Week 2. Pittsburgh Steelers vs. Denver Broncos. 4th-and-2. Pittsburgh’s defense retreats to their own 15. 1:55 left on the clock. Jeff Driskel steps back to pass and…gets buried by an unblocked Terrell Edmunds.
Game (essentially) over.
Forget what any Steelers fan says through a confident façade: the Black & Gold faithful were holding their breath until the final moments of last week’s home victory, 26-21, over the Denver Broncos.
They seemed to do everything right: the offense came up with big plays and protected Big Ben; the defense was on the hunt with seven total sacks; the Broncos were without Drew Lock for over three quarters. Yet, in true Steelers fashion, they still somehow found a way to play down to their outmatched competition until the very end.
Don’t get me wrong: the narrative that Mike Tomlin’s squads are terrible against sub-0.500 competition is overblown. But, it seems like the Steelers give a large portion of Pennsylvania an anxiety attack way too often when facing sub-par opponents.
Can the Steelers clean up their mistakes and avoid an early-season trap game? My thoughts are below.
1. First Commandment: Thou Shalt Run the Ball
I wrote this in my column last week before the Denver game, and I will be happy to reiterate: establish the run! A sneaky-huge part of the problem for the Steelers in their scare against the Broncos was an absolute abysmal showing in the run game. While the stat sheet says they ran the ball decently well, a closer look tells a starkly different story. James Conner’s 59-yard rumble in the last two minutes aside, the Steelers ran 21 times for an absolutely horrid 2.4 yards per carry. What happened? Rookie inexperience on the right side of the line, mostly. Fortunately for Pittsburgh, they’re getting a fortification. Sturdy veteran David DeCastro returned at right guard this week, sending rookie Kevin Dotson back to the bench.
If the Steelers want to prevent comebacks, they need a more reliable running game to emerge this season. Luckily, the Texans run defense has been porous thus far, barely edging the Detroit Lions for worst in the league. The Baltimore Ravens ran all over the Texans for 153 yards in the fourth quarter alone. A healthy running game takes pressure off your quarterback, controls the clock, and rests your defense. If Pittsburgh wants to prevent any potential late-game heroics from Houston quarterback Deshaun Watson, they’d greatly benefit from a healthy dose of the run game Sunday.
2. Second Commandment: Thou Shalt Play Disciplined Football
I know these tenets seem basic, but the Steelers showed last week they need a gentle reminder. Pittsburgh went into halftime last week looking dominant on defense and completely in control, up 17-3. However, a slow death starting taking hold that should drive fans nuts. First, Big Ben throws a completely unnecessary jump-ball on 3rd-and-16 at midfield that gets intercepted right after halftime. Next, on the following possession, the offense turns the ball over on a fourth-down incompletion that could’ve been a field goal attempt. Then, after giving themselves some breathing room with a touchdown and safety, the Steelers manage to fumble the football (Benny Snell), giving the Broncos a third lost opportunity in the second half. Oh, did I mention there were multiple penalties by the defense that aided and extended Denver’s drives? Six…SIX penalties against the Steelers gave the Broncos a first down.
Consequently, the untimely mistakes put a damper on what was, quite honestly, an otherwise encouraging team outing at Heinz Field on both sides of the ball. If the Steelers want to sweat a little less this Sunday, they have to play more winning football.
3. Thou Shalt Limit the Desperate Kryptonian
What do I mean by this? Historically, teams that start 0-3 are virtually guaranteed to miss the playoffs. The Houston Texans must have really dishonored the football gods to be handed such a brutal three-game slate to start the season that features the reigning Super Bowl champions (Chiefs), the best team of the 2019 regular season (Ravens), and the best defense (my data-backed opinion) of the 2019 season in the Steelers. But, as the great Bill Parcels quote goes, “You are what your record says you are.” The fact remains the Texans are a 2019 playoff team and Super Bowl hopeful that desperately wants to compete with the big boys of the AFC. Well, they just got embarrassed by two of them. Could a third time be the charm for Houston?
Deshaun Watson is the Texans’ version of Superman. Devoid of a sidekick-worthy supporting cast, they’ll need every bit of his heroics against the Steelers. For Pittsburgh to pull out another home victory, it isn’t a question of whether their defense will get pressure on Watson. They will. I’d bet my bottom dollar on it. In reality, the real question becomes whether Pittsburgh can remain disciplined once they create that pressure. Deshaun Watson has a history of extending plays and pulling rabbits out of hats on the run against defensive front-sevens. He’s been doing it practically his whole career. (Seriously, can Houston hire an ACTUAL general manager so Deshaun Watson can have this fleeting experience known as a clean pocket?) The Ravens, despite collecting four sacks, had problems getting Watson down. Once the Steelers get pressure, can they finish the play?
This is a dangerous contest for the Steelers. It has every ingredient, home game aside, of being a classic early-season trap game. However, the Steelers had a much more dominant showing in Week 2 than the scoreboard would suggest, and they simply have too much defensive talent to lay an egg against the underwhelming cast surrounding Deshaun Watson. The Pittsburgh Steelers should clean things up and remain undefeated, even if they again make their win a closer bout than it probably should be.
Score Prediction: Steelers 31, Texans 24
(Featured Image Credit: Steelers.com)