Houston boasts AFC's 2nd-best sacker last season in Williams
Wednesday, September 03, 2008
By Ed Bouchette, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
NFL Week 1: Steelers vs. Texans

It could be a recipe for disaster: the Steelers' leaky pass protection vs. the AFC's second-best sacker from last season.

No quarterback in the AFC was sacked more often than Ben Roethlisberger (47 times) last season. Only one player in the conference rang up more sacks than Houston right defensive end Mario Williams, who had 14.

A movable object vs. an unstoppable force Sunday at Heinz Field?

It should not take long for the Steelers to discover if they improved their pass protection since last season.

"I've been pleased with the pocket in training camp and preseason, particularly in the area of play-action passing," coach Mike Tomlin said yesterday. "That's been good. But again, we'll have a better sense of where it is on Sunday."

Only Cliff Stoudt was sacked more as a Steelers quarterback than Roethlisberger was in either of the past two seasons. Stoudt was sacked 52 times in 1983. Roethlisberger was sacked 46 times in 2006.

Tomlin made two changes in the offensive line since last season. Chris Kemoeatu will start at left guard in place of seven-time Pro Bowler Alan Faneca, who will pull on a New York Jets uniform this weekend. Justin Hartwig, signed after Carolina cut him, won the job at center from Sean Mahan, who held it last season and was traded back to Tampa Bay yesterday.

There's one way to know if the line is better than last season: "Really, the only way you do it is playing together," Tomlin said. "Those are problems everybody has, any time you have turnover. In today's NFL, you have turnover. They have some new guys. Everyone's working on cohesion. That's what makes September football so exciting. It will be exciting this weekend and hopefully it will be exciting in a positive way for us."

Tomlin and his offensive coaches have pointed out many times that protecting the quarterback is not just the job of the line. It begins with the line protection calls -- Roethlisberger can check out of those -- and includes blocking by the tight end and the third-down backs and the quarterback recognizing blitzes and receivers and communicating on those.
Ouch! That hurts
Only one quarterback was sacked more times in the regular season last year than Big Ben.

There's also the matter of the quarterback knowing when to throw, how quickly to do so and whether to try to make a play when he's flushed from the pocket or to spike it and take the incompletion.

The Texans' Williams figures in the Steelers' offensive game plan.

"This guy is extremely powerful and athletic," Tomlin said. "He runs his line stunts very efficiently. This morning, I counted four steps he took to get to the quarterback on a [tight end] stunt. That's not a lot of time. Somebody's got to block this guy. That's what makes him who he is. That's why they drafted him first overall."

The good news for the Steelers is that while Williams had 14 sacks last season, they were almost half of his team's total of 31. That's five fewer than the Steelers had and they were not happy with their 36 sacks on defense last season.

Williams lines up at right defensive end in the Texans' 4-3 defense, but he can come from anywhere.

"He's a talented player, very disruptive, athletic, powerful, in the backfield a bunch," Tomlin said. "They've got a variety of line stunts that are very difficult to pick up, not only getting hats on hats, but once you get some hats on hats, you've got to win those battles.

"They're going to move him around if what they've done in the past is any indication, I should say. They've moved him around in the past and I would anticipate they move him around again."

The Texans also believe that defensive tackle Amobi Okoye, the 10th overall draft pick in 2007, will be improved as a pass rusher in his second season after he recorded 5.5 sacks as a rookie.

Newcomer Mewelde Moore will serve as the Steelers' third-down back and that comes with the responsibility of picking up the blitzing linebacker and also being a safety valve when Roethlisberger gets into trouble. It's another area where they believe they've improved their pass protection.
Ed Bouchette can be reached at [email="ebouchette@post-gazette.com"]ebouchette@post-gazette.com[/email].