It was 12 years ago that a future Hall of Fame defensive lineman took the field for the Houston Texans as a rookie looking to make his mark. An athletic specimen of a defensive end named J.J. Watt lined up against the Pittsburgh Steelers for the first time as the Texans topped the Steelers at NRG Stadium 17-10.
That's, also, the only time that the Texans beat the Steelers in Houston but Sunday is a new day...and one in which we will all celebrate the greatness of one Justin James Watt.
Unfortunately, it's the "other" Watt that has the Texans' offensive coaching staff searching for answers against, arguably, the best defensive player on the planet - Steelers OLB T.J. Watt. The 2021 NFL Defensive Player of the Year has been on a tear early in the 2023 season. In three games, the younger Watt has already racked up 6.0 sacks, 5.0 TFL, two FF, two fumble recoveries, one TD and two passes defensed. Again, that's in just three games! What doesn't make things any easier is that his OLB counterpart Alex Highsmith is just as dangerous. He's coming off a 2022 season in which he racked up 14.5 sacks and FIVE forced fumbles. Those two single handedly wrecked the Browns a few weeks ago on Monday night and will consistently give healthy OLs nightmares.
Suffice to say, the Texans OL is not a healthy group so it'll have its hands full with those two.
Offensively, the Steelers rely on one of the most physically talented, young WRs in the NFL in George Pickens and a bulldozer at RB in Najee Harris. Steelers QB Kenny Pickett has shown plenty of moxie as a starter and if the game is close in the fourth quarter, he'll be in his natural element as he's directed three fourth quarter comebacks and four game winning fourth quarter/OT drives.
So, yeah, buckle up, it's going to be a bumpy and physical ride. It's also one in which the Texans will need every ounce of this home crowd's juice to get it done on Sunday in front of Watt, who'll be in NRG Stadium for the first time in nearly three years. As such, let's get to Know the Texans' Week 4 Foe - the Pittsburgh Steelers
2023 Schedule (2-1)
Week 1 - L San Francisco 30-7
Week 2 - W Cleveland Browns 26-22
Week 3 - W @ Las Vegas Raiders 23-18
Week 4 - @ Houston Texans
Week 5 - Baltimore Ravens
Week 6 - BYE
Week 7 - @ Los Angeles Rams
Week 8 - Jacksonville Jaguars
Week 9 - Tennessee Titans
Week 10 - Green Bay Packers
Week 11 - @ Cleveland Browns
Week 12 - @ Cincinnati Bengals
Week 13 - Arizona Cardinals
Week 14 - New England Patriots
Week 15 - @ Indianapolis Colts
Week 16 - Cincinnati Bengals
Week 17 - @ Seattle Seahawks
Week 18 - @ Baltimore Ravens
Steelers OFFENSE (in 2023 regular season)
Rushing Yards Per game - 67.0 ypg (30th in the NFL)
Passing Yards Per game - 208.7 ypg (17th)
Total offense per game - 275.7 ypg (27th)
Turnovers lost - 4 (3 INT, 1 Fumble lost)
Expected Steelers starting offense for Week 4
QB - Kenny Pickett
RB - Najee Harris
WR - George Pickens
WR - Calvin Austin III or TE - DARNELL WASHINGTON
WR - ALLEN ROBINSON II
TE - Pat Freiermuth
LT - Dan Moore Jr.
LG - ISAAC SEUMALO
C - Mason Cole
RG - James Daniels
RT - Chukuwuma Okorafor
Other Key Offensive pieces
RB - Jaylen Warren
FB/TE - Connor Heyward
OT - BRODERICK JONES
Italics - Rookie
ALL CAPS - New to team in 2023
Keys to winning v. the Steelers Offense
1. A number one Pick - Steelers WR George Pickens was not the Steelers number one pick in 2022, but that's only because he was injured in his final season at Georgia. Pickens might have been the best second round pick the Steelers have made in years. He's an electric talent who can do it all on a field. He has glue sticks for hands, so he's always open. He's dynamic after the catch. He's physical at the top of his route stems. He can take short and run long just as he can run long and catch deep. He's got insane body control and can take over the game if Steelers QB Kenny Pickett has time to throw throughout the game. The Texans defensive backs will have their hands full and must know where Pickens is on every single play.
2. Najee - It may not look pretty. It may look REAL gritty and grimy. It may look utilitarian. But, BUT when Steelers RB Najee Harris has the ball in his hands, he exacts a punishment on any defense. He's a horrid matchup for defenses that don't tackle well. And, well, this is a Texans defense that tackled BETTER against Jacksonville but it's still a group that couldn't tackle Colts' RB Zack Moss effectively in week two at home. Harris will be a major challenge for this Texans defense for that singular reason. He never, NEVER backs down, runs his guts out and will force the Texans defense to match his physicality.
3. Muddy the Picture - Quarterbacks in the NFL play such a demanding position. The defensive fronts, coverages and disguises they see on a play in, play out basis make playing that position that much difficult. Pittsburgh QB Kenny Pickett is going to start just his 16th game on Sunday against the Texans so it's important to muddy his picture in those three ways - consistently mix up the defensive front, play a mixture of coverages and disguise EVERYTHING. The Texans were able to do that against Trevor Lawrence last week and it worked out well at key times. As such, the more that the Texans can muddy up the picture for Pickett, the better position they'll be to disrupt Pickett's passing pocket and throwing prowess on Sunday.
Steelers DEFENSE (in 2023 regular season)
Rushing Yards Allowed Per game - 151.7 ypg (30th in the NFL)
Passing Yards Allowed Per game - 235.3 ypg (22nd)
Total offense Allowed per game - 387.0 ypg (28th)
Turnovers generated - 8 (4 INT, 4 Fumble recoveries - Steelers are +4 in TO margin)
Expected Steelers starting defense for Week 4
OLB - T.J. Watt
DE - Larry Ogunjobi
DT - Montravius Adams
DE - DeMarvin Leal
OLB - Alex Highsmith
LB - COLE HOLCOMB
LB - ELANDON ROBERTS
CB - PATRICK PETERSON
S - Minkah Fitzpatrick
S - KEANU NEAL or Damontae Kazee
CB - Levi Wallace
*Nickel - CHANDON SULLIVAN
Other Key Defensive pieces
LB - KWON ALEXANDER
LB - Mark Robinson
CB - JOEY PORTER JR
OLB - NICK HERBIG
OLB - MARKUS GOLDEN
DT - KEEANU BENTON
DE - Isaiahh Loudermilk
Nickel - DESMOND KING II
Italics - Rookie
ALL CAPS - New to team in 2023
Keys to winning v. the Steelers Defense
1. You look familiar - Back in 2017, I had this dream scenario in my head as we inched closer to the 2017 NFL Draft. "What if we drafted T.J. Watt to team with J.J. Watt?" Sitting at pick No. 25, I didn't think that it was TOO far outside the realm of possibility. The Texans traded up to draft Deshaun Watson, ending my dream of two Watts in the energy capital of the world. However, Pittsburgh didn't let the younger Watt get away and he's been nothing but brilliant from the first day that he arrived. Seven years into his brilliant career, he's the best defensive player in the league. I don't even know that he has ONE elite asset; he has like a dozen of them. First step. Relentlessness. Bend. Twitch. Hands. He demands double teams. He's clutch. In the 2020 matchup up at Pittsburgh, Watt was quiet for most of the game, but then he sliced inside on one pass rush from the left side for a sack. That play ended any hopes for a comeback against Pittsburgh. Against Cleveland, he snatched up a fumble and scored the first TD in his career. He can wreck the game in a quick minute but he's not alone.
2. He's not the only one - When the Steelers drafted Alex Highsmith, from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, in the third round, I'm sure there were some dog head turns. What is UNC-Charlotte? Those questions weren't completely unfounded as Highsmith was just the second player ever to be drafted from Charlotte. But, as soon as the young Highsmith got on the field in 2020, he started sacking the quarterback. Last year, he racked up 14.5 sacks, 12 TFL and most importantly, FIVE forced fumbles. It was his sack/forced fumble on Browns QB Deshaun Watson that Watt picked up to beat the Browns on Monday Night Football in week two. He's powerful, twitchy and ready to explode off the snap on every single pass attempt. Watt and Highsmith are, not surprisingly, a MAJOR problem for a Texans offensive line, with as many as five OTs banged up at this moment.
3. Minkah the Magician - A few years ago, the Dolphins decided to trade Minkah Fitzpatrick to the Steelers and it couldn't have been a better situation for the Steelers. In Miami, the Dolphins weren't quite sure how to use Fitzpatrick. They tried to jam a round peg into a square hole and Fitzpatrick grew tired of not being used properly. Enter former GM Kevin Colbert, who traded for Fitzpatrick. When the former Alabama star arrived in Pittsburgh, his all-around ability made for a great fit. He's the type of player who is so good against the run that the Texans O must account for him in the run fit. He's also scary good in coverage, floating in the middle or lurking in robber situations. Either way, Texans QB C.J. Stroud must know where #39 is at all times.