Five things to watch: Texans at Steelers
September 5, 2008
By Brooke Bentley, HoustonTexans.com
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The Texans travel to Pittsburgh to take on the Steelers on Sunday. The Steelers were 7-1 at Heinz Field last season. They outscored opponents by an average of 25.2 to 11.6. The Texans are prepared for a brutal contest against coach Mike Tomlin’s crew.
1. Backfield with a lot to prove: The Texans will unveil their running back-by-committee approach against the Steelers. Starting in the backfield will be Pro Bowler Ahman Green, who missed most of the preseason with a hamstring injury. The 11th-year pro put in a week of hard practices and is hungry to prove that he has another 1,000-yard season left in him. The Texans don’t want to wear down Green in his first outing and will limit him to 15 carries. That means rookie Steve Slaton and Chris Taylor will have to find a way to move the chains against what was the best defense in the NFL in 2007.
“We’re going to rotate them,” head coach Gary Kubiak said. “Basically, Ahman, Slaton and Chris are all going to play. We’re going to keep them fresh on the field. I have confidence in all three of them. I think the two young kids have looked as good as they’ve looked all camp this week.
“We’re not going to go crazy with Ahman in this game and set him back. I’m hoping he comes out of this game maybe somewhere between 12 and 15 good carries. We go too far, it’s going to be a mistake. But he’s had two good weeks, a full-practice player. He’s looked good this week, so I’m excited to see him get going.”
Slaton was the team’s best ball carrier in the preseason. He led the team with a 4.1-yard rushing average and had the longest single carry (20 yards). He has never faced a defense loaded with linebackers like James Harrison and James Farrior, but the Texans believe that Slaton is fast enough to get to the edge and break away against the Steelers' physical 3-4 defense.
"That's what they're known for, that black-and-blue type of running. They want to hit you in the mouth and see where your heart's at." - N.D. Kalu
Slaton and Taylor also will be asked to pound the ball up the middle for short-yardage runs that create manageable third-down situations.
2. Brown plays with the big boys: If rookie left tackle Duane Brown thought he had endured a baptism by fire when he went against defensive end Mario Williams during OTAs, he’s about to feel the flames get a lot hotter in Pittsburgh.
Brown must protect quarterback Matt Schaub from one of the toughest front sevens in the league. The Steelers' defense ranked third against the run and third against the pass last season, and defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau is famous for calling complicated schemes and moving around defenders.
Brown feels as prepared as possible.
“That goes back to film study,” Brown said. “You have to get as many looks as you can at different options that they’ve faced. Like I said, the Dallas week really helped us out a lot going against the 3-4, great players and great speed. It all comes back to film study with me being a person who hasn’t gone against this team before.
“Every day I’m getting a little bit more comfortable, but it’s like I said, this is the week it starts to matter; preseason is over. It’s a different speed that we’re going to be going against this week.”
From what Kubiak has seen in practice and games, he thinks Brown is ready for Steel Curtain-type football.
“He’s our best guy,” Kubiak said of Brown. “He’s been exceptional throughout the camp. Is he in for some growing pains? I bet he is. But he’s fixing to find out. Like I told him, it’s going to be a little bit louder than it was in the preseason, and a little bit tougher. But he’s been a rock. He works, does his job. He’s gotten better every week. This will be the ultimate challenge for him. He’s got to go through these things to become a big-time player.”
3. Mario to get nasty: Mario Williams consistently put pressure on the passer during the preseason, but the defensive end had few opportunities to unleash his pass rush. Heinz Field would be a start in 2008.
The Steelers' offensive line gave up 47 sacks last season. The unit lost long-time guard and Pro Bowler Alan Faneca to free agency and the team didn’t select an offensive lineman early in the draft. Plus, left tackle Marvel Smith doesn’t stand a chance against someone with Williams’ speed and strength.
Williams has gotten comfortable moving positions on the line, and the Texans could run creative packages that allow him to get to Ben Roethlisberger. Still, Williams will need a player from the opposite side, like defensive end Anthony Weaver, to step up and put pressure on Big Ben.
“I’m still confident in the pass rush,” Weaver said. “You’ve got Mario Williams and N.D. Kalu, a lot of guys that can get to the passer. Right now after the preseason, guys have played a little over a game worth of football, so you’re taking a lot more snaps now and when it gets to the third and fourth quarter, which we haven’t really played yet, that’s when guys wear down and that’s when you get those sacks. So the pass rush is going to come.”
4. Run-stoppers stand up: Kubiak said his primary concern going into Sunday’s game was stopping the Steelers' running attack.
“This team’s strength is holding the ball, running the ball, controlling the football game, time of possession,” Kubiak said. “I think they are top of the league, if not top-two or -three in the league. That has been one of our problems and that’s what this team does best, so we’re going to have to stop the run or this team can control the game on you. I think that’s our number one challenge.”
The Texans ranked 19th against the run last season, allowing 114.1 yards a game. That won’t cut it against Pittsburgh. The Steelers' run offense was third in the league and back Willie Parker ranked fourth in the NFL with 1,316 rushing yards.
“Parker is a great back, 1,300 yards and he missed two games,” Kalu said. “Watching him on film, I remember I was telling (Anthony) Weaver, I didn’t know he was that good last year because I didn’t get a chance to see a lot of their games. But you’re not concerned. You’re just up for the challenge.”
Backing up Parker will be rookie Rashard Mendenhall, who struggled to hold on to the ball during the preseason. Still, the Texans aren’t taking anything for granted.
"That's what they're known for, that black-and-blue type of running," Kalu said. "They want to hit you in the mouth and see where your heart's at. It's going to be a great test for us to send a message to the city of Houston that we're tough up front if we can take them on."
5. Counting on the corners: An effective pass rush also would benefit cornerbacks Fred Bennett and Jacques Reeves, who don’t want to be left on an island while Roethlisberger sits in the pocket and fires passes at receivers Hines Ward and Santonio Holmes.
Even if the Texans’ front seven is able to pressure Roethlisberger, Bennett and Reeves will have their work cut out for them. Ward recorded 71 receptions and seven touchdowns last season and is the team’s most consistent option. But Holmes, who notched 52 catches for 942 yards last year, is their deep threat.
Reeves struggled in coverage during the preseason, often getting beat on deep throws. He will have to start making plays on the ball for the Texans to be successful against the pass.
Bennett led the team in interceptions last season and has developed into the team’s most physical corner. He will look to lay some big hits and cause turnovers.