Tale of the Tape: Pittsburgh at Houston

Visiting Houston on Sunday will be one of the NFL’s banner franchises, the Steelers, a team known as much for the black and gold as its prowess for turning opponents black and blue. They will travel south to meet the Texans, a squad in search of a legacy, a program looking to make the playoffs before it can make any real statement.

At 2-1, both teams need to make a statement in this game. The Steelers want to show they are still a contender after starting the season with an embarrassing loss to the Ravens. The Texans, on the other hand, are coming off of a stunning loss to the Saints last week and need to prove that they are a playoff-caliber team.

In this matchup, we of course have to start with the obvious: Houston’s offense against Pittsburgh’s defense.

Houston offense

Overview: The Texans have a very balanced attack, which starts with a very efficient run game. Offensive coordinator Rick Dennison always puts his players in a position to succeed and is a master at assembling a game plan for his opponent. Houston leans a bit run heavy, throwing on 47 percent of its offensive snaps and opting for the ground attack on the other 53 percent.

Run Game: Houston runs a zone scheme, most frequently featuring the zone stretch, a play that suits the disciplined running styles of their backs. Arian Foster, who is expected to play after sitting out with a hamstring injury, does an excellent job of patiently waiting for his athletic front line to move defenders and open up alleys.

Pass Game: Working off their run game, the Texans mix in their pass with a variation of play action and straight drop-backs. They will run routes at all depths — from short to intermediate — and use pre-snap motions and shifts to create favorable matchups or identify coverages before the play starts.  They also embrace the use of two-man route combinations to open up space for a talented bunch of receivers in Andre Johnson, Jacoby Jones, tight ends Owen Daniels, Joel Dreesen and TE/FB James Casey.

Pittsburgh offense

Overview: The Steelers seem to be trying to find their identity since moving from a run-first style to a more pass-first system. Pittsburgh at first tried to use its young speed to get the ball down the field, but because of insufficient pass protection, the Steelers have reverted to shorter routes. Injuries along the offensive line have made pass protection and running the ball more of a struggle. For the season, the Steelers have a 58 to 42 percent run-to-pass ratio.

Run Game: A bad situation up front for the Steelers has only gotten worse as the season has progressed because of injuries along the offensive line. In last week’s game versus the Colts, LT Jonathan Scott, RG Doug Legursky and RT Marcus Gilbert all suffered injuries. Scott and Legursky are listed as questionable for Sunday. Whoever is left to block the Texans’ front will still emanate from a group that has been unable to get consistent push. Rashard Mendenhall gets the bulk of the carries but is spelled by Isaac Redman and Mewelde Moore.

Pass Game: Pittsburgh’s wide receivers have the speed to go vertical, but QB Ben Roethlisberger isn’t getting the time necessary to get the ball downfield. The Steelers realized this as well. Since Week 1, Roethlisberger’s down-the-field passing has been more and more limited.  He threw 78 percent of his passes seven yards or more down the field to start the season; each week that percentage has decreased significantly as their yards per pass attempt has steadily increased due to the adjustment.   The Steelers will have to keep this approach if they want to have success in the air against Houston’s pass rush.

OFFENSIVE WINNER: Houston

Pittsburgh defense

Overview: This group, personified by OLB James Harrison, will definitely punch you in the mouth every Sunday. They are extremely physical and reel offenses into a 60-minute fight each week.

Run defense: They have lost no one in their front seven from last year’s defense that gave up less than 70 yards per game.  The Steelers come at you with a stout interior defensive line, but Harrison and OLB LaMarr Woodley will be the key to this matchup. Setting the edge versus Houston’s zone-stretch run will mean everything and both Woodley and Harrison do it well. James Farrior and Lawrence Timmons are one of the best inside linebacker duos in the league.  Farrior might be losing some of his physical tools, but his mind is taking over with age. Troy Polamalu is still an active maniac around the line of scrimmage and is like a fifth linebacker in Pittsburgh’s defensive scheme.

Pass defense: When it comes to defending the pass, the Steelers truly have it all. They have a fierce pass rush with Woodley and Harrison, a scheme that uses a great amount of variation and deception by matching their coverages with effective pressure, and an all-around threat in Polamalu roaming the field.  You better believe that he will know where Johnson is at all times.

Houston defense

Overview: Defense has been the Texans’ greatest weakness over the last few seasons. Houston made the defense a priority during the offseason, addressing the situation by adding renowned defensive coordinator Wade Phillips. The former Dallas Cowboys head coach has brought his 3-4 scheme to the Texans, standing up Mario Williams at outside linebacker and plugging in first-round pick J.J. Watt at defensive end. It is a much-improved group. They also added Danieal Manning and Johnathan Joseph on the back end, but they still have a habit of giving up big chunks of yardage, which was on display in a 40-33 loss to the Saints last week.

Run defense: The Texans are lighter than the Steelers up front but they still have solid players. Watt is stout but can also rush the passer. At the second level, Houston still has Brian Cushing and DeMeco Ryans plugging holes versus the run. But on the whole, Houston can’t stack up with Pittsburgh’s run defense.  The Steelers could potentially have an efficient day on the ground.

Pass defense: Although Houston’s defense is predicated on its front line, the Texans are in the process of constructing their secondary. They are not a heavy blitzing team, but this defense is built to be considered among the league’s best at rushing the passer, which it is. While their front has become elite, the Texans are still molding the back end of this defense. Proven veterans Joseph and Manning are exceptional additions, but this defense isn’t equipped to lock-down a passer like Pittsburgh’s defense.

DEFENSIVE WINNER: Pittsburgh

And our winner is … (DRUM ROLL)

HOUSTON!

Despite Pittsburgh’s dominant defense, the Texans can score on anybody. We cannot always say the same for the Steelers. Both teams can really get after a passer, an area where Houston looks stronger than in seasons past. As the Texans look to rebound from a crushing loss last week in New Orleans, the Steelers are looking to start fast this season and break their Super Bowl hangover after not making the playoffs the following season after each of their last two Super Bowl appearances.  Though this assessment is on paper and must be played on the field, we predict that Houston will rebound through its high-powered offense and ability to rush the passer.

“Playbook” — the ultimate football Xs and Os show — airs Thursdays and Fridays at 8 p.m. ET on NFL Network. Check the NFL Network broadcast schedule for further details. Follow “Playbook” on Twitter @NFLN_Playbook.

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