HOUSTON VS PITTSBURGH PREVIEW By Brad Lorkovic aka LORK 88 For the past 6 months, we have been without football. Sure, we have had the combine, pro days, free agency, the draft, OTAs, training camp, and pre-season, but nothing compares to the regular season. We have watched as Kubiak and Smith have put together pieces to make our team take forward steps, and all we could do is speculate. Even during the pre-season, we could only wonder “what would he do if he was playing starters”? Well, that time is now. We open the regular season against a fierce team in the Pittsburgh Steelers. In a lot of ways, they are our foil; a hard nosed team built on the old school principles of football like tough running and shut down D. We on the other hand are fresh, new team that focuses on passing the ball and quickness on D. Who wins the season opener, the Steelers who have been a force for the past few years, or the up and coming Texans who are waiting for their chance to strike? Houston’s Running Game vs. Pittsburgh’s Run D: We need to come up big running the ball, simple as that. Defensively, Pittsburgh has one of the toughest run defenses out there. They do run a 3-4 which didn’t seem to be any different for us running the ball this pre-season (although it was only pre-season). Up front their DLine is lead by the mammoth Casey Hampton. He’s consistently been a top NT in the NFL, but came into camp this off-season severely overweight so it will be interesting to see him as the game goes on. The ends are Brett Kiesel and Aaron Smith. Out of the two, Smith is easily the more dangerous one. He’s a solid all around player. Pittsburgh also has some impressive linebackers. On the outside is Harrison and Woodley. Harrison is a pro bowler while Woodley is still relatively unproven. On the inside is Larry Foote and James Farrior, who is definitely the leader of the unit. Despite getting up there in age, he still had the second most tackles on the team. The key thing about Pittsburgh’s linebackers is that there is no easily visible weak spot (even if there was, they have great depth). They work together well and pull their own weight. For us, I don’t like the match up of Myers against Hampton. The big knock on him coming from Denver was that he wasn’t great dealing with bigger DTs. Pitts and Brisiel will have to help chip him on the way to the LBs. The key to our running game will be to neutralize the D line and get to the LBs as quick as possible. Slaton has great patience and can make people miss which may make him the best option this game. Houston’s Passing Game vs. Pittsburgh’s Pass D: Call it foolishly easy, but if we can keep Schaub off his back there’s no reason he shouldn’t be successful passing the ball. Pittsburgh has a solid secondary, but their main strength from the pass D comes from their pass rush. Aaron Smith and Brett Kisiel can both get a decent push, but for the most part it rests with the linebackers. Harrison lead the team with 8.5 last season as well as causing 7 fumbles. Opposite him is Lamar Woodley, the second year standout from Michigan. He didn’t see much time last year, but made the most of it with 4 sacks. He’s extremely quick and knows how to get to the QB. Farrior also can get to the QB, as can Foote. Also don’t discount Lawrence Timmons, who will see time on the inside; he’s extremely athletic. As far as their secondary goes, Ike Taylor and Deshea Townsend. Taylor likes to play physical and gets his hands on quite a few passes (although a good percentage of those aren’t caught by him). Townsend is a dependable starter opposite him as well. Polamalu returns to the secondary after being injured for a majority of last season. If he’s healthy, he’s a key component to the disruptive defense. However, nothing is guaranteed so we need to find out quickly if he’s lost a step or is still a pro bowl caliber player. Ryan Clark is stepping in to be the other starting safety and is also coming off an injury. Like I said earlier, I don’t doubt that our WRs can get open and have quality games, but a lot of that has to do with us keeping Schaub’s jersey clean. Pittsburgh’s Rushing Game vs. Houston’s Run D: Pittsburgh knows how to run. Willie Parker has been absolutely great for Pittsburgh for 3 years. He’s got good size, great speed, and is a threat to break off the big run. He did have a leg injury last year however that might slow him down. Most likely Willie will have some carries go to rookie RB Rashard Mendenhall. A lot of us Texans are familiar with Mendenhall; a good majority of us wanted us to draft him round 1. He’s got great size and has great change of direction, although he did struggle with fumbles this pre-season. Those two RBs could turn into an amazing tandem over the years. The O Line is where it gets interesting. Their big, their strong, and they have some new faces along the line. They have Marviel Smith, Kendal Simmons, and Willie Colon all as returning starters. The new center and guard are Justin Hartwig and Chris Kemoeatu. Kemoeatu has the tough job of replacing Faneca, but has looked good in pre-season. Their line may have problems with pass blocking, but they are one of the best run blocking teams in the league. For the Texans, our D Line will need to step up big time. I’m not worried about Mario because we know what he can do. Weaver doesn’t worry me more than normal because at least with the Steelers line we can use a bigger guy in there. I’m more so worried more along the interior line. Johnson can get washed out of plays and Okoye doesn’t seem strong enough. The key will be to get of the ball fast and disrupt the lanes. With our LBs, Demeco will be Demeco; we just need to make sure we keep the big bodies off them so they don’t get blown out of the plays. Pittsburgh’s Passing Game vs. Houston’s Pass D: This is where we might be able to make some things happen. Big Ben will be a force in the game, there’s no doubt about that. However, his O Line has been skeptical in pass protection over the years. It’s not fair to place all the blame on them because Ben needs to make quicker throws, but they have struggled in the past. Marviel Smith vs. Mario Williams will be the match up to watch as well as how many times they double team him. Smith had surgery to remove a herniated disc in his back in December, so we’ll see if he’s back up to par. Kemoeatu on Okoye will also be a battle, but if Okoye can get a step on him he can create pressure. We just need more pressure than those two. I’d be smart for us to put Thompson at LE on passing plays to see if he can get to the corner. As far as receivers go, Hines Ward is still a good possession WR who can make plays. Watching Bennett on him will be a true test for him. The guy to watch though will be Santonio Holmes who seems to be taking over as their big play guy. He’s got amazing speed and will be matched up on Reeves (sorry, I meant mis-matched). Nate Washington will play the slot and he’s another speed WR who they love to get into the open field. Molden will most likely be the guy on him and should be athletic enough to stay with him. Heath Miller is also a huge threat for us in the passing game, and he will be a mismatch if he’s lined up on Greenwood. However, if we can create enough pressure we can force him to stay in to block occasionally. To sum it up, we need to get pressure on them and force the bad throw. Big Ben will hold the ball too long and scramble around so we need to get to him as often as possible. If we can, our secondary stands a chance. POSITION BATTLE QB Advantage: PITT RB Advantage: PITT WR Advantage: PUSH (I know I’ll get hell for this) TE Advantage: PITT (only because Miller is a much better blocker Daniels is) OL Advantage: PUSH DL Advantage: PITT LB Advantage: PITT CB Advantage: PITT S Advantage: PITT K/P Advantage: HOUSTON RET Advantage: HOUSTON X FACTOR OF THE GAME: Steve Slaton We all know it; we need to run the ball!! However we have nobody on our roster that we can trust to be consistent and reliable. The only person who gives us that chance is Steve Slaton. A rookie from West Virginia, he was tested during the pre-season and showed plenty of flashes of being a difference maker. However, the biggest problem is that he’s untested which is why I label him the X factor. The game won’t hinge on his performance, but a strong showing by Slaton will greatly influence how effective our offense is. KEY FACTORS TO THE GAME 1) First has to be the turnover battle and I know I’m not alone in this! All summer, the Texans wore saying on their shorts that said “protect the ball” and “take it away” to help get the message across. If we want to beat the Steelers we must win the turnover battle. They do a great job of forcing bad passes on defense as well as forcing fumbles so we have to make sure that we take care of the football and don’t make stupid mistakes. On defense, turnovers would be a great way for us to stop their drives and set up our offense. The turnover battle is always important, but I felt it was even more necessary to stress that fact this game. 2) We’ve got to stop teams on third down. While most teams pin their ears back on third down hoping to force a big play like a sack or interception, we’re worried about letting the drive continue. It’s something that game us problems last season and continued to be a nuisance this preseason. This really ties in to getting pressure on Roethlisberger and forcing him to make quick decisions. He’s not one of those QBs that are easily affected by pressure, but we’ve got to keep him off balance and not let him get his rhythm or we will continue to allow 3rd down conversions. 3) Special teams needs to step up. Look at the rest of our football team. Is our offense going to be able to out-play their defense on a constant basis? No. Is our defense going to shut them down all game? No. The only clear advantage we have against them is special teams. Not only will it make our offense’s life easier with great field position, but it can also force Pittsburgh to have long drives and better our chances of minimizing points scored against us. If special teams can play like we know they can, they can give our team a great boost throughout the game.