Saturday, October 18, 2014

Texans vs. Steelers preview

By Scott Brown and Tania Ganguli
October 17, 2014

The Houston Texans visit Heinz Field for the first time since the 2008 season opener, and they are coming off a pair of close losses to the Dallas Cowboys and Indianapolis Colts. ThePittsburgh Steelers are smarting after getting embarrassed last Sunday in Cleveland. Both teams are 3-3 and the loser of this "Monday Night Football" game will really put itself in a hole. 

ESPN Texans reporter Tania Ganguli and ESPN Steelers reporter Scott Brown take a closer look at the matchup. 

Brown: Here is an observation from Captain Obvious (and no, I’m not poking fun of Mike Tomlin with that reference): J.J. Watt is not a typical defensive end. Three touchdowns in six games is amazing considering the position Watt plays and I think he has all but wrapped up the NFL Defensive Player of the Year award. Do the Texans move Watt around or does he primarily wreak havoc from one spot on the field? 

Ganguli: The Texans have never played Watt in one spot. That’s the case now with defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel and it was the case under Wade Phillips, the Texans’ defensive coordinator the previous years Watt was here in Houston. When Crennel arrived in Houston, there were a lot of questions about how he would use Watt because Crennel’s system doesn’t typically feature aggressive defensive ends like Watt. But he knew what every other coach Watt’s ever had has known: Watt knows how to freelance in a way that helps the team. It’s best to let him do what he does best. 

Texans running back Arian Foster is third in the NFL with 513 rushing yards and he will present a monumental challenge to a defense that gave up 158 rushing yards to the Browns on Sunday. To what do you attribute the Steelers’ trouble with stopping the run? 

Brown: The Steelers simply have not found a replacement for five-time Pro Bowler Casey Hampton at nose tackle. I’m baffled why the Steelers did not try to re-sign “Big Snack” after the 2012 season when he played pretty well and probably would have returned at a reasonable price. Steve McLendon has not been the answer so far, and to be fair to him, that is not an easy position to play in a 3-4 defense. But a run-stuffer who can occupy multiple blockers is a must for the Steelers’ defense. If they don’t have that in McLendon, who won’t play against the Texans, they have to figure out some combination along the defensive line that will allow them to play better against the run. 

Foster rushed for 155 yards and a touchdown against the Steelers in 2011 and Pittsburgh is really struggling with zone-blocking teams. How much of Foster's success can be attributed to the Texans’ offensive line and is Houston still primarily a zone-blocking team? 

Ganguli: The Texans’ offensive line has had a mixture of good games and not-so-good games. There have been times when it's really helped the running game, but Foster’s vision and one-cut ability is unusual. He’s able to see holes that some of his teammates are still working on understanding. It’s why Foster is third in the league in rushing with 513 yards, behind Cowboys running back DeMarco Murray and Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell, despite the fact that he missed one game and had only 8 rushing yards against the Bills in Week 4. 

Is Bill Cowher right? Are the Steelers soft on defense? 

Brown: I respect Cowher and certainly he has forgotten more football than I will ever know. But I reject the notion that the Steelers are soft on defense. I think it is disrespectful to a number of people to say that, most notably defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau. These players play their guts out for several reasons and not wanting to let down LeBeau is chief among them. Instead of the label of soft, I would say that the Steelers are simply not that talented on defense, especially given the injuries that have stretched them thin at a number of positions, particularly outside linebacker. The Steelers' outside linebackers have combined for five sacks and 12 quarterback pressures in six games. That won’t cut it in a 3-4 defense. 

I’m guessing Ryan Fitzpatrick isn’t the long-term answer at quarterback in Houston. What does he do well and where has he struggled? 

Ganguli: Fitzpatrick does a good job of using his legs to get himself out of trouble, rather than the statuesque play Texans fans have seen in the past. When he’s not asked to do too much, he’s been able to protect the ball well, and he’s gotten better during the course of games. Fitzpatrick has been solid in play-action, as most quarterbacks with such a potent rushing attack at their disposal are, but the Texans haven’t been able to do much of that this season. The Texans’ offense has really struggled to move the ball early in games, and it's constantly talked about the need to develop an early rhythm. 

Ben Roethlisberger has been sacked 17 times, which is the second most in the NFL. Is the Steelers’ pass protection to blame? How do you see that playing out on Monday night? 

Brown: Unless Watt misses the bus to Heinz Field, the Steelers are going to have a real issue trying to keep him away from Roethlisberger. Keeping Big Ben upright becomes even more problematic if Jadeveon Clowney, the first overall pick of the 2014 NFL draft, plays after missing the last five games while recovering from knee surgery. I could see the Steelers using their no-huddle offense a good bit this game. Roethlisberger generally gets rid of the ball quicker when the Steelers are in the no-huddle and playing in front of a home crowd should allow them use that mode of attack early and often. 

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