Matchup a barometer for both Steelers and Texans
They have arguably the best receiver on the planet. They have the NFL’s reigning rushing leader. They have a quarterback who led the league in passing yards two seasons ago.
They have a defensive front seven stocked with high draft picks. They have a revamped secondary after finishing last in the league in pass defense last season.
Just as significant as the Houston Texans’ push toward their first playoff berth is what they don’t have: Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts standing in their way.
The Colts have been Manning-less — and rudderless — in staggering to an 0-3 start, including last week’s loss to the Steelers. The Texans figure to benefit most from the shift in the AFC South’s balance of power.
If today’s 1 p.m. game at Reliant Stadium is considered a barometer for a Steelers team that has wins over two suspect opponents, it also is a measuring stick for a Texans franchise that has acquired seemingly everything during a 10-year run except the art of winning.
That is something the Steelers have all but patented, which makes the six-time Super Bowl champs more than just an early-season opponent for the Texans.
“As an organization, the things that (the Steelers) have accomplished have been tremendous,” Houston coach Gary Kubiak said. “This organization is trying to find its first playoff appearance. They don’t hand that out. They make you go earn it.”
Fans in Houston yet again find themselves backing an NFL team that is having difficulty breaking down — or as former Oilers coach Bum Phillips might prefer, kicking in — doors en route to dispatching their nemesis.
Unlike the Oilers, who never did get past the Steelers in the playoffs, the Texans seemingly would settle for simply reaching the postseason.
If they break through this season — they are the only team that has never qualified for the playoffs — the most logical question may be what took so long.
The Texans appeared poised last season to take down Indianapolis, which has won the AFC South seven times since 2002. But after going 9-7 in 2009 and winning four of their first six games in 2010, the Texans imploded.
They lost eight of their final 10 games, five by seven points or fewer. They finished with a 6-10 record that did not reflect the talent in Houston’s locker room.
“They’ve definitely been a team on the rise, and they’re definitely a playoff-capable team,” Steelers inside linebacker James Farrior said. “They have all the weapons you need to be a contender. They’ve just got to put it all together.”
Building up to it
The Texans have probably been on the rise since 2006, when then-general manager Charlie Casserly resisted the pressure to take running back Reggie Bush or quarterback Vince Young, who is from Houston, with the No. 1 overall pick.
The Texans instead selected N.C. State defensive end Mario Williams. The two-time All-Pro selection is a cornerstone of their defense, while Bush and Young have never matched the hype coming out of college.
Casserly resigned in 2006, and the Texans have done a solid job of drafting under his successor, Rick Smith, and spackling holes through free-agent signings.
Smith has put the Texans in their best position yet by building a defense that includes Williams, defensive end J.J. Watt (first-round pick in 2011) and inside linebackers Brian Cushing (first-rounder in 2009) and DeMeco Ryans (second-rounder in 2006).
In addition, Houston signed defensive end Antonio Smith two seasons ago — he leads them in sacks (three) — and acquired cornerback Johnathan Joseph and free safety Danieal Manning to shore up a secondary that yielded 267.5 passing yards per game and 33 touchdown passes in 2010.
Yet the most significant move the Texans made during the offseason may have been hiring former Dallas Cowboys coach Wade Phillips as defense coordinator.
Phillips — coincidentally Bum Phillips’ son — has 35 years of NFL coaching experience, and he’s been a successful coordinator.
Under Phillips, the Texans have switched from a 4-3 to a 3-4 base defense, and Steelers offensive coordinator Bruce Arians said Houston is playing more physical than in past years.
“He’s letting them play free and not thinking a whole lot about assignments, just whipping the guy in front of them,” Arians said, “and they’re doing a pretty good job of it. I think Wade has brought a very tough attitude.”
Offense can lead the way
The Texans’ additions appeared to close the gap between them and the Colts — and that was before the severity of Manning’s neck injury became public.
“Even when they were coming out of training camp, I thought the Houston Texans had a real good chance to make the playoffs even if Indianapolis had Peyton Manning,” said Casserly, now an analyst for the NFL Network and CBS. “They can move the ball on people. They’ve continually done that, they’re doing it this year. Andre Johnson is, to me, the best receiver in football.”
Johnson entered the season with the highest receiving-yards-per-game average (80.3) in NFL history. The perennial All-Pro has a more than capable quarterback in Matt Schaub, and running back Arian Foster, whom the Texans signed as an undrafted free agent two years ago, is coming off a 1,616-yard season.
Then there is the experienced offensive line, considered one of the Texans’ more underrated aspects, which is particularly adept at run blocking.
“They have a great play-action game,” Steelers strong safety Troy Polamalu said. “What makes it great is whether it’s a pass or a run, the offensive linemen look very similar.”
What has looked too similar to the Texans is records like 6-10 and 7-9.
Perhaps that is why Schaub, who has thrown for more than 4,000 yards each of the last two seasons, said a sense of urgency permeated training camp this year.
“Guys came in ready to go, ready to take that next step,” said Schaub, who was born in Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh and grew up in the Philadelphia area. “I’m definitely encouraged with what we’re building here.”
The Texans started 2-0 and blew out the Colts in the season opener. But their fans may still be skeptical after what happened last Sunday in New Orleans.
Houston couldn’t protect a 26-17 lead — in part because four trips inside New Orleans’ 20-yard line yielded just three field goals.
A 40-33 loss showed that the Texans are still a work in progress.
“It is difficult to get there, but I’ve got confidence in our football team,” Kubiak said. “If you want something to come easy to you, you better get out, and we know that. I think you try to get your organization to a point where you have a chance to win.
“Can you go anywhere, play anybody and have a chance to be successfulâ¢ When you get in that position, then you have to find a way to win close games.”
They meet again
Today’s 1 p.m. game at Reliant Stadium marks the fourth time the Steelers and Houston Texans will have played since 2002. Here is how the series breaks down:
â¢ 2008Steelers W, 38-17.Behind RB Willie Parker, Steelers race to 21-0 lead and cruise in season opener.
â¢ 2005Steelers W, 27-7.Steelers sack David Carr eight times and roll in first road game of season.
â¢ 2002Texans W, 24-6.Steelers outgain Texans, 422-47, but Houston sores a trio of defensive TDs in stunning upset.
Steelers cornerback Ike Taylor vs. Texans wide receiver Andre Johnson
Taylor is in the midst of the best season of his career, holding Lee Evans, Mike Williams and Reggie Wayne to a combined three catches. Through the first two games, the opposition threw Taylor’s way only seven times. That changed last week in Indy, but the results didn’t. Taylor was thrown at 13 times, but allowed only a pair of short completions.
If Johnson isn’t the best receiver in the league, he’s near the top of a short list. He has speed, athleticism and unusual size (6-foot-3, 226 pounds) for a big-play receiver, but has been among the elite since entering the league in 2003. Johnson has five career 1,000-yard seasons; three 100-plus catch years and 38-career 100-yard receiving games. Johnson had seven catches in each of his first three games for 316 yards and two touchdowns.
Advantage: Johnson. Huston quarterback Matt Schaub will throw Johnson’s way. Johnson provides a different kind of matchup for Taylor because of his size and strength. Taylor likes to play press-man coverage, which might be difficult against the physical Johnson. These two went at it three years ago, and Johnson had 10 catches for 110 yards in a Texans’ loss.