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NFL Preview - Pittsburgh (2-1) at Houston (2-1)
By Michael Rushton, Contributing NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - After nearly posting the first 3-0 start in club history, the Houston Texans must rebound this week against a Pittsburgh Steelers team that is still in the process of putting an embarrassing season-opening loss behind them.
The Steelers will likely have to contend with Arian Foster this Sunday at Reliant Stadium, and Texans head coach Gary Kubiak thinks the former rushing champ has finally put behind a nagging hamstring injury that has held him out of two of Houston's three games this year.
"He's fine. Like I said, he should be okay heading into the rest of the season now hopefully," Kubiak said mid-week. "We'll keep our fingers crossed. He's chomping at the bit and ready to go."
Houston won its season opener without Foster, then overcame his early exit to down Miami in Week 2. The 25-year-old then sat out last Sunday's back-and-forth meeting with the New Orleans Saints, one that ended in a 40-33 defeat for the Texans.
The two clubs traded the lead five times, but the Texans suffered from multiple missed opportunities after settling for four Neil Rackers field goals from within 40 yards. Houston lost despite posting nearly 500 yards of offense and punting only twice.
"We had more than enough chances in the red zone [last week], and when you do that you've got to come away with sevens and not threes," said quarterback Matt Schaub, who threw for 373 yards with three touchdown passes. "We just settled for too many field goals [last week] and we've got to figure out a way to come away with touchdowns."
Houston can still put together its first three-game winning streak at home since Dec. 13, 2009-Sept. 12, 2010, and will try to do so against the Steelers, who are just happy to be 2-1 after escaping with a 23-20 win at Indianapolis last weekend.
The Colts hung tight despite playing without quarterbacks Peyton Manning and Kerry Collins in the game's late stages, and Pittsburgh triggerman Ben Roethlisberger shook off three turnovers to pass for 364 yards. That included an 81-yard scoring strike to wide receiver Mike Wallace.
The Steelers broke a 13-13 tie when James Harrison forced a fourth-quarter fumble that Troy Polamalu scooped up and took 16 yards for a score. Indy countered to pull back even later on, but Shaun Suisham was good on a 38-yard field goal with four seconds left to put Pittsburgh ahead.
"I don't care how it looks, we just want to get out of stadiums with wins, particularly road stadiums and AFC ones," Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin said. "We made the necessary plays on offense and defense and special teams."
Pittsburgh picked up a second straight win following a 35-7 defeat to Baltimore in Week 1, but has a turnover ratio of minus-9 on the season. Tomlin knows his team must protect the ball better this weekend.
"This is why they concern me: we are not doing a good enough job of protecting the ball, and we are not doing a good enough job of getting it," Pittsburgh's head coach said. "Those two things together make you extremely uncomfortable."
Not helping matters for Tomlin is an offensive line that could be without tackle Jonathan Scott (ankle) and guard Doug Legursky (shoulder) this weekend, while tackle Marcus Gilbert could play despite a shoulder ailment.
The Texans and Steelers have faced one another three times previously in regular-season play, with Pittsburgh winning the two most recent matchups following a 24-6 home loss to Houston in 2002. The Steelers exacted revenge via a 27-7 rout in 2005 in their only all-time visit to Reliant Stadium, and also defeated the Texans by a 38-17 count at Heinz Field in the 2008 season opener.
Pittsburgh's 2008 win over Houston marked the first head-to-head meeting between Tomlin and Kubiak, as well as each's only prior encounter with his counterpart's respective team.
WHEN THE STEELERS HAVE THE BALL
Despite Roethlisberger (942 passing yards, 3 TD, 4 INT) having accounted for eight turnovers through the first three weeks, the Steelers' passing attack still ranks eighth overall in the league at 294.7 yards per game. That is because Wallace (21 receptions, 2 TD) continues to come into his own as one of the most dangerous wideouts in the game. He posted a career-high 144 yards a week ago, his sixth straight 100-yard receiving game, and needs one more outing of surpassing the century mark to tie former Houston Oiler Charley Hannigan (1961) and ex-Dallas Cowboy Michael Irvin (1995) for the longest streak in NFL history. Roethlisberger did throw for a career-high 171 yards in the first quarter of last week's matchup and engineered his 24th career game-winning drive. He is three touchdown passes shy of becoming only the second quarterback in Steelers history to reach 150 in a career (Terry Bradshaw, 212). If Wallace isn't open, Roethlisberger will look towards tight end Heath Miller (9 receptions), who made a season-best five grabs versus the Colts for 71 yards. Wide receiver Antonio Brown (10 receptions) was also one of nine Pittsburgh receivers to make a catch, ending with four for 75 yards. Of course, Pittsburgh's high passing totals have come at the expense of the run game, with Rashard Mendenhall (148 rushing yards, 1 TD) totaling just 37 yards on 18 carries versus the Colts.
The Texans only allowed 20 points in winning their first two games before the Saints doubled up that number in last weekend's meeting. Houston struggled against New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees, who passed for 370 yards and three touchdowns. The Texans' did pick off Brees twice, but saw the Saints add another two scores on the ground, including rookie Mark Ingram's 13-yard scamper with 2:42 to play. Houston is still tied for ninth overall in points allowed per game and is 14th in total defense at 332.0 yards per game. Cornerback Johnathan Joseph (12 tackles, 2 INT) was brought in to help improve the secondary and has done just that, having picked off passes in two straight games. He last logged three straight interceptions from Sept. 27-Oct. 11, 2009. Defensive end Antonio Smith (7 tackles, 3 sacks) has notched a sack in all three games this year, while rookie end J.J. Watt (13 tackles, 1 sack) also had a sack versus New Orleans. Cornerback Kareem Jackson (13 tackles) matched safety Glover Quin (16 tackles) with eight tackles last week, but is questionable for Sunday with a knee injury. Linebacker DeMeco Ryans (13 tackles) piled onto his tackle total with six stops against the Saints and safety Danieal Manning (12 tackles, 1 INT) also had a pick last week.
WHEN THE TEXANS HAVE THE BALL
Fate seemed to be on Houston's side when Schaub's late fourth-quarter pass was deflected right into the hands of Kevin Walter (4 receptions, 1 TD) that the wide receiver turned into a 20-yard score, but the Texans couldn't hold the short-lived lead. Schaub (823 passing yards, 6 TD, 3 INT) still put together a great game and can match his own club record of 12 straight outings with a touchdown pass in this one. Wide receiver Andre Johnson (21 receptions, 2 TD) can also reach a milestone after making seven catches for 128 yards last weekend. He is six catches shy of 700 and will play in his 119th game this Sunday. If Johnson reaches the mark versus the Steelers, he would be the second-fastest ever to do so, behind only former Colt Marvin Harrison (114 games). Tight end Owen Daniels (9 receptions, 2 TD) added five catches for 76 yards and a score last week, while fullback James Casey was an unexpected source of offense for the ninth-ranked unit after making five catches for 126 yards. The bulk of that total came on a 62-yard catch. Even with Foster returning, Ben Tate (301 rushing yards, 5 receptions, 1 TD) has likely earned a role in the Houston offense. He totaled 82 yards on 19 carries versus the Saints.
While Tomlin wants to see his club force more turnovers, he got a big one from Polamalu (17 tackles, 1 sack) last week. It was the fourth defensive touchdown of the safety's career, and he needs one more to tie for the second-most in club history. His fumble recovery came off a big sack from Harrison (20 tackles, 2 sacks), who also led the team with seven tackles. Safety Ryan Clark (16 tackles) added six and cornerback William Gay (9 tackles) had five tackles in his second straight start for the inactive Bryant McFadden, who could return this week. Defensive end Brett Keisel (5 tackles), though, is questionable after suffering a knee injury in Week 2 that held him out of Sunday's win. Pittsburgh didn't allow a touchdown to the Colts until the fourth quarter, ending its string of eight straight period without allowing the other team to reach the end zone. The Steelers rank first overall against the pass (164.0 ypg) despite having yet to grab an interception and are the second-ranked defense overall at 263.3 yards allowed per game.
KEYS TO THE GAME
Pittsburgh's offense has struggled holding onto the ball, and Houston could give it fits early. The Texans have forced six turnovers and allowed only 13 points in the first half, with 10 of those coming last week versus the Saints.
Who makes the big play? Both Wallace and Johnson are capable of breaking off a long game-changer at any moment, and both Roethlisberger and Schaub will battle to draw first blood in that department.
Ground control to Major Tom: The Texans have been running just fine without Foster and could really eat up the clock if the standout back isn't limited and can find space to run. However, the Steelers like to lay out the big hits on defense, and Foster will have a target on his back.
The Texans began last season 3-1 before dropping nine of their final 12 games. A loss here could start a similar slide, especially with upcoming games against the Raiders, Ravens and Titans, all of whom are 2-1 and share at least a tie of first place in their division. Pittsburgh, meanwhile, looked to have hit its stride with a Week 2 shutout of Seattle, but didn't impress with a slim victory over an Indianapolis club that was without Manning. Houston's secondary was its Achilles' heel last year, but Joseph could make a difference if he can slow down Wallace.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Texans 27, Steelers 21
09/29 16:26:39 ET