HOUSTON -- The questions about toughness are getting tiring, but they are not as tiring as the effort it takes to answer them.
When the Houston Texans had held off the Pittsburgh Steelers for a 17-10 win at Reliant Stadium Sunday, outside linebacker Mario Williams limped slowly onto the field for postgame handshakes. He looked more like a beaten man than a winner.
“I’m tired man, I was tired,” he said. “I had nothing left. I was so tired. I’m a big dude.”
One game doesn’t do away with a reputation, but after this one it’s hard to question the Texans’ toughness. The big dude had two sacks as he and his defense swarmed a patchwork offensive line to drag quarterback Ben Roethlisberger down five times. The offense did its part too, making room for Arian Foster to churn out 30 carries for 155 yards and a score.
“[Pittsburgh] is one of the most physical teams in the NFL,” Foster said. “They’re known for their defense, they pride themselves on their defense and they played well today. They’re a tough group of guys. I’m sore. But we believe we’re a good team, we really believe that. We don’t need anybody else on our side, just the 53 guys and coaches in that locker room. And it’s going to be a fun year.”
Said Antonio Smith, the defensive end who’s playing as well as anyone in Wade Phillips’ 3-4 front: “Their O-line, I love playing against them. They’re dirty. They fight. They want to finish you after every play. They want to talk to you. They want to act mean. And that’s why we give it right back to them.”
Behind the swarming defensive front, the Texans put their top cornerback, Johnathan Joseph, on the Steelers’ most dangerous receiver, Mike Wallace. Wallace had four catches for 77 yards, numbers the Texans could survive while limiting Big Ben to 16-for-30 passing for 206 yards with no touchdowns and a game-sealing pick.
“Our front seven were eating,” safety Danieal Manning said.
Roethlisberger rolled out of collapsing pockets like usual, but on the snaps where he bought time he didn’t find any back-breaking plays. On the ground, meanwhile, the Steelers managed 5.4 yards per carry using three different backs, but never really found a run rhythm.
Houston had its chances to come apart. Nine penalties for 64 yards hurt, handing the Steelers two first downs, eliminating 33 yards of Houston offense on undone plays, making moot a field goal block returned for a touchdown, and washing away an interception.
“He was a challenge for us and he won,” Steelers linebacker LaMarr Woodley said.
Foster played his first full game of the season after dealing with hamstring issues and took more than a full load. Kubiak said he was surprised the back was able to take 30 carries. His backup, Ben Tate, left the game with a groin injury, which meant Chris Ogbonnaya got some snaps and his first two NFL carries.
Being able to run as Foster did meant the Texans could stay on schedule and keyed a game in which Matt Schaub wasn’t sacked, was hit only once and survived the loss of Andre Johnson to a hamstring injury.
As good as Tate had been in Foster’s place, Foster is simply a better combination of power, speed and an understanding of the team’s scheme.
“Arian’s a special player,” right tackle Eric Winston said. “Arian’s a special player now.”
Big wins have prompted big belief before, and people who’ve jumped on the bandwagon have then been bruised when dumped off it. Owner Bob McNair said after the win he doesn’t know if the team’s had a bigger victory, but players hardly echoed the sentiment. They know they should beat these Steelers right now.
They talked about the fun they’re having, which made you want to believe they can keep having it.
“We’ve been talking about it the three years since I’ve been here, but the belief is finally happening,” said Smith. “The swagger is finally starting to come around. We believe when we come into games we’re not the underdog. We come in here to beat each and every team we play, no matter who it is.
“There is no wishing. … I think we have every component that we need to be a championship team and the only thing we need to keep working on is ourselves and believing in ourselves.”