By Daniel Benjamin
The Pittsburgh Steelers managed to bounce back nicely from their heart-breaking Week 15 loss to the New England Patriots by manhandling the struggling Houston Texans on Christmas Day to come away with a 34-6 win.
With the victory, the Steelers (12-3) now have their most wins since 2012 and secured themselves a first round bye and a home game in the divisional round of the AFC playoffs.
Pittsburgh could overtake the Patriots (12-3) for the conference’s top seed, but they will need some help. In order to become the top seed in the conference, the Steelers need a win next week against the Browns and the Patriots must lose to the New York Jets on New Year’s Eve. The Patriots currently have the edge over the Steelers as a result of their victory last week.
The Steelers offense kept humming against the Texans, despite being without star receiver Antonio Brown. They wasted no time getting things going and marched down the field on the opening possession of the game, going 59 yards on eight plays. Ben Roethlisberger completed three short passes—two to Vance McDonald and one to Martavis Bryant. Le’Veon Bell also had a 11-yard run to set up kicker Chris Boswell’s first field goal of the game.
On the very next possession, the Steelers needed just six plays to go 54 yards. Roethlisberger put the Steelers up 10-0 as he connected with veteran wide receiver Justin Hunter, who did a nice job coming back to Roethlisberger, as the quarterback stepped up into the pocket. The Steelers scored on four of their first five possessions and the 20 points tied a season-high.
After going three and out of their first possession of the first half, Bell essentially put the game away with a 10-yard touchdown run late in the third quarter. The Steelers tacked on another touchdown when Roethlisberger hooked up with JuJu Smith-Schuster for an 18-yard touchdown pass after the wide receiver made a wonderful double move—he first sold the out cut and then broke back to the seam.
Roethlisberger did not have to do much, though he did complete 20-of-29 (69%) passes, extending his streak of completing at 60% of his passes to six straight games. Bell accumulated 98 yards from scrimmage on 19 touches with 69 yards coming on the ground. His touchdown was the 35th rushing touchdown of his career, tying him with Kordell Stewart for the third most in franchise history.
Martavis Bryant only had three receptions for 60 yards, but two of those catches were huge. Smtih-Schuster, who overcame a slow start, had a nice game as did McDonald, who tied his season-high with four catches for 52 yards.
The Steelers offensive line was excellent as has been the case most of the season.
Enough can’t be said about how dominant the defense was all game. Yes, they were facing a Texans offense that has really struggled recently, but what the Steelers did was unbelievable.
Pittsburgh held Houston to just 51 net passing yards, including minus-6 net yards through the first three quarters, with quarterbacks T.J. Yates and Taylor Heinicke combining to complete only 8-of-17 passes for 81 yards. The Steelers registered seven sacks, six quarterback hits and four pass defensed. They also forced two turnovers.
Cornerback Mike Hilton had a huge game, registering six tackles, three sacks and a forced fumble. Hilton became the first Steeler to record three sacks since James Harrison in 2011. Cameron Heyward also had a huge day with four tackles and two sacks to give him four multi-sack games for the season.
Special Teams: B
Chris Boswell was excellent as usual, knocking two field goals and four extra points. With the two field goals, Boswell is 35-of-38 for the season, setting the franchise’s single-season record. It also marks his sixth game with double-digit points.
Punter Jordan Berry was solid with a 47.7 average on three kicks, including one that pinned the Texans inside the 20. The Steelers’ kick coverage was above-average.
In yet another big game, the coaching staff had the Steelers ready to play. Defensive coordinator Keith Butler came up with his best defensive game plan of the year. The Steelers did surrender 176 yards on the ground, but the 227 yards were a season-low. The Steelers’ defensive front took advantage of a poor Texans’ offensive line and got pressure throughout the game.
The Steelers limited the Texans to 3-of-12 on third down. Their goal line stand on the Texans’ third possession was outstanding and ended with an interception by cornerback Artie Burns, who had blanketed coverage on intended receiver Will Fuller IV.
The Steelers will close out the regular season against the Browns at home on Dec. 31. Cleveland (0-15) will look to avoid becoming the first team to go winless since the 2008 Detroit Lions, following their 20-3 setback to the Chicago Bears on Saturday. The Browns have lost 16 straight regular season games and 33 of their last 34 overall.