NFL Preview - Houston (3-3) at Pittsburgh (3-3) (ET)
(SportsNetwork.com) - If you really are what your record says you are, the Pittsburgh Steelers and Houston Texans are average football teams as they get ready to tangle on "Monday Night Football."
But, average is the eye of the beholder.
As the owner of a record six Super Bowl titles, Pittsburgh isn't all that used to long stretches of mediocrity but the Steelers are 19-19 dating back to the beginning of the 2012 season, the very definition of ordinary.
Houston, on the other hand, has already surpassed its entire win total from the 2013 season and is still within an earshot of Indianapolis in the AFC South after coming up just a little short of Andrew Luck and Co. during Week 6.
Luck and T.Y. Hilton lit up the Texans secondary as the Colts held off a frenetic Houston comeback to earn a 33-28 victory.
Indianapolis jumped out to a 24-0 lead before Houston fought back and pulled within 33-28 when the incomparable J.J. Watt returned a botched shotgun snap 45 yards for a touchdown.
The Texans had two possessions inside five minutes remaining and lost fumbles on each, however, allowing the Colts to survive.
Arian Foster piled up 141 yards from scrimmage and ran for two touchdowns for Houston, which has dropped three of its last four since starting the season with consecutive wins.
Ryan Fitzpatrick completed 15-of-23 passes for 212 yards and threw a touchdown pass to Andre Johnson, but both lost critical fumbles down the stretch.
"When you give a team a 24-point lead right out the gate, you're going to have a difficult time," said Watt, who became the only player in the past 50 years to score a touchdown via a fumble return, an interception return and a reception in a single season. "It would have been easy to shut it down ... but we fought and gave it a good run. In the end, we didn't make enough plays."
The Steelers, on the other, hand are coming off a rare loss to Cleveland as the Browns' Ben Tate rushed for 78 yards and two touchdowns to lead Mike Pettine's club past Pittsburgh, 31-10.
Ben Roethlisberger, who entered the game with an 18-1 record as a starter against Cleveland, was held to 228 yards on 21-of-42 passing with a touchdown and interception for a season-worst 64.4 passer rating for the Steelers, who gave up 31 straight points after the first quarter.
Le'Veon Bell rushed for 82 yards on 18 carries, Antonio Brown totaled a game- high 118 yards on seven catches and Lance Moore caught a 26-yard score in the loss.
"Hopefully, we carry the baggage or the stench of that one for some time and use it as positive fuel," Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin said.
The Steelers and Texans have split their four previous meetings with Houston winning the last encounter, 17-10, on Oct. 2, 2011 behind Foster, who rushed for 155 yards, including a 42-yard TD.
The teams haven't met in Pittsburgh since 2008, a 38-17 Steelers win.
Houston has appeared just seven times on "Monday Night Football," compiling a 3-4 mark while Pittsburgh is 40-24 all-time on the national showcase.
"It's a big deal for everybody around the league just because everybody grew up watching Monday night games," Fitzpatrick said. "These are the games that all eyes are on you. It's important to go out and play well because of that."
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
This is the start of three straight home games for Pittsburgh, a team that has won six of its past eight overall on its homefield despite a dreadful 27-24 loss to Tampa Bay in its last contest at Heinz Field.
Getting Roethlisberger headed back in the right direction is key and offensive coordinator Todd Haley is feeling plenty of heat from some interesting critics.
"Man, the Pittsburgh Steelers need a new (expletive) offensive coordinator," famed hip-hop artist Snoop Dogg says in a video posted on Instagram. "This guy sucks. Coach Tomlin, this is Snoop Dogg, man. Fire that (expletive) and get us a real offensive coordinator. We ain't won a playoff game since we had that (expletive)."
Part of Big Ben's success has always been his ability to extend plays and make something out of nothing but it also means things can look bad on occasion and Roethlisberger has been sacked 17 times this season.
Tomlin believes a number of things have to improve.
"Not only game planning, but who we're utilizing," the coach said. "Schematics and the personnel that we're utilizing needs to be evaluated."
They better get it cleaned up quickly, especially with Watt looming, the NFL's best defensive player. The rangy defensive lineman leads the NFL with 20 quarterback hits and is often a one-man wrecking crew, capable of making the game-changing play at any time.
"It's amazing how he routinely disrupts the normal flow of offensive football," Tomlin said.
It's also conceivable Watt will also be getting some help in the potential return of rookie linebacker Jadeveon Clowney, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2014 draft who has been sidelined since Week 1 after arthroscopic surgery on his right knee.
Texans coach Bill O'Brien has given Clowney a 50/50 shot of playing on Monday.
"He's progressing," O'Brien told the team's radio network. "He's working really hard to get back and I would say it's 50/50. Yeah, I think we have a long time here to get ready for Pittsburgh, longer than normal so hopefully, that bodes well for him being ready to go but I can't guarantee you that he'll be here for Pittsburgh."
"It (would) help a lot," cornerback Kareem Jackson added when discussing Clowney's potential return. "Just going in the game knowing we won't have to cover as long. The guys we've had up front, they've been doing a great job thus far and to add (Clowney) is definitely going to make things that much better."
Clowney did not practice on Thursday, however.
"Generally a guy needs to be on the practice field to play his best," Texans defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel said. "We're hoping to get him on the practice field so we can make a determination."
The best-case scenario for Pittsburgh is to get Bell going early and play off his abilities with play-action. The second-year back from Michigan State led the AFC in both rushing (542) and scrimmage yards (793) entering Week 7 and has recorded at least 100 scrimmage yards in all six games.
Houston, meanwhile, is intent on avoiding another slow start on both sides of the football.
The Texans have not scored in the opening quarter in five straight games, amassing a pitiful average of 40.5 yards in the frame over that span. Fitzpatrick has also struggled mightily early with a passer rating under 60.0 in the first quarter.
"What the film shows us is that everybody on offense has to play better. Everybody," O'Brien surmised.
Pittsburgh has alternated wins and losses through the first six games and that trend would point toward a W on Monday night. That said, Roethlisberger is the kind of QB who will hold onto the ball as long as possible with the intention of making the big play and that kind of mentality is tailor-made for the big-play ability of Watt.
Sports Network predicted outcome: Texans 23, Steelers 16