Monday, October 3, 2011

Week 4: Texans 17, Steelers 10

No takers

By Mike Batista

Let's not kid ourselves. Sunday's seven-point margin of defeat was quite flattering for the Steelers. It doesn't tell the tale of just how badly the Texans outplayed them.

Even in the Steelers' two wins this season, red flags have been raised. They couldn't get the ball in from the 1-yard line against the Seahawks. They made Curtis Painter look like, well, Peyton Manning in the fourth quarter last week.

This team has so many weaknesses that it's hard to know where to begin. So I'll do my best and start with the inability of the Steelers' defense to force turnovers.

The Steelers have just one takeaway in the first four games of the season. The dubious record for fewest takeaways in a season is held by the 1982 Baltimore Colts, who had 11 in going 0-8-1 during a strike-shortened season. The 2006 Redskins are saddled with the record for a 16-game season with 12. They went 5-11 that year.

At the quarter pole, the Steelers are on pace to force four turnovers in 2011.

This year's Steelers are one of just seven teams since at least 1940 to force one turnover or less in the first four games, according to Pro-Football-Reference.com. The others are the 2010 Bills, the 2005 Texans, the 1998 Eagles, the 1998 Redskins, the 1994 Buccaneers (still wearing the creamsicle unis with Bucco Bruce on their helmets) and the 1977 49ers.

Let's take a look at how these charitable foundations fared.
  • 1977 49ers 5-9 (0-4 in first four games)
  • 1994 Buccaneers 6-10 (1-3)
  • 1998 Redskins 6-10 (0-4)
  • 1998 Eagles 3-13 (0-4)
  • 2005 Texans 2-14 (0-4)
  • 2010 Bills 4-12 (0-4)
Sure, the Steelers (2-2) are off to a better start than any of those teams, and they've allowed fewer yards of offense through four games than any of them. But this isn't good company to keep. If you roll around with pigs, flies start swirling around you.

A 6-10 or 5-11 clunker of a season wouldn't surprise me. The Steelers are heading in a scary direction, and the lack of turnovers is symptomatic of deeper troubles for the Steelers defense, which can't seem to stop the run anymore and can't get to the quarterback. The Steelers have just seven sacks this season, tied for 20th in the league, and barely touched Matt Schaub Sunday.

Ben Roethlisberger, meanwhile, was subjected to his customary battering. He was sacked five times. We always take for granted that Roethlisberger will take his lickin' and keep on tickin', but he ended up in a walking boot on his left foot Sunday and was to undergo an MRI. He's been sacked 14 times this season, putting him on pace to be sacked 56 times, which would make the 50 sacks he took in 2009 seem like a Swedish massage.

It's a wonder Roethlisberger hasn't had a season-ending injury playing behind such a turnstile offensive line all these years. We'll see what the MRI shows, but let's hope the Steelers' luck doesn't run out.

At least Roethlisberger's weekly pounding was delayed for a while as the Texans (3-1) consumed 11 minutes in taking a 7-0 lead on the game's opening drive.

Arian Foster picked up 40 yards on that drive and became the first running back not named Ray Rice to gain 100 yards on the Steelers' defense since the Jaguars' Fred Taylor in 2007. Foster's 155 yards were the most against the Steelers since Curtin Martin's 174 in 2003.

Yes, Foster was the NFL's rushing leader last season, but he was supposed to be easing his way back from a hamstring injury. The Steelers used to allow 100-yard rushers with about the same frequency of a total solar eclipse, but they've allowed two in four weeks.

The Texans committed three penalties on that opening drive and were flagged nine times in the game. Two of those infractions wiped out touchdowns. They did all they could to give this game away, but the Steelers haven't been in a taking mood all season.

The Steelers also couldn't take advantage of first-half injuries to running back Ben Tate, who had a 20-yard gain on that opening drive, and Andre Johnson, the Texans' leading receiver.

That tattered defense had a chance to lick its wounds when the Steelers had the ball for the last 2:33 of the first half and the first eight minutes of the second half. The Steelers wrested the momentum from the Texans and got on the board with a 3-yard Rashard Mendenhall touchdown run in the third quarter.

Mendenhall, however, left the game with a hamstring injury after his touchdown. Did anyone really miss him? He had just 25 yards on nine carries. Meanwhile, Isaac Redman gained 40 yards on six carries and fueled the game-tying drive with 32 of those yards. Shaun Suisham's 26-yard field goal to open the fourth quarter knotted the game at 10-10.

It seemed like the Steelers had gone from decrepit old geezers in the first half to cagey and wily veterans finding a way to win in crunch time.

Then, as if the Steelers' dominant third quarter were just some sort of recess from reality, the Texans needed just five plays to cover 85 yards and take a 17-10 lead on Foster's 42-yard touchdown run, the longest TD run against the Steelers since the Broncos' Javon Walker had a 72-yarder in 2006.

The Steelers' defense turned in three-and-outs on the rest of the Texans' second-half possessions, but we have to accept the fact that this aging unit is prone to senior moments every now and then, and their only one of the second half proved costly.

Then again, turnovers have a way of touching up the gray.

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