Here are five marbles that have been rattling around in my head since the Steelers improved to 3-0 with their 28-21 win over the Texans Sunday at Heinz Field.
Mike Tomlin must have said something to the defense at halftime
After allowing 21 points and 215 passing yards in the first half, the Steelers shut out Deshaun Watson and the Texans in the second half. The Steelers yielded just 49 passing yards and two of the Texans’ 13 first downs after halftime.
A defense that had faced second-year question marks Daniel Jones and Drew Lock and journeyman Jeff Driskel in the first two weeks of the season was tested by a playoff-caliber quarterback for the first time. It wasn’t pretty in the first half, but the defense must have straightened something out at halftime.
Let’s not forget that Watson lost his best receiver during the offseason when Texans coach-general manager Bill O’Brien made a hold-my-beer trade and sent DeAndre Hopkins to Arizona for David Johnson and a second-round draft pick. So without all of his weapons, Watson doesn’t figure to provide as stern of a test for the Steelers defense as Lamar Jackson in Week 7 or Dak Prescott in Week 9.
How’s that James Conner–Le’Veon Bell debate going?
James Conner scored the go-ahead touchdown Sunday on a 12-yard run with 6:24 left, giving the Steelers a 26-21 lead. Conner ran for 109 yards on 18 carries. He’s seventh in the league with 224 rushing yards.
Le’Veon Bell, meanwhile, hasn’t played for the winless Jets since rushing for 14 yards and catching two passes in Week 1. He’s on injured reserve with a hamstring injury and is eligible to return in Week 5.
Conner still has to prove that he can avoid late-season injuries. He missed three games in 2018, the year Bell held out, and six games last year. He hasn’t had a 100-yard rushing game later than Week 8 in any season.
Right now, however, it looks like the Steelers made the right choice letting the Jets open up the safe for Bell.
Is Diontae Johnson the Steelers’ No. 1 receiver?
James Washington and Chase Claypool deserve credit for catching key passes on the Steelers’ game-clinching drive. Washington caught a seven-yard pass on fourth-and-1 from the Texans’ 35 and Claypool caught a screen pass and turned it into a 24-yard gain on third down with 2:19 left.
Claypool almost went all Xavier Grimble on that play, however, when he fumbled the ball out of bounds near the goal line. Unlike that 24-17 loss at Denver in 2018, the ball didn’t go through the end zone for a touchback.
There also were a couple of passes thrown his way earlier in the game that Claypool should have had. It wasn’t the smoothest game for the rookie. And Washington made Steelers fans cringe when he took a short pass and could only gain one yard on a second-and-2 play earlier in the fourth quarter.
There were a few dropped passes throughout the game, and the apparent lack of a true No. 1 receiver showed at times. Perhaps the Steelers missed Diontae Johnson, who led the team last week with eight catches for 92 yards. He left Sunday’s game with a concussion.
Washington and Claypool answered the call in tight spots Sunday, but the Steelers might need Johnson to take defenders’ attention away from JuJu Smith-Schuster or to be the go-to guy himself in those situations.
Ben Roethlisberger missed on some deep throws
Ben Roethlisberger completed 23 of 36 passes for 237 yards with two touchdowns Sunday. Nothing wrong with that, but his longest completion went for 26 yards, and he missed on all of his deep attempts.
Steelers fans better hope that it’s not a sign of aging. Definitely something to keep an eye on.
The schedule gets tougher, or does it?
The combined record of the Steelers’ first three opponents this season is 0-9. The Giants, Broncos and Texans all are 0-3.
On one hand, the Steelers figure to face a tougher challenge Sunday at 3-0 Tennessee. On the other hand, the Titans’ opponents are a combined 1-8. The Titans’ combined margin of victory is six points, while the Steelers’ victories have come by a combined 22 points.
Both the Steelers and Titans have allowed the same number of points in each of the last two weeks. The Steelers allowed 21 to both the Broncos and Texans and the Titans allowed 30 to the Jaguars and Vikings.
Don’t forget, however, that this is the organization that ended the Tom Brady era in New England by winning at Gillette Stadium in the playoffs last year.
The Steelers have a chance next week to go 4-0 for the first time since 1979, but it won’t be easy.
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