Week 3 Preview: Texans @ Steelers

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The Texans look to avoid falling into the same 0-3 hole they fell into in 2018 on Sunday in Pittsburgh. Just in case you’re looking at how that turned out for the 2018 Texans and feeling like that could turn out alright, let me jog your memory real quick: The 2018 Texans played the third-easiest schedule in the NFL. After saving the season in Indianapolis against the Colts, the Texans did not play another top-10 DVOA offense until Week 14, where they lost to the Colts. The list of quarterbacks remaining on the Houston schedule this year is a lot more concerning, and this is probably the toughest the AFC South has looked top-to-bottom since the early-Kubiak era Texans finished 8-8 behind the Manning Colts, the Garrard Jags, and the Vince Young Titans in 2007. There have been good teams since then, but rarely have all the teams in the division looked like game opponents all at once. That could be happening here. (Yes, I know the Jaguars lost to the Dolphins. Can’t ignore those first two games.)

Pittsburgh is coming into this game 2-0 and riding high. They’re third in total DVOA, and Ben Roethlisberger’s return has, so far, worked out without a hitch. There are cryptic shots of him wearing heating packs on his elbow on the sideline, but he’s played all the snaps so far. The only real struggle the Steelers have faced so far has been on the offensive line, where David DeCastro has missed the first two games and right tackle Zach Banner was lot to a season-ending injury in Week 1. DeCastro may or may not return for this game, though, and Banner isn’t a long-entrenched starter.

The brief history of Steelers-Texans football is full of asskickings in favor of the Steelers, but let’s not forget for a moment that Aaron Glenn made Pittsburgh suffer in 2002 and single-handedly won them a game. Houston also beat Pittsburgh in 2011, pre-Matt Schaub injury.

Surprisingly, the Steelers opened at minus-6 but that has been bet down into True Vegas Zone territory as the Steelers are favored by 4 at most places. When you consider that homefield advantage generally is worth three points, they are saying that the Texans should be considered about a point worse than the Steelers. Purely on play so far, I think that’s a stretch. However, I’m finding myself having to stop from getting sucked into a negative vortex with the Texans so far — they did just play the Chiefs and Ravens in back-to-back weeks.

Let’s dig in

When the Texans have the ball

All statistics courtesy Football Outsiders

Pretty much nothing changed last week outside of Will Fuller’s sudden disappearance from the offense under weird hamstring circumstances. Fuller isn’t on the injury report. Most of Fuller’s targets last week were redistributed to Brandin Cooks and Randall Cobb, as the offense continued to be predominantly focused on the middle of the field:

What did not change last week was the offensive strategy, which again appeared to have no answers for blitzers. Deshaun Watson was blitzed 18 times, pressured 10 times, and held to just 4.5 yards per completion. We’ve been through two weeks of hellaciously bad offense. On first downs, the Texans have a -45.5% DVOA, which ranks 30th in the NFL. So before we even get into things like “they can tee off on Watson on third down!” the offense is just not functioning the way it should be.

Well, horrible news about that: Pittsburgh is the NFL defense that sends more blitzers than any other team in the league. They blitz on 61.7% of opponent’s dropbacks, they are second in the league in sacks, and they blitz with impunity via slot corner Mike Hilton, which is an area that gave the Texans a ton of trouble in 2018. As much as Baltimore and Kansas City are solid units in their own right, the Steelers have as much individual secondary and rush talent as anybody in the NFL. Cameron Heyward, T.J. Watt, Minkah Fitzpatrick, Joe Haden, Steven Nelson, Stephon Tuitt, Devin Bush — this defense nearly single-handedly propped a Mason Rudolph disaster into the playoffs last year. Now they’re coming after a quarterback, offensive line, and offensive rhythm that has basically been destroyed via the blitz.

The Steelers thus far have pass-defense funneled to being a team you throw on over the short middle. Through Week 2, they allowed 29 attempts to that area, one behind league leader Chicago, and those attempts had a -17.7% DVOA.

There are two hopes for the Texans offense in this game in my estimation. One of them — the funny one — is that they can run the ball. The Steelers have immovable objects in their 3-4 defense in Tuitt and Heyward next to nose tackle Tyson Alualu. Alualu was the replacement for big Eagles signing Javon Hargrave. It hasn’t seemed to make a lot of difference: The Steelers are No. 1 in rush defense DVOA through two weeks. Alualu is PFF’s No. 1 graded nose tackle(!!) through two weeks. Some of that, to be fair, was generated because the Giants were playing such a dinosaur brand of offense that they gave away a lot of the game in advance. But if the Texans had a problem moving the ball on the Ravens interior, I’m guessing this won’t be a much different adventure unless Alualu gets destroyed.

The other potential plan of attack is to have Watson in empty with two tight ends and try to exploit how the Steelers would have their base defense out on the field. This is something that historically has been exploited by many offenses, perhaps most memorably by Keenan Allen.

A vast majority of Keenan Allen’s catches in that game were on linebackers, and while the Steelers did eventually adjust (and did much better in 2019), I think there are some holes to exploit with emptying out the formation. It helps Watson read things faster, and the Texans are less loathe to mess up a blocking assignment when it involves just five players. Unfortunately, nothing we’ve seen from Tim Kelly’s first two games indicates that he has any more than the occasional O’Brien change-up in him.

The Texans don’t really figure to have big advantages in any individual WR/corner matchups in this game. All three Steelers corners have a recent history of success. Pittsburgh’s biggest allowed plays so far this year have appeared to be coverage busts, including a big one to Noah Fant last week where DC Keith Butler noted that someone did not blitz. Perhaps the biggest advantage would be Jordan Akins on Bush, who has not yet become a plus-plus man coverage linebacker. Even that feels like it’s stretching. I don’t know how the offense we saw the last two weeks is going to produce more than three scoring drives on paper without turnovers or big special teams plays. Change is necessary and if it doesn’t start now, it might be too late.

When the Steelers have the ball

The biggest thing going in Houston’s favor in this game is that they can put all the fancy advanced concepts of football that Baltimore and Kansas City used the last two weeks away. The Steelers have run two RPOs all season, and historically are not a big play-action team. Pittsburgh prefers to win pre-snap in the passing game, and since Bruce Arians left they’ve used a lot of wideout screens, rub plays, and other short-yardage concepts with the occasional heavy-hitter mixed in.

Where I think this is most beneficial for the Texans is … run defense. A major bugaboo for five of the eight quarters the Texans have played in this year, both Zach Cunningham and Benardrick McKinney have shown themselves to be better when there’s less read-and-react and more gap shooting. If DeCastro plays, I am not sure what kind of run offense we’re going to get from the Steelers. He’s their best offensive lineman, and should help boost the effectiveness of the run game in general. At the same time, the entire team struggled blocking the run in 2019 … but that was also because the line was often stacked as teams dared Mason Rudolph or Duck Hodges to beat them deep. I think there’s some potential for the Texans to keep this unit bottled up. James Conner has not been able to replicate his 2018 success and seems to be a bell cow until injured every game. If the Texans allow this outfit to rush for 150 on them, then personnel changes are probably something that needs to be considered in the front seven.

The Texans have been incredible this season on deep passes, allowing a -48.5% DVOA that ranks fourth in the NFL — against Lamar Jackson and Patrick Mahomes, no less. They’ve allowed a league-low eight targets of 15 yards or deeper, and only two of the throws have become first downs. The rate of success is a little fluky to me, but the fact that so few of them have happened feels like an intentionally cultured approach by new defensive coordinator Anthony Weaver.

However, against short passes over the middle — a bugaboo in 2019 as well — the numbers remain scary. 66.8% DVOA allowed on those passes last year was the worst in the NFL. This year’s number is 60.2%, 27th only because it is early. The Texans seem to have spread around the short passing this year, with a 27.9% DVOA against all short passes. They have 38 short passes allowed to the left or right compared to 11 in the middle.

Now, the question sort of becomes: Is this Weaver deep pass protection lean something he strives for as an operating philosophy, or is it a game plan? Because if it’s a game plan, you would think you’d change it up against a Steelers team that is still getting Roethlisberger’s arm strength back up to full power from the offseason injuries/rust and has a heavy focus on short passing.

I don’t have a reliable in-season source for WR screen numbers, but the Texans allowed a 38.0% DVOA against them in 2019 (average -2.0%) and a 24.0% DVOA against them in 2018 (average 9.6%). This could be the first real test of that coverage out wide as that wasn’t a big part of either Baltimore or Kansas City’s game plan. The Steelers are a 71% 11-personnel base team so, despite all the hoopla about the Watt family gathering, don’t expect to see Derek on the field much outside of the red zone.

Ultimately this is a big swing point in this game to me. I think the Texans are too conservative to get wildly game-scripted without turnovers. I’ve been enjoying parts of the Anthony Weaver defense so far and could see it having a game where, without one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL on the other sideline, everything comes together. I could also see a unit that looked clueless against short passes for most of the last two seasons struggle to deal with them. That I am willing to entertain that the game plan might change in a significant and effective way is a vote of confidence for the defensive coordinator. I do not have that same confidence in other coaches on the team. We’ll see if it was misplaced soon.

Special teams

The Steelers had pretty stellar special teams in 2019 except for their punting, which killed them. So it remains in 2020 with Dustin Colquitt taking over after a ton of time in Kansas City. Diontae Johnson is capable of breaking any tackler’s ankles.

Note that winds in Pittsburgh do tend to have a lot of effect on field goals. I remain not very confident about Kai’imi Fairbairn. Also note that kickoff return rating: Someone should probably let BOB binky DeAndre Carter know that it’s okay to kneel.

The read

For the last two days I have been in a cycle where I look at the Vegas line, look at what the Texans appear to be bad at, and look at what the Steelers appear to be good at. I think minus-4 is ridiculous. However, the number scares me. I would not want anything to do with betting this game.

This is a very bad time to run into a team with this much blitz prowess, and I think this is the exact sort of quarterback that gives the Texans fits by picking on the easy stuff he sees.

I will, as always, note that Deshaun Watson magic makes any game winnable. But I think I have more reasons to believe that the Texans are broken than I do to believe they are fixed right now. The Steelers may not be the Ravens or the Chiefs, but they are to me a clear third-best team in the AFC on paper. I will show some confidence in Weaver’s crew to keep this game tight, but I am envisioning a low-offense game from both sides. I will take Pittsburgh 23, Houston 16.

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