Downtrodden. Beleaguered. Mystified. Frustrated. These are all words that could be sued to describe Bill O'Brien at his press conferences this week, and they're all words that could be used to describe any random Texans fan you walk up to on the street and ask "Hey, how ya doin'?" That's the extent of the things which O'Brien and Texan fans have in common.
The road forks drastically from there with most Texan fans ready to move on from the seventh year head coach, and O'Brien steadfast in his belief that the culture shift he and EVP of Football Operations Jack Easterby are imposing on the organization is THE WAY. The Texans are 0-2 to start the season, having been outclassed by the Chiefs and Ravens in Weeks 1 and 2. Now, they travel to Pittsburgh to take on the Steelers, who, like the Chiefs and Ravens, are 2-0 on the season.
Despite the identical record to Kansas City and Baltimore, it's a slight step down in weight class for the Texans, who are only a 3.5 point underdog, when the betting lines open this week. The Texans are backed into a corner, as an 0-3 start might drive what's left of the Texans' loyalists off the ship. They've been 0-3 before, as recently as 2018, and that led to a nine game winning streak. This feels a little different, though. Belief in O'Brien may be at an all time low, which is saying something.
Here are four things to watch for in this Sunday's game at Heinz Field:
4. Big Ben is back
Somewhat miraculously, the Steelers actually went 8-8 last season after losing Roethlisberger in the season opener with a torn elbow that required offseason surgery. Now, in Year 16 of his career, Big Ben is back and has the offense producing at a good enough clip to start out 2-0. Roethlisberger provides a different challenge than Patrick Mahomes and Lamar Jackson, as he is not as athletic as either one, but his ability to improvise remains, and his weapons now are not as star-laden as they were in the Le'Veon Bell/Antonio Brown Era, but there's enough material to give issues to a Texans defense that struggled against Kansas City, and wore down against Baltimore.
3. Watt Family Reunion
This will be the first time since T.J. Watt arrived in the NFL in 2017 that he and J.J. will be active in the same game. The first time the Texans faced the Steelers in T.J.'s career was in 2017 on Christmas Day, but J.J. was on injured reserve with the broken tibial plateau he had suffered earlier that year. Since then, T.J.'s star has risen past J.J.'s on the "who would you rather have?" landscape, but J.J. is still clearly the bigger personality and celebrity (and likely always will be). Then there's fullback Derek, who signed with the Steelers this offseason. If the Texans continue to lose games this season, and 2020 turns into a lost year, watch for the "J.J. wants to get to Pittsburgh for a Watt family reunion" rumor mill to pick up steam.
2. WANTED: Forced turnovers
Defensive coordinator Anthony Weaver sounded the alarm for the defense's need to turn over the opposition last week before the Ravens game. That urgency did not translate over to the players, as the Texans remain one of three teams to have forced no turnovers through two games. Here's O'Brien's take on the situation:
What can you do to start forcing turnovers and how important is it for you to do so?
“It’s important. We have to – we have to continue to work on it in practice. We have to be around the ball more consistently whether it’s tighter coverage when the ball’s thrown or get more guys to the ball in the running game. Look, both offenses we’ve played are very good. Very unique offenses, but that’s no excuse. It just means that every week is going to be different, so we have to look at Pittsburgh now and we have to figure out how to take the ball away and not miss those opportunities when they happen. Also, on offense we have to take care of the ball. We don’t take care of the ball on offense yesterday and that led to points for them.”
The need for forcing turnovers probably isn't AS crucial against the Steelers, but it sure would help. More important is protecting the football on offense. Deshaun Watson has thrown an interception in each of the first two games, and Keke Coutee's fumble that led directly to a defensive touchdown against Baltimore was the turning point in that game. O'Brien's teams are 17-1 when they have a clean turnover sheet.
1. Texans offensive line
Through two games, no quarterback has operated under more pressure in the pocket than Deshaun Watson, including his getting hit 11 times (the most in his career in one game) against Baltimore. It wasn't supposed to be this way. The Texans' offensive line, dotted with first and second round picks and some large (perhaps even bloated) paychecks, was supposed to be a strength of this team, with all five starters from last season returning. Instead, the guards (Zach Fulton and Max Scharping) have been a mess, Tytus Howard has regressed from his rookie year, and Laremy Tunsil has not played up to his lofty salary (highest paid lineman in the game). The Steelers pass rush is FIERCE. It could be another long, painful day for Deshaun Watson.
SPREAD: Texans +3.5
PREDICTION: Steelers 27, Texans 19
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