Consistently this week the Texans all said they see no similarities between this season and last season’s 2-1 start.
This team is different. This Texas team is more determined, more focused and has much more resolve.
We’re about to see what’s rhetoric and what’s fact with the Pittsburgh Steelers coming into the Reliant Stadium on Sunday on the heels of the Texans disappointing loss to the New Orleans Saints. When at this point last season, the Texans followed up a loss to the Dallas Cowboys by holding on for a seven-point win over the Oakland Raiders.
Disaster quickly set in. The Texans won just two of their next 11 as a season that began with such optimism turned to more disappointment quickly.
The stage is set for another dreadful run with Oakland, Baltimore, Tennessee and Jacksonville all lining up behind the Steelers in October, alone. The Texans can turn the channel with a strong run.
That fact makes Sunday’s game that much more important. There is no better way to show you are ready to make the next step than to put a loss in its proper perspective by bouncing back the next week with a dominating performance.
“I think a lot of people are hearing about last year and we got to make sure it’s not the same as it was last year,” said fullback James Casey. “We got to bounce back. We’ve got a really tough task, tough game with Pittsburgh, an elite AFC team. It’s a good challenge for us and I think we’re all glad that we’re playing a tough team like that.”
The Steelers are ripe for the Texans to make a major statement not just to the rest of the NFL but most important to themselves. Pittsburgh comes into Reliant limping with two starting offensive linemen missing from the lineup and a starting defensive lineman out and with the fresh memory of barely escaping a bad Indianapolis Colts team Sunday night.
The Texans, meanwhile, should have reason for optimism with the NFL’s reining leading rusher Arian Foster finally seeming ready to make an impact after a gimpy hamstring relegated him to the sideline for most of the first three games. Foster could be the difference in the Texans red zone failures and in their inability to put points up in the fourth quarter. His presence could be the difference against a Pittsburgh team that is clearly not itself right now.
But these are still the Steelers who represented the AFC in the Super Bowl last winter. Big Ben Roethlisberger will still be out there bowling over defensive linemen the way no quarterback should be able to do. And safety Troy Polamalu will be flying in from any angle he chooses while linebacker James Harrison reprises his role as one of the most intimidating hitters in the game.
There is enough of the old Steelers still there that a resounding win would deliver real hope the way victories over listless Indianapolis and Miami haven’t.
What we don’t know right now is just how tough-minded these Texans are. We know they are talented. But we don’t know how they will respond after getting punched in the mouth by the New Orleans Saints and that will tell the story of whether or not this franchise is ready to get over the hump and become a playoff team for the first time.
“I definitely think we’re eager to play and eager to get back out there; there’s no question about that,” said linebacker Brian Cushing. “The guys are hungry and we’re just looking forward to the next matchup.”
It was interesting Friday to hear head coach Gary Kubiak’s response when asked if he thought his team’s toughness will be determined by how they play against the Steelers.
“I think we got a tough football team,” Kubiak fired back. “The course of the season, we’ll find out.”
The Texans found at this juncture last season that they weren’t. We will find out soon if they learned from last season’s failure of if they are destined to repeat them real soon.
“The one thing about this game, bad things are going to happen,” said receiver Andre Johnson. “It’s just how you respond to it. Of course, you want to go out and try to win every game. That’s everybody’s goal, but that’s hard to do.”
Somehow the Texans must push through and not just barely get by the Steelers. They have to kick the doors in and step on the collective necks of a quality team Sunday in order to distance themselves from last season.
The Texans say they are a much better team at 2-1 this season than they were last season, but we were reminded of their Achilles Heel last week when they couldn’t hold on to a fourth-quarter lead against the Saints. That trait last season was easily the difference a 10-6 playoff run and the 6-10 reality they faded into.
“I think that just the atmosphere period around here, in practice, in the locker room, the way guys are just carrying themselves, I think it’s totally different,” said Johnson, who explained why he thought this year and last year’s start have nothing in common. “Even after we won our first two games, even after the loss, guys were upset. We felt like we should have won the game, but at the same time, it wasn’t a time where I think in the past, guys would’ve been so down to where it may have affected them the following week or something like that. Guys were motivated.”
Those inside and outside of the Texans locker room know that only time will tell how much of a difference that makes. We’ll get our first real glimpse Sunday.