HOUSTON — Already in the playoffs after clinching the AFC North, the Pittsburgh Steelers still have plenty to play for in their last two games, starting with today’s matchup with the Houston Texans.
A win over the struggling Texans combined with a loss or tie by the Jacksonville Jaguars would assure the Steelers a first-round bye. They also could clinch the bye with a tie against Houston and a loss by Jacksonville.
Pittsburgh also has a chance to secure home-field advantage throughout the postseason if it wins out and the Patriots lose at least one of their last two games.
The Steelers will have to try to do it without star receiver Antonio Brown, who leads the NFL with 1,533 yards receiving and is out indefinitely after injuring his left calf last week.
“A.B., you can’t replace him with one man,” Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said. “A.B. is not human, so we will have multiple guys trying to fill that spot, but I know that we have guys that are excited, willing to try and fill those shoes.”
Rookie JuJu Smith-Schuster, Eli Rogers, Darrius Heyward-Bey and Justin Hunter are among those who will try to pick up the slack with Brown out. Smith-Schuster has had a solid season and ranks third among NFL rookies with 699 yards receiving. Heyward-Bey, Hunter and Rogers have been used sparingly this year, with Heyward-Bey grabbing just two receptions for 47 yards, Hunter three catches for 17 yards, and Rogers 16 receptions for 142 yards.
Roethlisberger also could rely more heavily on tight end Jesse James, who has 363 yards receiving, highlighted by a 97-yard performance in a win over Baltimore two weeks ago. Pittsburgh’s powerful offense also has Le’Veon Bell, who leads the NFL with 1,222 yards rushing and has 80 receptions for 627 yards.
Houston cornerback Johnathan Joseph expects Pittsburgh’s offense to be a little different without Brown but knows slowing it down will still be a tall task.
“There’s no shortage of weapons,” Joseph said.
Here are some things to know about the first meeting between the Steelers and Texans since 2014.
Ending the skid: The Texans need a win today to avoid their first five-game skid since dropping the last 14 games of their 2-14 season in 2013. Houston has lost seven of its last eight games, including going 1-6 since rookie quarterback Deshaun Watson sustained a season-ending knee injury. The Texans (4-10), who won the AFC South in each of the last two seasons, will finish with a losing record for the first time since 2013 after going 9-7 in each of the first three seasons under coach Bill O’Brien.
No break for Bell: With the Steelers still needing wins, Bell is unlikely to get much rest before the playoffs. He leads the NFL in touches with 387 and is within striking distance of finishing in the top five for most touches in a single season.
The Steelers are dealing with depth issues behind Bell after rookie James Conner was lost for the season with a right knee injury. Pittsburgh signed Stevan Ridley in case of emergency, but fans should expect to see a lot of Bell, the NFL’s highest-paid running back.
“Whatever my team asks me to do, I’m going to go out there and do,” Bell said. “That’s the biggest thing about me. I want to win a Super Bowl.”
Watt’s up: The first NFL meeting of Texans star defensive end J.J. Watt and his youngest brother, Steelers rookie linebacker T.J. Watt, never materialized because a broken left leg in October that ended J.J.’s season.
T.J. has done a pretty decent impersonation of his big brother. His six sacks are tied for third on the team and are the second most by a Steelers rookie. He’s also played 13 of 14 games, and despite the long slog from training camp doesn’t, he doesn’t feel like he’s run into the “rookie wall.”
“There’s no rookie wall at all,” T.J. Watt said. “I think if I hit anything, I feel like I’m refreshed the back half of season. I’m great. I’m hungry.”
Mutual admiration: When Roethlisberger was asked about Houston’s defense this week, his entire answer was dedicated to his admiration for defensive end Jadeveon Clowney.
“When you’ve got Clowney running all over the field, you’re going to have to have eyes and understand where he is all the time because he is a very, very special football player,” Roethlisberger said.
When Clowney was told of Roethlisberger’s comments he called him a “special player,” too. Clowney has a career-high nine sacks but hasn’t had one in the last three games. He hopes to get to Roethlisberger but knows he’ll still have work to do if he does.
“It’s not really (about) chasing him, it’s just getting him down,” Clowney said. “It’s like wrestling with a bear. It’s more of a wrestle than a chase. When you get to him, you have to hold onto him, because he’s one of the biggest quarterbacks in the league.”