The Steelers kept their home-field advantage hopes alive on Christmas, easily dispatching an overmatched Texans team to improve to 12-3 on the season. Houston rolled through a pair of underwhelming quarterbacks on its way to a high 2018 draft pick (which will wind up conveyed to another AFC North team, the Cleveland Browns).
The good news for Texans fans is most of them got to spend the holiday with their families. NRG Stadium provided little home-field advantage as a crowd dotted with black and yellow favored the visitors Monday. Those who stayed home made the right choice — Houston offered little resistance against a Pittsburgh team with Super Bowl aspirations this winter.
Here are the positives, negatives, and unexplainables from a boring NFL offering on Christmas Day. Let’s start with the good stuff:
David Quessenberry’s NFL debut was a Texans victory, even in a loss
Quessenberry didn’t start, but he made his NFL debut nearly five years after being drafted by the Texans in the sixth round. What took him so long? He was busy beating cancer.
The left tackle’s first regular season game came after a long battle with Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, which stole his last three seasons. He was declared cancer-free last May before going back to work with Houston during the offseason. While he didn’t make the team’s final roster, he landed on the Texans practice squad and waited for his opportunity to contribute.
That opportunity came in the team’s second drive of the afternoon Monday. Quessenberry battled his way from a life-threatening illness to chase his dream. On Christmas Day, he achieved it. No matter the final score, that’s a win.
The Steelers’ deep wideout corps made Antonio Brown’s absence a footnote
Despite a lacking record, Houston boasts a strong secondary bolstered by above-average players like Johnathan Joseph and Andre Hal. That threatened to derail a Pittsburgh passing offense that was playing its first game of 2017 without All-Pro wideout Antonio Brown, but the Steelers are well prepared for his absence.
Martavis Bryant proved he’s worth the headache, using his combination of size and speed to roast the Texans downfield, like he did with this 35-yard first quarter gain.
Justin Hunter, playing in only his sixth game of the season, was the target for Ben Roethlisberger’s first touchdown pass of the day.
Vance McDonald, the team’s No. 2 tight end, carved up the Texans with four catches for 52 yards in the first half. Le’Veon Bell added five receptions. JuJu Smith-Schuster finished his day with 75 yards and a touchdown.
Ben Roethlisberger threw for 226 yards and a pair of touchdowns before ceding snaps to Landry Jones midway through the fourth quarter. Pittsburgh’s going to be just fine, even without its all-world WR1.
DeAndre Hopkins is great no matter who is throwing to him
Hopkins had a relatively quiet afternoon thanks to a combination of Pittsburgh’s defensive focus and an underwhelming rotation of passers. But when he had even the smallest opportunity to rise up, he took it. Behold, a new contender for 2017’s catch of the year:
Hopkins tips the ball with one hand, grabs it with the other, and STILL manages to get two feet down to give the Texans their only points of the evening. That’s other-worldly coordination -- and it has to make Houston fans excited at the possibility of a full season with a healthy Deshaun Watson and Hopkins.
Roosevelt Nix had never had a carry in his three-year pro career. On Christmas, the Steelers gave him the gift of a 100% touchdown rate.
That’s 260 pounds of rushing power right there. With one carry for one yard and one touchdown, Nix unintentionally paid homage to Jerome Bettis’s later years.
Celebrating with a (fake) snowball massacre
It wasn’t entirely clear what the Steelers were doing when they celebrated Le’Veon Bell’s third quarter touchdown by dropping to the turf like they’d just been hit by a tidal wave.
A second angle showed the full scene — Smith-Schuster was hiding behind the goal post, brutally mowing down his teammates with pretend snowballs.
Here’s the bad from Christmas’s early game:
T.J. Yates, NFL starter
Yates’s offensive impact in the first half: two completions, two turnovers. Counting sacks, he was responsible for -7 yards over the first two quarters. Add in an interception in the end zone, and he was good for at least -3 points in 30 minutes.
He finished the game with seven completions (on 16 attempts), 83 passing yards, one touchdown and one interception. He only found the end zone thanks to Hopkins’ insane catch.
The good news for Houston is this is a temporary problem. The bad news is they’ve still got one more game with Yates behind center before 2017 comes to a merciful end. And the worse news is they’re only one bad sack away from being back in this situation due to ...
Houston’s deficient pass blocking
The Texans gave up seven sacks Monday, keeping Yates and Taylor Heinicke from establishing any kind of presence in the pocket. That’s a major concern for 2018, where Watson will return to the lineup on a surgically-repaired knee. Houston clearly can’t afford to lose him again, but this Christmas performance casts doubt on the team’s ability to protect him.
And here’s what made no sense whatsoever:
Throwing the ball on third-and-goal, and then fourth-and-goal with T.J. Yates as your quarterback
The Texans were about a foot and a half from the Pittsburgh end zone when head coach Bill O’Brien dialed up a pair of passes and took the ball from a running game that had averaged more than 10 yards per carry at that point. Unsurprisingly, the third-string quarterback who spent his October unsigned was unable to step up to the challenge.
His first pass, a fade route to DeAndre Hopkins, was uncatchable. His second was intercepted by Artie Burns in the back of the end zone, not only wasting a scoring opportunity but also peeling back the dire field position with which the Steelers would have been stuck. Instead of taking over in the shadow of their end zone, Pittsburgh got the ball at its own 20 — setting the stage for a touchdown drive that made it 17-0 late in the second quarter.