Steelers use defense to clinch postseason bye
HOUSTON — With two hapless opponents standing between them and a push toward a coveted seventh Super Bowl title, the greatest challenge facing the Steelers during this stretch run is mustering the intensity against inferior opposition to perform like a title contender.
With Mike Hilton and Cameron Heyward spearheading a ferocious defensive attack, the Pittsburgh Steelers remained in the running for home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs by breezing to a 34-6 victory over the Houston Texans on Monday at NRG Stadium.
Hilton and Heyward combined for five of the seven sacks of Houston quarterbacks T.J. Yates and Taylor Heinicke as Pittsburgh (12-3) limited Houston (4-11) to 51 net passing yards. The Steelers scored on its first two possessions and completed its road schedule with just one loss.
Pittsburgh clinched a first-round postseason bye and extended its road winning streak to six games. The fast start, especially on defense, offered the clearest glimpse of the Steelers’ focus.
“Against a team like that, that has a good defense but struggles sometimes on the offensive side of the ball, you want to get them in a situation where they have to have points, get that defense tired,” said Heyward, who finished with two sacks, four tackles, two tackles for loss, and two quarterback hits. “Everybody has got to work hand-in-hand in a game like that.”
Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger completed 20 of 29 passes for 226 yards and two touchdowns, including scoring strikes of five yards to Justin Hunter and 18 yards to JuJu Smith-Schuster. Roethlisberger completed multiple passes to four receivers as the Steelers’ aerial attack excelled in its first week without injured Pro Bowl receiver Antonio Brown (left calf).
Houston has lost five consecutive games and eight of nine since its mid-October bye week.
“Yeah, just not a good day,” Texans coach Bill O’Brien said. “Not much to say. Not a good day.”
The Steelers recorded first downs on their initial four snaps, quickly covering 57 yards before bogging down in the red zone. Pittsburgh settled for a 34-yard field goal from Chris Boswell, who later added a 36-yarder and set a franchise mark with his 35th field goal on the season.
Pittsburgh extended to a 10-0 lead when Roethlisberger connected with Hunter to cap a six-play, 54-yard march. The Steelers led 20-0 at the intermission and pushed their advantage to 27-0 on a 10-yard touchdown run by running back Le’Veon Bell with 1:48 left in the third.
“Significant day for us,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. “Our last regular-season road game, finishing 7-1 (on the road), getting our 12th win, securing a ticket to the second round. All very positive things but it’s kind of the culmination of being singularly focused on the next opportunity.
“With all those things being said, we’ll get singularly focused on our opportunity next week, AFC North football, to finish it off versus the Cleveland Browns and then go from there. That’ll be our mentality.”
The Texans averted a shutout loss when DeAndre Hopkins snagged a 3-yard touchdown pass from Yates with 12:30 left to play. Hopkins finished with four catches for 65 yards and a score.
Hopkins’ touchdown reception was of the spectacular variety, with Hopkins tipping the ball from one hand to another before making the grab while falling on top of a defender. It marked the lone highlight from an otherwise dismal Christmas day performance by the reeling Texans.
“My team’s still down by a lot so I need to go make another one,” Hopkins said of the catch.
“I work on my craft a lot. I try to perfect it. I’m a perfectionist. I’m just going out there and making plays whenever my number’s called. So hopefully I can give them more excitement, more catches like that in the future.”
NOTES: Texans QB T.J. Yates cleared concussion protocol after being removed from the game late in the first half. Taylor Heinicke made his NFL debut and played two series before Yates returned early in the third quarter after Heinicke suffered a concussion while being sacked. ... With two sacks, Steelers DE Cameron Heyward increased his season total to 12, the most by a Pittsburgh player since LB LaMarr Woodley recorded 13.5 sacks in 2009. ... Texans P Shane Lechler appeared in his 285th game and passed Sean Landeta for 15th in NFL history. ... Steelers CB Mike Hilton became the third defensive back in franchise history with three sacks in a game, joining Troy Polamalu (at Houston, Sept. 18, 2005) and Carnell Lake (at Arizona, Nov. 30, 1997).