2023 Steelers Season Recall: Young Texans team puts Pittsburgh, AFC on notice

Steel City Underground presents our 2023 Steelers Recall: a look back at Pittsburgh Steelers games and storylines from last season.

The 2-1 Pittsburgh Steelers rolled into Houston to face the 1-2 Texans in Week 4 of the NFL regular season. At this time no one was aware that the worst team in football a year earlier would be one of the toughest teams to beat as the 2023 season unfolded.

Steelers fans were expecting an easy victory after Pittsburgh rolled through Las Vegas while also noticing the Texans had struggled in their first two games against the Ravens and Colts. As such, Pittsburgh entered Sunday’s game as three-point favorites, which is insulting with the way the game played out.

The Steelers offense was abysmal, scoring six points in total for the entire game. The first half saw Kenny Pickett start an eight play, 13-yard drive with an interception. On the next four possessions to close the half, the Steelers would operate drives of 3, 3, 5, and 5 plays. They would gain two yards on each of the drives after the 13-yard turnover series, punting four consecutive times.

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Punting was an area of true concern heading into this game it was the Steelers signing and then elevating punter Brad Wing from the practice squad to play in place of the injured Pressley Harvin. Wing, who hadn’t played in an NFL game since December 2017, could’ve been a liability not only in the punting game but the kicking game as well (as a holder).

Wing wasn’t either, as the Steelers would convert both of their field goal attempts (on the first two drives of the second half) while the punter booted three different punts 50-plus yards.

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Those two scoring drives would be the the only action on either side of the ball, as the Steelers defense folded like a chair used to reserve a parking space around Pittsburgh. Houston would score on their first three drives (touchdown and two field goals) while crushing the time of possession in the first half with over 18 minutes having the football.

The Steelers defense gave up 30 total points in the game, as rookie QB C.J. Stroud passed for over 300 yards (306) and two touchdowns, with no interceptions.

Houston had 24 first downs and 451 net yards of offense. This is not what anyone expected Pittsburgh’s defense to play like heading into last weekend, because a Houston team playing almost entirely with backups on their offensive line didn’t give up a single sack to Pittsburgh in this game. Stroud, who was sacked 11 times in his first two games, roamed free all game. This is in spite of September’s Defensive Player of the Month T.J Watt and Week 2’s AFC Defensive Player of the Week Alex Highsmith being on the Steelers’ side.

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The worst series of events occured in the third quarter, where the Steelers had scored on each of their first drives to open the half and were attempting to keep the momentum going after closing the gap to 16-6. With roughly five minutes remaining in the third quarter, the defense had done its job, forcing the Texans into a four-play drive and punting, potentially setting up the final Steelers offensive series before the fourth quarter with a chance to close the game to within a one-possession score.

A fumble would set the Steelers at the 50-yard line for a 3rd-and-18 try, with QB Kenny Pickett finding WR George Pickens on a pass play which fell one yard short of a first down. The Steelers, at the Houston 33-yard line, would call a timeout as the staff discussed what to do next. Seeing as they had a backup punter holding for field goal tries, they came out of the break and… into a shotgun formation.

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With TE Connor Heyward now in for an injured Pat Freiermuth – and Jaylen Warren having lost two yards on a previous 3rd-and-1 play, what ensued was the worst-case scenario. The Steelers turned the ball on downs as Kenny Pickett was sacked – and injured. Pickett was immediately ruled out with a knee injury.

After the game, head coach Mike Tomlin told the media, “Hell yeah we’ve got to make some changes.. that was an ugly product we put out there today. We’re not going to do the same things and hope for a different outcome. What those changes are, we’ll put together a plan in preparation.”

Pickett joined Freiermuth and Dan Moore Jr. in leaving the game, while the Steelers played this matchup at NRG Stadium without P Pressley Harvin, RG James Daniels, WR Diontae Johnson, and DE Cameron Heyward. The latter two were already on Injured Reserve prior to kickoff, but injuries were mounting as the Steelers dropped to a 2-2 record with a 30-6 loss.

Next up would be a mammoth test in Week 5 as the Steelers hosted the 3-1 division-leading Baltimore Ravens. Stay tuned next week as we revisit that game and others throughout the summer in our Recall series.

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