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NKySteeler
09-08-2008, 11:17 PM
A simply beautiful opening day
by Bob Labriola

Pick an anxiety and they had the remedy, at least they did on the first day of their 2008 season.

Steelers fans are known for their anxieties, and they had been getting heart palpitations every day since the one last January when the Jacksonville Jaguars became the first
team ever to beat the Steelers in Pittsburgh twice in a season, the second time eliminating them from the playoffs.

Willie Parkerís broken leg. Aaron Smithís biceps. Troy Polamaluís knee. The offensive line. The run defense. The pass rush. Not enough interceptions. Special teams, except
for the kickers. And then the ones added during this most recent training camp: Casey Hamptonís weight, Rashard Mendenhallís slippery fingers, Polamaluís hamstring, no Alan
Faneca, another new center, the age of the defensive line.

An impressive bunch of phobias, and the Steelers had answers for all of them against the Houston Texans. Well, they had answers to almost all of them, because there were 64,001 watching this at Heinz Field, and the 1 probably was the guy who called a postgame radio show and expressed ďconcernĒ about Byron Leftwich going 0-for-4 in mop-up duty during a fourth quarter that began with his team winning by five
touchdowns.

Such is life today in Steelers Nation, because the resident NFL team spanked the Houston Texans, 38-17, in a performance that was dominating in so many ways.

Parker looked like the Pro Bowl running back he has been at the end of each of the previous two seasons, and gaining 139 yards while averaging 5.5 and scoring three touchdowns didnít stop him from stepping into Mario Williams a couple of times when it was necessary.

Speaking of Williams, he sacked Ben Roethlisberger twice, but one of those came on a blown assignment, and if mental errors are more infuriating for coaches they also can be
somewhat calming because those can be corrected, whereas raw ineptitude has to be benched. The offensive line was very much OK last Sunday, and being OK there will
win a lot of games for a team with the weapons this Steelers team possesses.

Speaking of weapons, the ones on defense really distinguished themselves. Polamalu was throwing his body parts all over the field in the first half against the Texans, his uniform a black-and-gold torpedo launched in search of somebody holding the football. Three tackles, one in the backfield, and his first interception since Oct. 22, 2006 announced
his presence, and then Polamalu spent the rest of the afternoon patrolling the deep areas
to make sure Houstonís offense got nothing easy.

Speaking of announcing his presence: Duane Brown, please meet James Harrison. After an unsuccessful goal-line drill at training camp, Rashard Mendenhall remarked that there was nobody in college football like James Harrison, and Duane Brown also was playing college football last season. Since Brown grabbed onto every part of Harrisonís body that he could and still gave up three sacks, itís likely he now understands what Mendenhall
already knew. And in the individual sack competition that meant nothing to him, Harrison topped Williams, 3-2.

Speaking of Mendenhall, he did what was expected of him and it came off without incident. Twentynine rushing yards isnít much, but he had 10 clock-eating carries and
was on the field for many other plays, all of which were sparing Parkerís body parts.

Speaking of running the ball, the Texans sure couldnít do that worth a darn last Sunday, highlighted by getting stuffed on a fourth-and-1 in the gameís opening series. If Hampton
wasnít pushing the center around like he was on roller skates, Smith was immovable at the point of attack. If the linebackers werenít swarming, then the safeties were filling.

The sum total of it all was that the Texans offense was made one-dimensional almost immediately and then the pass rush had less to think about while pursuing quarterback
Matt Schaub.

Speaking of the pass rush, it was effective without having to be gimmicky, which is always the preference because it means there are a lot of individual battles being won.

Besides Harrisonís trio, LaMarr Woodley had one, and James Farrior and Nick Eason shared the fifth. Speaking of Woodley, he had one of the teamís two interceptions ó on a beautiful bit of coverage in which he undercut the route run by wide receiver Dave Anderson and caught the ball with one hand ó to show he will be more than a onetrick
NFL pony, which bodes well for improving upon that unacceptably low total of 11 interceptions from a season ago.

Speaking of a season, the landscape of this one certainly has changed since last Sundayís dawn, what with San Diego, Jacksonville and Cleveland all losing and with New England looking at life without Tom Brady as its starting quarterback until minicamp in 2009 at the earliest. A schedule initially touted as merely impossible seems to be easing almost daily, what with injuries and with teams actually playing and proving the league is hipdeep in parity once again.

Itís a heady time but also a dangerous one, and using recent history to prove that dichotomy, consider the opener in 2003. On that day, an exact five-year anniversary to laying the lumber to the Texans, the Steelers did it to the Baltimore Ravens, 34-15. What followed were six losses in the next seven, and when the fog cleared the Steelers were 6-10 and those same Ravens were division champions.

Coach Mike Tomlin and several of the players were very busy with wet blankets in the aftermath last Sunday, and things sure could feel different in a week if things donít go
as planned when the Steelers visit the shores of Lake Erie.

But thatís another worry. For one beautiful afternoon last Sunday, everything was, well, beautiful.