Friday, September 30, 2011

Steelers Game Day 4 - @ Houston Texans

The Steelers continue their AFC South swing with a game in Texas where it is going to be hot and humid. The Steelers started the swing last week with a road win at Indianapolis and after this game they get home games against the Titans and Jags. How weird is that the Steelers play every team in the AFC South in four straight weeks right at the beginning of the season? No idea if that happens a lot but I can’t imagine.

This game is going to come down to the Texans offense against the Steelers defense. The Texans can put the points and can put the ball in the air but they can also run the football. Houston is truly a complete offensive team and it is going to be a really big test for the Steelers.

You don’t call games like this must win games but it would be really nice to get a win against a good opponent. It is no secret that the Steelers have a soft schedule and I imagine that they will use this as a measuring stick on how they are progressing and moving forward.

Should be an interesting one and almost everyone in America is going to be seeing this



Let’s take a look at the statistics:


Last Week:

Pittsburgh 23, Indianapolis 20
Passing: Roethlisberger - 25/37, 364 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT
Rushing: Mendenhall - 18 carries, 37 yards, 0 TD
Receiving: Wallace - 5 rec, 144 yards, 1 TD

New Orleans 40, Houston 33
Passing: Schaub - 22/39, 373 yards, 3 TD, 1 INT
Rushing: Tate - 19 carries, 82 yards, 0 TD
Receiving: Johnson - 7 rec, 128 yards, 0 TD

All-Time Record vs. Houston: 2-1

Last Five Meetings

Sept. 7, 2008 - Pittsburgh 38, Houston 17
Sept. 18, 2005 - Pittsburgh 27, Houston 7
Dec. 8, 2002 - Houston 24, Pittsburgh 6


Team Stats

Offense (rank in NFL)

Total Offense
Pittsburgh: 380.3 yards/game (13th)
Houston: 400.7 yards/game (9th)

Passing
Pittsburgh: 294.7 yards/game (8th)
Houston: 262.7 yards/game (12th)

Rushing
Pittsburgh: 85.7 yards/game (23rd)
Houston: 138 yards/game (5th)

Points
Pittsburgh: 18 points/game (26th)
Houston: 30 points/game (7th)


Defense

Total Defense
Pittsburgh: 263.3 yards/game (2nd)
Houston: 332.0 yards/game (14th)

Pass
Pittsburgh: 164 yards/game (1st)
Houston: 207 yards/game (10th)

Rush
Pittsburgh: 99.3 yards/game (12th)
Houston: 105.7 yards/game (17th)

Points
Pittsburgh: 18.3 points/game (7th)
Houston: 20 points/game (t-9th)


Hit the jump for a closer look at the Houston Texans




Let’s start the preview

Quarterback



For the past four years Matt Schaub has been at the helm of the Houston Texans and for many of the years he has played some pretty good football. Despite the fact that the defense looked like a piece of swiss cheese the signal caller was able to put the ball in the air and give the offense a chance to win.

The last two years have been the best in Schaub’s career as he threw for over 4,700 yards in 2009 and 4.300 yards last season and throwing 24 or more touchdowns in both years. Shaub, a Pittsburgh native, also has a career yard per attempt average of 7.83 which is very good for the quarterback position and one of the best stats to use when evaluating a quarterbacks ability of getting the ball down the football field.

Last week Shaub got to go against Drew Brees and they had a good ole fashion shootout. I got to watch the first quarter of this game and Shaub was pretty good, especially since they were playing in New Orleans where it can be tough to play. Overall Shaub completed only 22-of-39 passes for 373 yards and three touchdowns and a gaudy 9.56 yards per attempt average.

Football Outsiders have Shaub ranked as the eight best quarterback of the season according to his defensive-adjusted yards above replacement which This gives the value of the quarterbacks’s performance compared to replacement level, adjusted for situation and opponent and then translated into yardage. To give some sort of guidance where Shaub ranks he is right below Tony Romo and Matt Hasselbeck and right above Jason Campbell in the category. Shaub actually ranks fifth in the league in DVOA which the number represents value, per play, over an average quarterback in the same game situations.

Overall Shaub has been very good at throwing the football but hasn’t made it into that top tier of quarterbacks such as Rogers, Brees and Brady so that is a good note for the Steelers out there, but make no mistake that if given the time he can carve a defense up.

Running Back



This is kind of a dicey place to talk about because of the running back situation with the Houston Texans. Arian Foster, one of the top backs in the league, was hurt in the preseason with a hamstring injury and hasn’t been able to suit up to play very often for the Texans. Actually Foster has only had 10 carries for 33 yards and has yet to reach the end zone. Word is that Foster will be making the start for Houston and if he does, and is healthy, it will give the Steelers a stern test.

Last season Foster ran for 1,616 yards and 16 rushing touchdowns on only 237 carries. He is a dynamic running back and if Joseph Addai can rip off almost 100 yards against the Steelers defense then what might a guy of Fosters talent do with the help of a very talented passing attack to keep the defense honest. Oh man.

So far this season Ben Tate has led the team in rushing with 66 carries for 301 yards and a touchdown so it is not if the Texans don’t have a capable back. Tate is in his second season out of Auburn and getting his first real test in the NFL. Football Outsiders have Tate ranked as the eighth best back through three weeks with a defensive-adjusted yards above replacement of 55 but a much lower VOA (11.5%) than many of the other running backs around him in the standings. An interesting number that Football Outsiders give us is a success rate. As you may imagine this determines the success of a running play from a back based on down and distance. Tate’s success rate of 53% is good for 12th in the league and coupled with a DVOA of 11.5% means that he is usually getting the yards he needs but not getting the extra yards that top tier backs get. Granted this is not a full testament of the running back and you have to also take into account the offensive line but it can give us a good starting block at what type of back Tate is.

Receivers



When you look at the receivers that the Texans employ it really begins and ends with Andre Johnson. I mean after watching this last year I don’t think there is any question that he was my favorite player in the entire league at least for one day:



Oh man is that great to see. Finnegan might be the biggest douche in the entire league.

Last year Johnson had a down year with only playing 13 games and 86 catches for 1,216 yards. I know right? He was a back-to-back 1,500 yard receiver in the 2008 and 2009 and caught over 100 passes in each of those season. He is big and a physical receiver and you have to think that Ike Taylor is going to be matched up on Johnson and follow him around the field.

This season Johnson has 21 catches for 316 yards and two touchdowns, but what is pretty interesting is that Johnson has been targeting in 32 of the 92 total targets this season. That is over 33% so every three times that the Texans drop back to pass he is going to throw to Johnson at least one time.

Outside of Johnson this isn’t a whole ton to look at for the Houston Texans. One target that could get a lot of looks is tight end Owen Daniels. Daniels is sort of cut out of the mold of Dallas Clark where he isn’t going to be a run blocker but he is able to split out into the slot and catch some passes. This season he has nine catches in three games for 113 yards and a touchdown, which he scored last week. Lawrence Timmons is athletic enough where he can cover Daniels but if the Texans get the right matchup on Daniels then he could make something happen.

Kevin Walter is sort of the Texans version of Wes Welker except not as good. I am sort of a fan boy of Walter but don’t ask me why. He kind of ranks in the same sense of Joe Addai where I like the way he plays but I have no idea why he might be one of my favorite players on that given team. Walter actually has some potential but never really has put it all together. This year he only has four catches for 49 yards so it is really hard to say if he will be a factor.

Offensive Line



Not really sure what to say about the Houston offensive line. Through three games they have given up six sacks, which is just three less than the Steelers have given up this year. Everyone on the line for the Texans has between four and eight years of experience so there really doesn’t seem to be a weak link in terms of age.

Football Outsiders has the Houston offensive line ranked 12th in the NFL in total offensive line production with a 4.38 adjusted line yards which Adjusted Line Yards formula takes all running back carries and assigns responsibility to the offensive line.

The offensive line is pretty average in terms of stuffed rank where they are 10th in the league and that constitutes the percentage of running plays where a running back is tackled at or behind the line of scrimmage. They sit at 17% in that aspect which isn’t too bad considering the league average is 21%.

Where the Texans have been extremely good at this season is converting first downs on third and short. They ranked third in the league with an 86% power success which Percentage of runs on third or fourth down, two yards or less to go, that achieved a first down or touchdown. Also includes runs on first-and-goal or second-and-goal from the two-yard line or closer. It will be interesting to see if the Texans will be able to push around the Steelers the same way.

Defense



Last season the defense was the reason that the Texans didn’t make a run at the playoffs and finished on the outside looking in. They couldn’t keep the leads that their offense would give them and they gave up massive chunks of yards through the air. This season the Texans brought in a new defensive coordinator in former Dallas Cowboys head coach Wade Phillips and so far it has improved the defense.

The Texans also went out and secured a guy that the Steelers are pretty familiar with in cornerback Johnathan Joseph from Cincinnati which has been a help to improve the Texans pass defense from dead last in the league last year to 14th this season according to Football Outsiders.

When you think about the Houston Texans defense you would be foolish not to think of Mario Williams as, in my opinion, one of the best pass rushers in the league. This season Williams was moved from a three technique (hand on the ground) defensive end to more of a stand up outside linebacker. It doesn’t seem to of bothered him all that much because he has two sacks so far. He will absolutely wreck what the Steelers want to do if he is not taken care of in terms of protection. Williams now has 50 sacks in only 80 games played in his sixth season and he is more than athletic enough to drop into coverage so the Steelers are going to have to know where he is at all times.

The leading tackler this season is Brian Cushing who was suspended four games last year for performance enhancing drugs (read: steroids) but has 22 tackles in three games so far. His rookie season in 2009 he had 87 tackles and five sacks so it isn’t a guy that the Steelers can just not worry about.

Antonio Smith has three sacks for the Texans and leads the team in that department from his defensive end position and has 8.5 sacks in the last two seasons combined after coming over from Pittsburgh-West, I mean Arizona.

If there is one place that the Steelers might be able to get after the Texans it might be in the running game. According to FO the Texans rank 31st in the league against the run. In more concrete numbers the Texans are giving up 4.8 yards per carry to their opponents and are giving up over 105 yards a game. If the Steelers can get any kind of push with the offensive line then maybe Mendenhall, Redman and Moore can pick up big chunks of yards.

Game Thoughts:

-This is going to be a really big test of the Steelers. I don’t think I need to tell anyone this but after the beat down Baltimore gave the Steelers in week one they came back and beat a couple of bad teams in the Seahawks and Colts. After the game against Houston they will play against Tennessee, Jacksonville then Arizona so there really isn’t a ton of good teams on the horizon before they get into back-to-back match ups with New England and Baltimore. This Texans team has been waiting to get “over the hump” and into the playoffs so this is going to be a really nice test to give the Steelers a measuring stick against a good team.

-Not everyone agrees with me but I thought Ben Roethlisberger looked really good against Indianapolis. One thing that a lot of people overlooked is the 81-yard touchdown pass he threw to Mike Wallace. I am not talking about how great the play was or the breakaway speed that Wallace had, but I am talking about Ben hitting the deep ball with accuracy. That has been one of Ben’s weaknesses and that one was a thing of beauty. I talked last week that I thought Ben would get better with his accuracy as the season went on and he did that against the Colts despite being under constant pressure. The Texans secondary is better but it still isn’t a top flight secondary that can’t be passed on.

-The Steelers have to run the football. At some point you have to keep the defense honest and although it worked alright it isn’t always going to be that easy. I know a lot of this falls on the offensive line which is having a really hard time staying healthy but Rashard Mendenhall is a talented running back but there isn’t much he can do when he gets his behind the line of scrimmage and we consider it a win if he gets back to the line of scrimmage. Isaac Redman should be getting a few more carries but as the season has gone on the importance of Mewelde Moore has come through. He has been a great third down back and is very good at picking up the blitz and has really nice hands coming out of the backfield on third down. It sucks that Redman can’t get a ton of carries because he is a pretty good back, but at this rate not much is working for the top back and the third down position has been very important and Moore has done a nice job.

-The Steelers defensive line has to pick it up. We can talk about the linebackers not making a lot of tackles but a lot of this comes back to the defensive line. In most defenses the defensive line gets little credit when things are going good and the praise usually goes to the linebackers. That is because the defensive line’s job is to absorb the offensive lineman and keep them off the linebackers so they can make tackles. The Steelers haven’t been doing this and that is why they have been getting gashed for rushing yards like we haven’t seen in the past. According to Football Outsiders the Steelers defensive line has been in the bottom half of the league in most categories which include power success (67%, 20th), stuffed percentage (18%, 23rd) and adjusted line yards (4.34, 27th). Those numbers have to improve if the Steelers are going to get back to stuffing the run and making teams one dimentional.

-No two ways about it, Ike Taylor is going to have to be huge. Andre Johnson is a big time receiver in many senses, but he is literally a big, physical, receiver. He stands at 6-3 and 226 pounds and might not have a shred of fat on his body. Taylor has gone against big time receivers before and had great success and I would not be shocked one bit if he followEd Johnson all over the field and even sat beside him on the Houston bench. Taylor is also a very physical player and even thought he is a little smaller than Johnson (6-2, 195) he should be able to match his physicality. It will be a great matchup to watch and one that I am really excited to see.

-The Steelers need to find a way to get to the quarterback. If they can it should lead to some more turnovers and giving the Steelers a better starting position for the offense. The defense has only been able to create one turnover in three games and while that one was a huge one I would like to see a few more. The Steelers have to work pretty hard for all their touchdowns and it would be really nice to get the ball on the other side of the field and only have to run three or four plays for a short touchdown drive. To be perfectly honest I don’t think Dick LeBeau has really brought out the dogs this year with a lot of exotic stuff so we will see if he busts it out against a pretty good Houston offense.

-Something that kind of gets lost in the shuffle with the Steelers is how they play in the underdog roll. The first three weeks of the season the Steelers have been the favorite despite not playing some of their best football. This week is different. The Steelers are a four point road dog to the Texans and as I type out this preview everyone over at ESPN has the Texans winning this ball game. I know this doesn’t mean anything and that it is just people’s opinion of what is going to happen, but you know the Steelers players see this and if there is something they love it’s to play the disrespect card. They are very good in this scenario and you know the guys like Hines Ward and James Farrior are chirping in the locker room that they don’t even deserve to be on the same field as Houston. In a weird sort of way I like this. A lot of talk on the Texans and not many people are talking a lot about the Steelers and in the past the Steelers have thrived in this situation.

Prediction time. I know this is a road game and I know we are pretty big underdogs that haven’t truly proven our worth against a top team. What better time than now though, right? I think the offensive line is going to show some pride and give Ben just enough time to find Mike Wallace and company as the Texans secondary still isn’t one of the tops in the league. Steelers 27, Texans 24.



Hit it.

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