By Daniel Benjamin
The Pittsburgh Steelers will get on a plane for the final time this regular season as they make the trek to Houston to face the struggling Texans on Christmas Day. Kickoff is slated for Monday at 4:30 pm (ET).
Pittsburgh (11-3) suffered its first loss in nine games with a heartbreaking 27-24 setback at the hands of the New England Patriots last week. Not only did the Steelers lose to the Patriots for a fifth consecutive time, but they also lost star receiver Antonio Brown for the remainder of the regular season with a calf injury.
Houston (4-10) has lost four in a row following their 45-7 shellacking at the hands of the Jacksonville Jaguars on Sunday. Since splitting their first six contests, the Texans have just won once in their last seven games.
The Steelers and Texans are meeting for just the sixth time ever. Pittsburgh leads the all-time series 3-2, which includes a 30-23 victory in the last meeting on Oct. 20, 2014.
Texans on Offense
Houston’s offense is a complete mess. The Texans, who average 22.4 points per game for the season, have topped that mark just once in the last seven contests. In fact, the 31 points they tallied against Arizona in Week 11 is the only time they have put up 20 points during this recent stretch. The Texans have been held to single digits twice and totaled just 186 yards of total offense in the loss to Jacksonville (Sun.) as they picked up a paltry nine first downs.
The biggest question for Houston heading into this game is, who will be behind center? Veteran Tom Savage, who was inactive for last week’s game against the Jaguars as a result of a concussion, is not expected to play again this year. That leaves veteran T.J. Yates and 24-year-old Taylor Heinicke as the two quarterbacks on the roster.
Yates was awful versus the Jags, completing just 12 of 31 passes (38.7%) for 128 yards to go along with one touchdown and one interception. The 30-year-old did toss two touchdowns against San Francisco the week before.
Heinicke has yet to play since going undrafted out of Old Dominion in 2015. He has been with the Minnesota Vikings as well as on the practice squad of the Patriots and Texans before being promoted to the active roster to backup Yates this past week.
Texans on Defense
Defense has been an issue for Houston all season long. The Texans have surrendered 29 or more points on six occasions and are allowing 27.0 points a game, which is the most in the league. The Texans are permitting the eighth most yards at 354.7 yards a game, though that number has jumped to 408.0 over the last three games. They are 27th against the pass (247.8 yards) and 10th against the run (106.9).
The Texans defense was torched by the Jaguars for 464 total yards as quarterback Blake Bortles completed 21-of-29 passes for 323 yards and three touchdowns. The secondary, the team’s weakest link, has allowed 262 yards over the last three games and 27 total touchdowns via the air this season—tied for the second most. For the season, opposing quarterbacks have completed 64.1% of their passes and posted a 99.6 rating, the fifth highest, against the Texans.
Linebacker Bernardrick McKinney and defensive end Jadeveon Clowney have been standouts. McKinney leads the team with 83 tackles with seven for tackles for losses. He is also second on the team with three sacks.
Players to Watch: DeAndre Hopkins and Jadeveon Clowney
Hopkins, one of the best receivers in the league, has pulled in 92 catches for 93.8 yards a game and 12 touchdowns. The 25-year-old has gotten a lot of work throughout the season, although he has been particularly busy lately, garnering at least nine targets in each of his last nine games. Hopkins has come up with four or more receptions in every game except one.
Clowney is a top tier edge rusher. The South Carolina product is rated as the 14th best end by Pro Football Focus as he is very versatile. Clowney’s bread and butter is as a pass rusher, but he is also excellent against the run and possesses the ability to drop into pass coverage. He was credited with two run stops, three quarterback hits and one hurry against the Jags. For the season, the 24-year-old has recorded 50 tackles to go along with nine sacks a well as 13 tackles for losses. He has forced two fumbles, recovered three fumbles and defended two passes.
Outlook: Steelers 28, Texans 13
The Steelers will look to get back on the winning track in a must-win game. A victory allows the Steelers to, at the very least, keep their one-game edge for the No. 2 seed in the playoffs. They could clinch a first round bye with a win and a loss by the Jaguars (10-4), who face the suddenly hot San Francisco 49ers.
The Steelers’ biggest issues remain tackling and blown coverages in the secondary. The good news is that the Steelers’ front four should be able to pressure whomever is behind center.
Houston’s offensive line has struggled all year and currently ranks 21st in run blocking and 26th in pass blocking, allowing 45 sacks at an 8.6% rate. The Texans have permitted 21 sacks over the last seven games. They also commit a ton of turnovers, turning the ball over in each of the games during this stretch and 25 total times this year.
The Steelers have the third most sacks this year with 43. Defensive end Cam Heyward leads the way with a career-high 10 sacks, while linebackers Vince Williams and TJ Watt have seven and six, respectively.
On the opposite side of the football, the Steelers have one of the best offensive lines. Their O-Line is ranked first in run blocking and eighth in pass protection.