Can Texans End Steelers' Opening-Day Streak?
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(Sports Network) - One thing that didn't change last year in Pittsburgh's transition at head coach from Bill Cowher to Mike Tomlin was its ability to win on opening weekend. The Steelers will try to win their first game of the season for a sixth straight year this weekend, when they open the 2008 season against the Houston Texans at Heinz Field.
The Steelers' five straight victories in openers is the longest current streak in the NFL. Pittsburgh has won 22 of its 38 games on Kickoff Weekend since 1970, including last year's 34-7 win over Cleveland to begin the season, the first for Tomlin as the club's head coach.
It wasn't all roses for Tomlin last season though. After a 7-2 start, the Steelers went on to drop four of their final seven games before a first-round exit in the playoffs. A season-ending leg injury to running back Willie Parker late in the regular season may have been the franchise's ultimate undoing.
Still, Pittsburgh did hold on to win the AFC North for the third time since 2002 and continued to dominate at home, going 7-1 in 2007 to push its mark at Heinz Field to 25-7 over the past four seasons.
In an effort to keep Parker healthy, the club grabbed running back Rashard Mendenhall in the first round of the 2008 draft while answering quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's pleas of getting him bigger targets with the second-round selection of 6-foot-4 wide receiver Limas Sweed.
Add in a defense that was one of the best in the league a year ago, and the Steelers seemed poised for a run at the top of the standings yet again.
However, if the club is to extend its season-opening streak, it will have to do so against the rising Texans.
Though Houston has yet to make the playoffs in its six years as an NFL franchise, the Texans are coming off an 8-8 finish that was the best in club history.
The Texans won three of their final four games to post that mark and are led by a young nucleus of quarterback Matt Schaub and wide receiver Andre Johnson on offense, as well as lineman Mario Williams and Amobi Okoye and linebacker DeMeco Ryans on defense.
Not to be content, Houston also went out this offseason and got younger at the running back spot, picking Steve Slaton in the third round of the draft. Running back Chris Taylor, who missed all of 2007 due to knee injury, is also in the fold for this year.
Houston has won three of its six prior season openers, and begins a season on the road for the third time in club history. The Texans are 1-1 when opening a campaign as the visitor, last winning in 2003 in Miami.
The club has also split its previous two openers under third-year head coach Gary Kubiak.
The Texans and Steelers have split two all-time meetings, with Houston earning a 24-6 road upset when the clubs first met, in 2002, and Pittsburgh returning the favor with a 27-7 rout at Reliant Stadium in 2005. The Steelers last defeated a Houston-based NFL franchise at home in 1996, when they beat the Oilers at Three Rivers Stadium.
Kubiak and Tomlin will be meeting one another, as well as their counterpart's respective team, for the first time as head coaches.
WHEN THE TEXANS HAVE THE BALL
Schaub (2,241 yards, 9 TDs, 9 INTs) had a rough go of it last year, the first of a six-year deal he signed with Houston. He missed five starts and exited three others early due to injury, and also had offseason shoulder surgery. A healthy season out of Schaub will help the Texans take a step forward. Schaub wasn't the only big-name Texan to battle injury last year, as Johnson (60 receptions), the club's star wideout, missed seven games due to a knee ailment but still managed to post 851 receiving yards and eight touchdowns. Kevin Walter (800 yards, 4 TDs) set career-highs across the board last year and begins the year as Houston's No. 2 receiver. Owen Daniels (768 yards, 3 TDs) provides an offensive target at tight end. Houston appears as if it is going to run a three-headed monster at running back with Ahman Green (260 rushing yards, 2 TD), Taylor and Slaton. Green played in just six games last season due to a knee injury and was slowed in camp by a groin ailment. Sunday's game will also feature the debut of athletic first-round pick Duane Brown at left tackle.
The Steelers bring to the table a solid linebacking group, led by outside LB James Harrison (98 tackles, 8.5 sacks, 1 INT) and James Farrior (94 tackles, 6.5 sacks, 1 INT), who patrols the inside. That duo is the heart of Pittsburgh's 3-4 scheme, and Harrison is coming off a Pro Bowl campaign. Linebacker LaMarr Woodley, a 2007 second-round pick, is also penciled in as a starter for the first time in his career. A solid performance by that group should ease the burden the front three needs to carry, as left end Aaron Smith (30 tackles, 2.5 sacks) is coming off a torn biceps that cost him the final month of last season, while nose tackle Casey Hampton endured a tough camp. The health of safety Troy Polamalu (58 tackles) is a concern, as he missed five games last year and battled a hamstring problem in the preseason. However, he is expected to be active for Week 1. Meanwhile, free safety Ryan Clark is returning from a ruptured spleen that caused him to miss the final 11 games of last year. Deshea Townsend (52 tackles, 2 INT) and Ike Taylor (80 tackles, 3 INT, 1 sack) are back at the corner slots, though they were part of a group that intercepted a league-low-tying 11 passes a year ago.
WHEN THE STEELERS HAVE THE BALL
Roethlisberger is coming off the best season of his career, statistically speaking. In his fourth NFL season, he threw for 3,154 yards and a career-high 32 touchdowns while getting picked off 11 times. His TD total, as well as his 104.1 passer rating, both set new Steeler single-season records. There is little doubt that Parker's leg injury last year was a back-breaker, so the club took steps to lower his carries. While Parker (1316 rushing yards, 2 TD, 23 receptions) didn't score much last year, he was leading the NFL in rushing before his injury. The club drafted Mendenhall in the hopes that he can handle the between-tackle runs. Pittsburgh is deep at the wideout spot, with Hines Ward (71 receptions, 7 TD), Santonio Holmes (52 receptions, 8 TD), Nate Washington (29 receptions, 5 TD) and Sweed giving Roethlisberger ample targets. Add in tight end Heath Miller (47 receptions, 7 TD) and the Steelers receiving group will give Houston's secondary all it can handle. Pittsburgh's offensive line will also be put to the test, especially with Pro Bowl guard Alan Faneca jumping to the Jets this offseason.
The Texans bring speed and youth to their defensive front, led by Williams, the No. 1 overall pick of the 2006 draft. Williams (59 tackles) ranked third in the NFL in sacks last year, with his 14 setting a franchise record. As if that wasn't scary enough, 21-year-old Amobi Okoye (32 tackles, 5.5 sacks) now has a full year of experience under his belt. Star middle linebacker Ryans (127 tackles, 2 sacks, INT) is coming off his first Pro Bowl campaign and is helped by speedy outside LB Morlon Greenwood (119 tackles). Houston's secondary is a man short with corner Dunta Robinson (35 tackles, 2 INT) not expected back from a torn ACL until mid-October. That will force Jacques Reeves into a starting role alongside Fred Bennett (62 tackles, 3 INT). Will Demps (52 tackles) and C.C. Brown (84 tackles, INT) start at safety to round out Houston's secondary that ranked 25th in pass defense last year.
Though it will be tough to duplicate his numbers from a year ago, Roethlisberger should have an outstanding game versus the Texans, assuming his offensive line can keep him upright. This week will also give Parker owners a glimpse as to how he will be used this year, as well as a boost to Rogaine stock if Mendenhall gets all the carries inside the five. With Roethlisberger set to have a solid game, Ward, Holmes and Miller are good starts as well. Pittsburgh's veteran defense should also be able to force some mistakes by the young Houston offense, meaning some turnover points could be in the cards.
Owners will be happy to see a healthy Johnson on the field, as the explosive wideout is a must-start. As long as he is on the field, Schaub's value goes up as well. Houston's running game will offer little in this test until one back emerges as the go-to player. That epiphany won't come in Week 1 against a tough Steelers defense. Even with the likes of Williams, Okoye and Ryans, the Houston defense as a whole serves little value this week.
Fans of the future of the NFL will enjoy this weekend's test. While the Steelers' grip on AFC success may be starting to loosen a bit, the Texans are definitely a team on the rise. If this game was taking place say, next year or 2010, Houston would likely be a great pick. However, it is still 2008, the Steelers still have an excellent offensive corps and a more-than-capable defense. Houston, meanwhile, needs to prove it can stay healthy to speed up the learning curve. One year too soon for the Texans this weekend.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Steelers 28, Texans 17
09/05 14:42:22 ET
All that to say no