On Friday, I published an e-mail my buddy, a diehard Steelers fan, sent me that gave his keys to the then-upcoming Steelers-Texans game. After seeing the reaction to that post and watching the game with my friend at Reliant, I asked him to send me his analysis of the contest. After the jump, my embittered colleague rants about his thoughts on yesterday's game.
1. Unfortunately, most of the key issues I identified prior to the game ended up in favor of the Texans:
• Owen Daniels was the difference-maker in the ballgame. On the Texans' initial 11 minute scoring drive, he came up with a big reception on 3rd and 10. On the go-ahead drive in the 4th quarter, he saved the game for the Texans by coming up with a big catch on 3rd and 6 from the HOU 19. If he doesn’t make that catch, the Texans don’t win the ball game.
In the 3rd quarter, the Steelers ran 22 plays, gaining 139 yards and chewing up 13:22 of clock. In the Texans' sole possession in the 3rd quarter, they went 3 and out and gained 2 yards. Had they gone 3 and out again to start the 4th quarter (after the Steelers had just tied the game) they would have been in big trouble, especially since Isaac Redman was having his way with the putrid Texans' interior rush defense at that point and the Steelers had all the momentum. Not only did OD save the game for the Texans on that pivotal 3rd down, on the very next play he torched the Steelers for 30 yards to move the ball into Pittsburgh territory, putting the defense back on its heels and setting up Arian Foster’s fateful game-winning score. Foster will get the glory, but the reality is that the Texans lose that game if not for OD’s performance on the two plays leading up to the game-winner.
• Conversely, Hines Ward had a huge drop on the ensuing drive on a key 3rd and 9 (the Texans DB put a big hit on him, but Ward dropped the ball prior to getting hit). If he makes that catch and the Steelers pick up the first down, they probably would still have been in decent shape with plenty of time to run the ball and presumably would have continued to do so against a Texans D that had been on the field a lot at that point in the half. After being forced to punt on that drive, the Steelers completely abandoned the run, allowing Texans pass rushers to pin their ears back and literally cripple Ben Roethlisberger.
Hines Ward deserves to be in the Hall of Fame. He has 2 Super Bowl rings, a SB MVP, and almost 1,000 catches, despite spending half of his career with Kordell Stewart and Tampon Tommy Maddox as his QB(s) and playing in a Neanderthal offense under Bill Cowher. He is one of the greatest blocking receivers of all time. But the 2011 Steelers would be better off if Ward were hit by a bus on his way to practice on Tuesday. He is now useless on offense. Quite predictably, the Texans sold out against the run every time Ward was on the field in a 1WR or 2WR set, as they knew there was no threat in the passing game.
• Casey Hampton has had a borderline Hall of Fame career and has been a true Steelers great. He was terrible this game, as he has been most of 2011, choosing to defend his knees rather than get any penetration or even maintain gap integrity. Along with Aaron Smith’s poor performance (save for a couple plays in the second half), this led to massive holes in the interior of the Steelers' D. This was one of the worst, if not worst, performances from a relatively healthy Steelers front 7 in the Tomlin Era (Tennessee in ’08 and Baltimore in Week 1 being other equally poor showings). The Texans’ offensive line controlled the line of scrimmage from start to finish.
• Spinderella (a/k/a Rashard Mendenhall) was tentative and terrible again. The Steelers' ground game received an instant boost when Mendenhall left the game with menstrual cramps and Redman was inserted into the game. Mendenhall has all the physical talent in the world. Unfortunately, his lack of vision (a recurring problem that was made even more painfully obvious in watching Arian Foster on the same field), coupled with newfound tentativeness, has rendered him useless. I hope his days in Pittsburgh are numbered.
• The Steelers' o-line was terrible. Unforgivably, most of the damage was inflicted by Connor Barwin, who was in Ben’s face all day and batted down a key 4th down pass on the Steelers' next-to-last possession near midfield. (Mario had 2 sacks, one of which was 100% on Ben for holding the ball, but he did not seem to be as consistently in Ben’s face as the other Texans’ pass rushers).
2. Some other thoughts on the game:
• When the Steelers foolishly went 1WR or 2WR with Hines Ward in the field, the Texans appeared to match Jason Allen up on Ward one-on-one rather than covering him with a LB like other teams have done. Rhetorical question--Was assigning Allen to Ward an attempt by the Texans' coaching staff to bolster Allen’s confidence by allowing him to cover the only WR in the entire league that he is actually capable of shutting down one-on-one?
• Two of the key passes to Daniels came on plays in which Polamalu either blitzed (the 3rd and 10 play in the first drive) or was otherwise at the line of scrimmage to stop the run (the 30 yard deep pass on the game-winning drive). These receptions came against James Farrior and Larry Foote, both of whom simply can’t cover anyone at this point in their careers. The Steelers' complete lack of any pass rush and inability to stop the run without bringing Polamalu into the box is exacerbating their other problems on D.
• Give Matt Schaub and/or the Texans’ coaching staff credit for going to OD when Farrior and/or Foote were tasked with covering him. I can only wish that the Steelers/Ben would have similarly targeted Allen.
• Texans fans are likely to bemoan the officiating, especially with regard to the blocked FG. They didn’t show replays in Reliant (and I chose to drink myself stupid rather than watch highlights of the game last night), so I can’t comment on whether the block in the back was a good call or not. It is worth noting, however, that the personal foul called on the Steelers earlier on that drive very easily could have prevented the ill-fated FG attempt from happening in the first place (or at the very least reduce the odds of a block by shortening the range). Again, they didn’t show replays, so I can’t say whether it was a good call or not, but first and goal on the 5 with time left to run the ball and the Steelers' O marching right down the field likely leads to 7 there. While it very easily could have been 17-0 Texans at the half but for stupidity and/or questionable officiating, it could have also been 10-7 but for stupidity and/or questionable officiating going the other way.
• Tomlin’s decision to kick the field goal at the start of the 4th quarter on 4th and 1 at the HOU 8 probably won’t draw much attention given the other issues facing the Steelers, but I didn’t like the call at all. A touchdown there and a 14-10 lead could have led to a different ballgame.
• I didn’t like the Texans run-run-pass-punt/play-not-to-lose strategy in the 4th quarter once they took the lead. Admittedly, one of those 3rd downs was a great play call (the screen to Foster) that was just snuffed out by Troy being Troy. But when playing a quality offense—which the Steelers are not at this point—that strategy will come back to bite them more often than not in today’s NFL.
• While Texans fans are likely to bemoan the questionable calls and talk about how it could have been 31-10, at the end of the day the final score was reflective of the play on the field. The Texans dominated the first quarter while the Steelers dominated the third. The 2nd and 4th quarters were up and down for both teams.
Uncharacteristically, the Texans made plays in crunch time and the normally clutch Steelers didn’t. I thought coming into the game that if the Texans won at all, it would be by a blowout. I assigned virtually a zero probability to a win by the Texans if the game were tied in the 4th quarter given the respective track record of each team in such situations.
3. Some historical perspective on the Texans running game/Steelers' lack of run D:
• It’s hard to say how much of the Texans' success in running the ball on Sunday was a result of the Texans being that good or the Steelers playing that bad, but I’d say 45/55 (with the slight majority of the blame going to the Steelers' poor defense). Every team but the hopeless Seahawks has run the ball well on the Steelers this year--even a certain Kerry Collins/Curtis Painter-led team. Then again, I don’t know if there is a defense in the NFL right now that really is playing all that great against the run.
• To the Texans' credit, Arian Foster is the first player to go over 150 against Pittsburgh since Curtis Martin did it in 2003 (the dismal 6-10 year that brought Roethlisberger to Pittsburgh). Also, this was only the third time that the Steelers' D has allowed 180 or more yards rushing since 2000.
• On the other hand, the Steelers' D is just not playing well right now, primarily as a result of problems on the D-line, James Harrison’s health issues, and Woodley and Timmons woefully underachieving after receiving big contract extensions. Just how bad is it?
o They have allowed 9 rushes of 10+ yards this year. Pittsburgh did not allow their 9th rush of 10+ yards until Week 10 last year.
o Pittsburgh has allowed 3 runs of 25+ yards this season. Pittsburgh did not allow ANY runs of 25+ yards over the ENTIRE SEASON last year.
o The Steelers are giving up 4.78 yds./rush this year which, if it holds up, would be the worst mark for a Steelers team since the merger. By comparison, last year they gave up 3.0 yds./att (with the exact same starting defense).
o Coming into this season, the Steelers had allowed one rusher to reach 100 yds in the last 50 games. They have allowed 2 in 4 games this season. Joseph Addai wasn’t far away either, with 86 yards on 17 carries (for a healthy 5.1 YPA) in Week 3, and almost certainly would have gotten there if the Colts had any sort of threat at all in the passing game.
4. Going Forward:
• Texans fans should not get too excited about their defense. This is a Steelers offense that had scored a pathetic 15.7 points per game heading into this one (7 in the Colts game were scored by the D), and that is with the benefit of playing the Seahawks and the Colts. The Steelers' O is their own worst enemy right now, both as a result of horrific offensive line play and poor personnel management (e.g., #34 and #86 seeing so much action and offensive play-calling that is not tailored to the relative strengths and weaknesses on the team). Notwithstanding their horrific offensive line, the Steelers ran the ball relatively well when Spinderalla left the game with menstrual cramps. Had the Steelers managed the game better on 1st and 2nd down, they could have had their way with the Texans secondary. Unfortunately, piss poor play calling resulted in repeated 3rd and longs and rapings of the Steelers' morally upright QB.
• I left the game having no more respect for the Texans than I had coming in. Their offense can be controlled (17 points isn’t exactly overwhelming in today’s NFL). And their defense is both soft up the middle and terrible in coverage. A complete, balanced team like the ’10 Steelers or ’10 Packers, ’09 Vikings, ’09 Saints, etc. would likely humiliate this Texans squad. As of right now, however, there is no such team in the AFC. This may be the weakest AFC field since 2002, as each AFC "power" has major flaws (Pats have no D, Steelers have no O and have uncharacteristic softness on D, Ravens don’t have a legit QB, Jets D and QB have regressed, Chargers are the Chargers, etc.). If the playoffs were to start tomorrow, the Texans would have a legitimate shot at being the AFC representative in the Super Bowl. Sadly for the Texans, championships are not won in Week 4.
• It is a long season. A lot will happen between now and February 2012. The Texans’ weaknesses—horrific interior rush defense, horrible CBs, occasionally boneheaded QB play—largely cannot be remedied until the offseason. Their best hope is that the uneven play that has plagued the AFC through the first quarter of the 2011 season continues, in which case they may have a legitimate shot for a deep postseason run.
• The Steelers, notwithstanding the rapid deterioration of Aaron Smith, Casey Hampton, Hines Ward, and James Farrior and their horrific o-line play to date, are far from dead.
o The offensive line has seen four different starting combinations in 4 weeks, and they are starting a rookie. Continuity and experience are bound to lead to improved o-line play (it certainly can’t get any worse). The three interior OL starters are now the same as last year’s Super Bowl team. Pouncey has had a major sophomore slump this year, but there is no reason to think he can’t bounce back. The one area on the o-line that is not likely to improve going forward is the disaster at LT.
o For the most part, talented youngsters are in place to take over for veterans on the decline (e.g., Ziggy Hood and 2011 first round pick Cameron Heyward for A. Smith, Antonio Brown and Manny Sanders for Hines Ward, etc.) if personal loyalties and the pesky "human factor" can be put to the side.
o Lawrence Timmons and Lamar Woodley [who coming in to this year has 35 sacks in his 3 year as a starter] have each played the worst quarter season of their respective careers. There is nowhere to go but up. James Harrison is still rounding back into form.
o Even if they don’t fix any of their problems, the Steelers could still very well make the playoffs given their pathetically soft schedule (3 games against AFC West, 2 x Bungals, 2 x Browns, Chiefs, Jags).
o Troy Polamalu has started all 16 games in a season exactly 3 times in his 7 years as a starter: 2004 (15-1, lost to NE in AFCCG); 2005 (won SB XL), and 2008 (won SB XLIII). A healthy rather than gimpy Polamalu may have made the difference last year in SB XLV. IF (and it’s a very big if): (a) Polamalu remains fully healthy through the entire regular season and into the post-season; (b) #7 somehow survives the regular season, the Steelers will not be an easy out in the post-season.
• Unlike any other year in recent memory, it is difficult to predict at this point in the season whether the Steelers will be a contender at the end of the season. Most of the problems on the 2011 team would have been remedied on past teams through a combination of veteran leadership and rough practices in pads. Neither fix is available this year.
o The vets who have rallied the troops over the past decade are many of the same vets who should be playing less (e.g., Hines Ward). It will be hard for Ward and other veteran leaders to unite the team if they are being asked to take a backseat behind talented youngsters (as they should be).
o Over the last 20 years, a defensive performance like we saw on Sunday would have led Cowher/Tomlin to promptly announce that the Steelers would be practicing in full pads and doing some live hitting all week long. Resorting to that mid-season quick fix when needed, along with always having one of the more physical training camps in the NFL, has made the Steelers consistently one of the best tackling teams in the league over the past two decades. Unfortunately, in Roger Goodell’s 2011 NFL, there is little that the Steelers coaches can do to punish the defense or that the players themselves can do to improve their basic fundamentals. I have NEVER seen the Steelers string together multiple poor-tackling games like they have through the first 4 weeks of this season. I honestly don’t know whether it will be fixed or not as the season goes along, given that they can’t really fix it in practice with the new limitations on contact. Poor tackling and generally lackluster defense seems to be a problem league-wide this year. Only time will tell whether defenses round into form as they play their way back into football shape after an unusual off-season.
• If I were a Texans fan, I would pray that Baltimore wins the AFC North. The Texans do not want to play the Steelers again in Pittsburgh in January.
As I expected, very little credit directed the Texans' way from my friend. I'll cut him some slack, as it's clear he has a whole lot on his mind after watching his beloved Stillers come up short yesterday. Your thoughts?