Near-perfect performance in win vs. Texans
Monday, September 08, 2008
By Bob Smizik, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

http://www.post-gazette.com/pg/08252/910361-66.stm

There is nothing more appropriate for a near-perfect, late-summer Sunday afternoon in Pittsburgh than a near-perfect, season-opening football game by the Steelers.

And so it was that the Steelers opened their 76th season with a wondrous flirtation with perfection. Of course, perfection can never be achieved in a football game. There always will be a missed block here, a blown assignment there. But Steelers misplays were rare yesterday at Heinz Field as they dispatched the Houston Texans with remarkable ease.

The final score was 38-17, but that doesn't begin to describe the supremacy the Steelers held in all phases of the game. They led, 35-3, with nine minutes remaining.

"I think we played a good game in virtually all three phases," Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. "It was not perfect but I liked the energy and enthusiasm from the people who went out and made plays."

Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was near-flawless, completing 13 of 14 passes for 137 yards and two touchdowns. Willie Parker, in his first real game since his leg was broken late last season, ran 25 times for 138 yards. Hines Ward caught two touchdown passes. The highly suspect offensive line dominated, although Roethlisberger was sacked twice.

As good as that performance was, the defense, at least for the first 51 minutes, was better. "Get after the quarterback, create turnovers and shut down the run -- that's what great defenses do and that's what we want to strive for," end Brett Keisel said. That's precisely what the Steelers did. Houston quarterback Matt Schaub was sacked five times and threw two interceptions. The Houston running game was limited to 75 yards on 20 carries.

Special teams, for too long a Steelers weakness, were superb. Mitch Berger punted three times for a 43-yard average. Two of the punts were returned for a measly 5 yards. Most impressively, the Steelers shut down Houston's Andre Davis, who returned three kickoffs for touchdowns last season and averaged 30.3 yards per attempt. Davis brought back six kicks yesterday for an average of 18.7 yards.

The game was a rout in every manner from the outset. The Steelers scored the first three times they had the ball, with the third one being set up by an excellent interception by LaMarr Woodley. They were in position for a fourth consecutive touchdown when a Troy Polamalu interception gave them the ball on the Houston 32. But Roethlisberger was sacked and stripped of the ball on the first play. The subsequent return and a penalty gave the Texans the ball on the Steelers' 12.

What came next was the highlight of a day of highlights. The defense limited the Texans to minus-4 yards on three plays and Kris Brown came on to kick a field goal. If there was any doubt as to how this game would turn out, that defensive stand ended it.

The Steelers scored the first two times they had the ball in the third quarter. On the first drive they moved 71 yards in 10 plays with nine of the plays being runs.

"We felt like our offensive line was really dominating their front seven," Roethlisberger said. "You get a big chunk on first down, a big chunk on second down, you don't have to throw the ball."

Asked if he was surprised with the ease of the victory, Ward said: "It wasn't easy but I wasn't surprised. We feel like we have the best offense. The only team that can beat us is us."

So what does it all mean?

For starters, it should not generate giddy talk of another Super Bowl run, although that kind of optimism always will be there after such an impressive win.

Any victory must be measured against the quality of the opposition. Although they finished a respectable 8-8 last season and won three of their final four games, the Texans are a mediocre team with a below-average defense. The Steelers, particularly playing at home, are supposed to beat the Texans.

So the victory is no cause for celebration. The lopsidedness of it, however, does bode well for the future. There should be no surprise that Roethlisberger played extremely well. He's one of the best in the game. What was encouraging was the way the offensive line controlled the Texans and the way Parker showed no effects of his broken leg.

The aging defense played above expectations. What was most heartening was its ability to create turnovers -- two interceptions and a fumble. The Steelers were alarmingly deficient in this aspect of the game a year ago.

It was a good win, an encouraging win. But it was one win. Fifteen games remain and most won't be as easy as this one.
Bob Smizik can be