Around the NFL  

 

Steelers defeat Texans, clinch first-round playoff bye

Print

The Pittsburgh Steelers (12-3) clinched a first-round playoff bye, dismantling the Houston Texans (4-11) in a one-sided 34-6 affair to close out Week 16. Here's what we learned on Christmas Day:

1. Facing an injury-depleted Texans defense, Ben Roethlisberger didn't miss All-Pro wideout Antonio Brown, sidelined with a calf strain. Building on his best performance in two years, Martavis Bryant showed vintage 2015 form, hauling in a 36-yard sideline teardrop en route to 68 yards on four touches. Rookie JuJu Smith-Schuster showcased his own game-breaking ability in a two-play sequence, following a 49-yard bomb with an 18-yard touchdown. If Brown does indeed return 100 percent healthy for the postseason -- as NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport's sources expect -- the Steelers' aerial attack might just enter January as the league's most dangerous.

2. Until DeAndre Hopkins' 38-yard catch-and-run to close out the third quarter, Pittsburgh's pass defense dominated to the tune of five sacks, minus-13 net passing yards allowed and a pair of Houston quarterbacks evaluated for concussion. The standout was nickelback Mike Hilton, an offseason diamond mined by the Steelers' scouting department. A roster darkhorse entering training camp, Hilton has spent the season emerging as one of the most effective blitzers in the league from the defensive back position. After denying a pair of touchdowns to Patriots tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Jacob Hollister last week, Hilton registered three sacks in the first 36 minutes of Sunday's game.

3. Hilton wasn't the lone star for Pittsburgh's defense. Pro Bowl snub Cameron Heyward bolstered an already strong All-Pro resume with a pair of sacks, another tackle for loss and a forced fumble. Also stout against the run, Heyward has recorded a career-high 12 sacks this season, an extraordinary number for a defensive end in the Steelers' 3-4 scheme.

4. The story of DeAndre Hopkins' Texans career: overcoming a seemingly endless parade of shoddy quarterbacks to produce at a Pro Bowl level. In addition to the 38-yard scamper, Hopkins pulled off the miracle touchdown catch of the year -- an impressive act of prestidigitation incorporating sleight of hand, balletic footwork, gymnastic balance and a contortionist's ability to twist his body into the confined space at the corner of the end zone. If you're counting the days until Hopkins welcomes injured quarterback Deshaun Watson back to a potentially high-flying passing attack, you're not alone.

5. The question is whether Bill O'Brien will be back to oversee that dynamic duo. Although O'Brien has stated unequivocally that he won't walk away from the Texans, his team's late-season collapse has brought on whispers that a schism with general manager Rick Smith could result in the head coach's dismissal. If O'Brien doesn't survive in Houston, though, he won't lack for suitors. If Bruce Arians surprises Arizona's brass by retiring after the season, Rapoport reported Sunday, the Cardinals will view O'Brien as an insurance policy.

6. Promoted to the active roster last week after a three-year battle with non-Hodgkin T-lymphoblastic lymphoma, Texans offensive lineman David Quessenberry made his NFL debut as an extra blocker in running situations. Needless to say, Quessenberry will cherish the Christmas gift of a hard-earned, lifelong dream finally reaching fruition.

7. Joining his parents in a private suite at NRG Stadium, injured Texans star J.J. Watt was on hand to watch his brother, Steelers rookie linebacker T.J. Watt. Careful to avoid favoritism, Connie Watt sported a custom-made jersey incorporating the logos of the Texans, Steelers and Chargers in support of her sons. The third Watt brother, Derek, has a chance to reach the postseason as a fullback for Los Angeles' AFC outfit.

As for J.J.'s condition in recovering from a tibial plateau fracture, NBC's Heather Cox reported that the three-time Defensive Player of the Year is doing squats and lunges and expects to start jogging soon.

Print

Fan Discussion