By Christina Rivers
The Pittsburgh Steelers achieved what has rarely been done in the NFL on Monday night against the Houston Texans – score 24 points in the final three-plus minutes of the first half. After going down 13-0 early, Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger executed drives where Martavis Bryant and Le’Veon Bell grabbed touchdown catches with an Antonio Brown touchdown throw to Lance Moore stacked in between. With perfection from kicker Shaun Suisham, the Steelers move to 4-3 with a final score of 30-23. In week seven, Pittsburgh looked nearly resurrected by changes made in personnel and better execution of their game plan.
Head coach Mike Tomlin intimated that the Steelers would not be making any major changes to their schemes, offensively or defensively, headed into the game against the Texans. Early in the first quarter, it appeared as if those statements would be backed once again by play highlighted with inconsistencies. Texans quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick was given plenty of time to orchestrate three drives to put points on the scoreboard. The moment that things appeared to change was when Houston running back Arian Foster fumbled deep in Houston territory. If Dick LeBeau didn’t smell blood, perhaps linebackers coach Joey Porter did because despite Lawrence Timmons getting ill on the field, the Steelers defense recovered Foster’s fumble and offensive coordinator Todd Haley pulled deep into the playbook to give the Steelers the plan to take the lead and hold it.
There were some questionable coaching decisions, such as leaving Cortez Allen in the defensive backfield despite being picked apart by Fitzpatrick and Dri Archer running horizontally with the ball instead of down-field, that could be put on the shoulders of the coaching staff. Overall, the Steelers coaching staff adjusted well, found what worked and took advantage, then shut the door on Houston.
If game grades were given based on initial impressions, the Steelers offense would have received and early “F”. They had immediate issues handling J.J. Watt and the pass rush. The offense could not convert necessary third-down situations. The offensive line was struggling to get enough push to open up the rushing game. Then things changed, and so did their game grade.
With momentum in their favor due to great defensive play, Roethlisberger was able to target Bryant for the rookie’s first NFL touchdown. By opening up deep passing and utilizing Bell on the ground and through the air, the Steelers wore Houston’s defense down. The (Antonio) Brown pass to Lance Moore on a gadget play got the fans on their feet and the team swinging in a positive direction. Bell recorded 110 total yards – 91 receiving and 19 rushing – in the first half to become the first player in Steelers history to top 100 yards of total offense in each of the team’s first seven games. Brown caught nine-of-13 balls sent his direction for 90 yards. Although it appeared he was able to get his toe to drag, a touchdown catch was called out-of-bounds, but Brown played a spectacular game, showing speed and intelligence on the field. The game against Houston was Brown’s 23rd consecutive game with a minimum of five catches and 50 receiving yards.
By averaging the good against the bad, the Steelers offense redeemed themselves. Watt was able to get a sack on Roethlisberger and a fumble recovery, but after making adjustments, Roethlisberger was able to move away from the pressure and find holes in the remaining Houston defense and put the ball in the right places.
The Steelers-Texans match-up was expected to be Watt versus the Pittsburgh offense. Watt, highly spoken of as the league MVP for 2014 early in the season, couldn’t do anything about his own teammates on offense turning the game into the train wreck. Defensive end Brett Keisel tipped a Fitzpatrick pass that deflected off of a Steelers teammates’ helmet and fell back into his arms, resulting in an interception and a turnover in Pittsburgh’s favor. Timmons sacked Fitzpatrick, forcing a field goal from Shawn Lechler. Troy Polamalu was the beneficiary of a Mike Mitchell strip of Houston receiver D. Hopkins and returned the fumble 13 yards.
The Steelers defense held Foster to 102 rushing yards, but a mere 29 in the final three quarters, upping their game. The more intense run-stop also led to a more successful pass rush, resulting in two more defensive turnovers that helped give the Steelers the lead and the win. Fitzpatrick was held to one touchdown pass. Pittsburgh was also able to overcome some mental errors to hold the Texans scoreless in the third quarter and not allow another score by Houston until late in the fourth quarter. While it was a huge improvement, there are still areas the Steelers need to address, and it should begin with the personnel responsible for the mistakes.
Punter Brad Wing had the best game of the season against the Texans. With help from an outstanding special teams unit, Wing was able to pin Houston deep. Ross Ventrone was once again a special teams star, nearly covering a muffed return. Kicker Shaun Suisham was solid once again this week, putting the exclamation point on every touchdown with a successful PAT. Suisham added three field goals.
Although there was little to speak of in the return game, the Steelers were successful at keeping Houston from a successful onside kick in the final minutes of the fourth quarter by falling on a bouncing ball. The play allowed Roethlisberger and the offense back on the field to kneel and run out the game clock.
The win over the Houston Texans shouldn’t be just a morale booster, but a guide to how the Steelers ought to play for the rest of the 2014 season. Better protection of Roethlisberger by the offensive line has to be weighed once again this week against Roethlisberger not getting rid of the ball quicker. There were some plays where Fitzpatrick found holes in the defensive backfield and Foster was able to get around the end of the defensive line. Pittsburgh adjusted, but they need to fix those areas heading into next week’s game against the Indianapolis Colts. A win to start a three-game home stand feels good, but it will feel better if the Steelers can keep that tempo of play for the remainder of the season.
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Christina Rivers has covered the Pittsburgh Steelers and National Football League professionally as a reporter and photographer for over a decade. Rivers studied exercise physiology and sports psychology at Brigham Young University as a student-athlete. Christina is a freelance writer covering all things NFL. Her work can be found on