and gave a good account of himself. He was able to hold the point of attack in the run game and stretch plays out and also get some push when rushing the passer. It was an encouraging debut.
*Corner Brice McCain continues to see more time and did a solid job as did Stephon Tuitt and Vince Williams who each saw their most action of the season.
*The Texans opening drive had Steelers fans fearing the worst. The Steelers had the Texans pinned back on their own 10 facing a 3rd-and-6. Jason Worilds got pressure on Texans QB Ryan Fitzpatrick but wasn’t able to bring him down and Fitzpatrick completed a 15-yard pass for a first down. From there the Steelers were fed a steady dose of Arian Foster. They missed at least six tackles on the drive as the Texans went right down the field in 10 plays for 94 yards and the opening score. It is the sixth time in seven games the Steelers opponent has scored on the opening drive.
*Up 30-16 with three minutes left the Steelers defense looked completely out-of-sorts. The Texans went 86 yards in 7 plays in 1:33 to set up a potential game-tying possession with an onside kick. The drive included a 15-yard roughing the passer penalty on James Harrison. The call was debatable, but Harrsion can’t be in that position.
*Cortez Allen had his hands full with two good Texans receivers.
*The coverage units were outstanding led by Antwon Blake and Ross Ventrone who had two tackles each.
*Shaun Suisham. Money. 44, 30 and 40. He is now 14 of 15 on the season.
*Three of Brad Wing’s four punts were excellent including punts that had the Texans starting drives on the 6 and 7-yard lines. But late in the game he uncorked a 35-yarder, the dreaded “JV punt” as Mike Tomlin has called them in the past.
*The kick return game continues to be a disaster as the Steelers never seem to get the ball out even to the 20-yard line. In this one they had returns for 13, 13 and 19 yards. Dri Archer has now returned 9 kicks on the season for a 17.9 avg and a long of 23. The next tackle he breaks will be his first
*According to Antonio Brown, Mike Tomlin told his team they were physically and mentally weak after their loss to Cleveland. It didn’t look like the Steelers responded well to that early in this one, but they did what they needed and got an important win. Give Tomlin credit for keeping the team focused despite another big early hole.
*I didn’t make too big a deal about play-calling when the Steelers were having trouble in the red zone, so I’m not going to make a big deal about it here, but the Steelers were able to strike quickly after both turnovers deep in Texans territory and that was the key to the game.
*The coaching staff got more of the young players involved including some rookies seeing their first action. The obvious question is did it take longer than it should have.
*The Steelers have done of good job in recent weeks of cutting down on the penalties that plagued them early in the season.
*Mike Tomlin used his timeouts properly while the Steelers were on defense late in the firs half. They forced the Texans to run plays deep in their own territory and it led and a fumble and a Steelers touchdown. #ClockManagement
*Antonio Brown’s touchdown pass. It worked. I’m all for more trick/gadget plays, but that seemed to be an especially high-risk play. But again, it worked.
*On the first possession of the third quarter the Steelers had a 4th-and-inches on the Houston 41. As is so often the case Ben had the team at the line of scrimmage and tried to draw the Texans offsides before taking a delay of game penalty. On one occasion earlier in the season Ben actually took the snap and ran a QB sneak for the first down, but this is what happens much more frequently. Coming off their 24-point explosion to end the half, I expected Tomlin to go for it there. And he should have.
*With four minutes left in the game, up 27-16 the Steelers had a 2nd-and-9 at the Texans 27. Houston was out of timeouts. Roethlisberger threw incomplete into the end zone to Martavis Bryant on a play that used six seconds. Ben then completed a 5-yard pass to Bryant on the next play and the Steelers kicked a FG with 3:09 left in the game. The Steelers should definitely have run the ball on second down. It didn’t come back to bite them, but again that is poor clock management with the game still in the balance.
Big Officiating Calls
*The officials overturned and Antonio Brown TD with about eight minutes left that would have put the Steelers up 15 points. It was very close, but the replay did not appear to show that he was definitely out of bounds. Further review after the game suggests Brown was in.
The Steelers will take on the (5-2) Indianapolis Colts, October 26 at Heinz Field. Kick-off is scheduled for 4:25 EST.
You can hear me on the pregame show on WDVE & 970 ESPN before every Steelers game and on weekdays on 970 ESPN from 3-6 pm. You can follow me on twitter @DavidMTodd.