"Behind Enemy (Side)Lines" is an ongoing series with the opposing team's beat writer. This week, Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette gives insight on the Texans upcoming opponent, the Pittsburgh Steelers.
The Steelers and Texans are both sitting at 3-3, coming off divisional losses. What's the mood in Pittsburgh?
"People aren't used to 3-3-, they're not used to 8-8 which is what the team's done this last two years. They've been spoiled up here. The fact that they have lost to some of the teams that aren't doing very well-- Tampa Bay is 1-5. The Steelers lost to them at home. They're not used to losing to Cleveland, Cleveland beat them badly on Sunday. People are just upset. The offense has not come around the way people have expected it to and the defense has been terrible."
There has been some criticism from Bill Cowher and Hines Ward, former Steelers, that Pittsburgh has a "finesse offense" and a "soft" defense. Are the alarm bells sounding too early or is there something we don't see in the 3-3 record?
"I think they're in trouble on defense. They knew coming in that it was going to be a transition on defense. They had one of the best defenses in the NFL for a number of years, which is why they went to three Super Bowls and won two. But almost all those guys are gone now and they're doing it with rookies, young guys, people from other teams, and they saw how difficult it was going be that they called back Brett Keisel in august and then James Harrison a couple of weeks ago because they needed their help. That's how dire this situation is on defense. The main thing on offense is they have not been able to score, and that's a pretty big thing. They're up there in yards per game, just once they get in the red zone, they have their trouble. They're trying to work that out but they still think they have a good offense."
The Steelers struggled with scoring last week in Browns territory. Who took the heat, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, head coach Mike Tomlin, offensive coordinator Todd Haley or a combination of everyone?*
"There's a lot of blame to go around and Mike Tomlin called out his number two receiver Markus Wheaton for some of the problems on Sunday. While Antonio Brown came back at wide receiver and is one of the best in the league, they lost Jerricho Cotchery, the slot receiver, and Emmanuel Sanders, their No. 2 receiver, in free agency. That's left a void for them. Cotchery scored ten touchdowns last year and was really good in the red zone. They miss him, and right now Wheaton is not performing up to where Emmanuel Sanders was. He's young, he's in his second year, and there's some communications mistakes going on between the quarterback and him.
How surprised are you by Le'Veon Bell's success in his second year and how is he used in this offense?
"He came on last year in the second half after a foot injury slowed him down in his rookie year. He showed he could catch and he can run and that's what he's doing again. He leads the AFC in rushing and yards per scrimmage. They are using him in a lot of different ways. They'll split him out, like a wide receiver, at times. He has a capable backup in LeGarrette Blount so they like their running game. They came out running against Cleveland and it was working for a quarter. It really was, until they got down there and couldn't get in the end zone. Yeah, they like Bell and they use him all over the place.
What have been the cause(s) of the Steelers issues in the red zone?
They've had a variety of things: breakdowns, some bad blocks, drops in the end zone, play calls. Last week they had first-and-goal at the seven and ran three-straight plays and only got to the two-yard line. In Jacksonville, when they were throwing the ball every time so they don't seem to have a real philosophy once they get inside the 20. It's like they are reaching for all different kinds of ways to get in there and they haven't been able to. The running backs have only three touchdowns total. That's as many as J.J. Watt has. It's a problem for them.
How has Troy Polamalu looked this year?
"He has not been playing up to the level of Troy Polamalu that people in Pittsburgh have come to know. He cannot cover like he used to. The many times you see him, he's trying to make plays at the line of scrimmage, trying to get something. He's just not the same guy."
Rookies and free agents – who has added impact or could be a surprise this year?
"There's really been none. (ILB) Ryan Shazier has been the first rookie to start on defense for them in the season opener, linebacker, he's a first-round pick. Then he came down with a sprained knee in the third game. He might play against Houston. He practiced a little bit last week. We might see if he's ready to go this week but that has retarded his progress.
"Stephon Tuitt might be the best of the bunch right now at defensive end. He's a second-round pick. It's possible he might make his first start in the NFL against Houston Monday.
"(RB) Dri Archer is a little back, 5-8, from Kent State. They try to work him in different ways on the offense, so far unsuccessfully. They had him back returning kicks but he did not do very well against Cleveland, doing that last week. So, they're really trying to find a niche for him and break him loose. He's very fast, the fastest guy at the Combine this year.
"After that, Martavis Bryant, tall wide receiver at 6-4, they had drafted in the fourth round. He has not played yet. He could also play for the first time against Houston. Of all their young guys, they really have not had anyone make any impact, at least the rookies haven't.
"We talked about Le'Veon Bell – he was a rookie last year – he is the best one of the bunch so far."
The (3-3) Houston Texans face the Pittsburgh Steelers Monday night at Heinz Field. Kickoff is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. CT on ESPN and SportsRadio 610.