Steelers avoid trap-game worries, flatten Texans on Christmas

The score: Pittsburgh 34, Houston 6

The bottom line: With a national audience watching, there would be no Tomlin Trap Game this time as Pittsburgh manhandled the badly outmanned Houston Texans just about exactly in the manner fans envision they should win every game, dominantly. The no-doubt win guarantees the Steelers a first-round playoff bye and sets up an interesting situation next week in terms of whether or not to rest key players in a game that technically could mean something if New England somehow loses to the improved but still longshot New York Jets.

It was over when…: Down to their third-string QB and fifth-string left tackle, the Texans have rarely been out of the teens offensively since Thanksgiving. So when Cam Heyward stripped T.J. Yates and Bud Dupree recovered the fumble at the Texans 28 with 2:55 left in the first half and Pittsburgh already leading, 17-0, the fat lady began warming up. She hit her high note a couple minutes later when Chris Boswell centered a 36-yard FG to make it 20-0 at the break.

Play of the day: Trailing 10-0 and facing 3rd-and-goal from inside the Steelers 1 early in the second quarter, T. J. Yates badly missed an open Will Fuller for what should have been an easy TD and 3-point game that would have had the Steelers thinking “here we go again.” Instead, Houston threw again on fourth down and Artie Burns interception for a touchback (or was it?) took away not only a score but the strategic advantage of going for it on fourth down.

Players of the game:

+ Joe Haden’s return immediately had the Steelers defense FEELING differently and his standout work shadowing DeAndre Hopkins in the first half took away Houston’s only weapon that might have beaten Pittsburgh until it was too late. Also, did you notice Artie Burns immediately disappear with Haden’s return?

+ What a free agent find Mike Hilton has been in the slot in the Steelers secondary. His perfectly times blitzes resulted in three, count ’em, three sacks Monday and he recorded a team-leading six tackles and forced a fumble. Wow.

Playoff picture:

+ Pittsburgh is guaranteed a bye and will not play a playoff game until Jan. 13 at the earliest. They could still be the #1 seed if they beat Cleveland on New Year’s Eve and the Jets upset the Patriots.

+ The #3 and #4 AFC seeds are set in Jacksonville and Kansas City. Four teams are still alive for the #5 and #6 spots. Baltimore (home with Cincinnati) and Tennessee (home with Jacksonville) are win and in. Buffalo and the L.A. Chargers are still alive, as well.

+ The #6 seed will go to Jacksonville and the #5 seed with go to Kansas City. If seeds hold, it would be Jacksonville coming to Pittsburgh for a Division Round game and KC going to New England. But if the Ravens get the #6, watch for them to upset Jacksonville and send KC to Pittsburgh for the Division Round.

+ We don’t know about you, but we’re much more comfortable with a rematch with Jacksonville than either Baltimore or Kansas City.

Hot topics:

+ If you want to pick nits, as soon as the secondary looks solidified with Joe Haden’s return, the run defense appeared porous Monday, allowing the Texans 176 yards and a 6.3 yard per carry average on an afternoon when there was very little threat of them effectively throwing the football. Now, that could have been schematic, as we saw a lot less Javon Hargrave, but it certainly was concerning.

+ On the other hand, the larger roles played by Vance McDonald, Martavis Bryant and Eli Rogers, along with continued excellence from JuJu Smith-Schuster, can’t be anything but a positive.

+ So, how do you treat next week’s game? Go with full lineup until Patriots game is out of hand? Rest #7 and #26 and plan to beat the Browns anyway? Go full rest/preseason game mode and let the chips fall where they might? We believe Ben Roethlisberger will have a large role in determining how next week plays out, but we think the most likely outcome if starters play the first half then re-evaluate.

+ We hope T.J. Watt’s knee injury doesn’t turn out to be any more serious than it appeared at the time because the Steelers are might thin at OLB, you might have heard.

In the booth:

+ Kurt Warner comes off as exactly what he is: A studio host in the booth as a novelty. He spends too much time on personality and back story and not enough on X’s and O’s for our taste. Also, it took him less three minutes in the broadcast to say “Antonio Bryant.”

+ It also seems likely Warner is still harboring some ill will toward Ben Roethlisberger over that big fat L Warner took in Super Bowl XLIII. At one point Monday, Warner said Roethlisberger “has developed into a good quarterback.” LOL. Someone’s still salty.

+ Mike Tirico is so far above Al Michaels and Sean McDonough right now, it’s not funny.

+ Tirico gave us a split slate on those wacky, mythical traveling Steelers fans, alluding to them in the first half, then noting (correctly) toward the end of the game that Pittsburgh built up a fan base around the country in the 70’s that remains to this day.

Game mismanagement:

+ No real issues to discuss. Mike Tomlin and Ben Roethlisberger even correctly let the first-half clock run down to the 2:00 minute warning rather than hurrying when they didn’t need to, which has been their MO, of late.

Zebra hunting:

+ The way the officials stood around and looked at each other on JuJu Smith-Schuster’s first quarter catch/non-catch and Ben Roethlisberger’s second quarter incomplete pass/fumble, you’d think they were definitely not interested in being the league’s next refereeing controversy.

+ On the other hand, that’s the league’s least officious crew at 10 penalties assessed per game, so maybe they always stand around and look at each other instead of blowing whistles. They came in right at that average Monday with 10 penalties assessed for 104 yards, which is just above their own average, but waaaaaayyyyyyyy below the league average.

+ It was not even discussed on the broadcast and we’ll never know if it was looked at in New York but on Artie Burns interception after his right foot came perilously close to the end line and after his read end hit the ground in bounds, the ball clearly moved from his chest to down near his waist while he laying on the white stripe. Now, it was not enough movement to say it was “clear and obvious” the interception should be disallowed, but you know how that goes.

Sweet tweet:

+ @imau2fan: A taunting snow angel, those are the worst kind. (Blogger’s note: That was funny, we don’t care who you are.)

2018 scheduled set:

Home: KC, LAC, ATL, CAR, NE (yay), CLE, CIN, BAL


+ Matt Ryan, Cam Newton, Philip Rivers and Tom Brady all coming to Pittsburgh next year, but depending on when the game falls, you have to wonder if the Alex Smith era might not be over by then.

+ There are two Florida way games on tap and we’ll bet you a beer right now they both occur in the first six weeks of the season because it would make way too much sense for them to occur in November and December.

+ We are thinking probably six and maybe eight prime time games. Ugh.

Next week: The Steelers close out the regular season as the only thing standing between the ol’ Cleve Brownies and NFL infamy.


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