My first reaction was Ward. After dropping a pass on the first series, he came back to catch a touchdown pass to get the Steelers rolling in the gawdawful heat in Houston. Ward also made a key catch at 10-0 with Gary Walker bearing down on Ben Roethlisberger in the end zone, and late in the drive he and Randle El faced nine men in coverage and Ward made the catch to set up his 15-yard touchdown.
Ward had five catches for 75 yards in the first half before the Steelers ground the ball in the second half to put the Texans away.
To have fun with the poll, I wanted to go with Randle El. He's probably surprised a lot of people as a legitimate deep threat. Against Houston, he ran the same route he did to score his touchdown in the opener and this time caught a 54-yard pass to set up a field goal. Randle El made three catches for 75 yards and for the season now has five catches for 164 yards, an average of 32.8 yards per catch.
Randle El replaced Plaxico Burress at split end and is proving it doesn't take a 6-foot-6 receiver to draw double coverage. It's the position and the routes that go with it that's drawing the deep safety, but if you really want to know who's opening up the secondary for Ward and Randle El, it's …
Willie Parker will not be stopped by a cover-2 defense. Unless you are the 1970s Steelers or the Carolina Panthers with Kris Jenkins, a four-man front with umbrella coverage is going to get killed by Parker and the Steelers' offensive line. Against the Panthers during the preseason, we saw what the passing game looked like when a cover-2 defense shuts the running game down, but Parker didn't play that night. He unnerved the Texans yesterday because he's truly a big-play threat every time he touches the ball. He's been a godsend for this offense, which previously could only boast of Randle El's 4.5 speed (no matter how fast TV announcers want to set his time at these days).
Parker can obviously hit the home run, but he also converted on short yardage -- with a double cut to boot – on an early third-and-2. Parker should've put the Steelers ahead 24-0 but a bad holding call on Jerame Tuman negated his run to the goal line and the Steelers settled for a field goal.
Polamalu keyed the defensive effort. Before the season, coordinator Dick LeBeau said quarterbacks will have to find Polamalu before every snap because the defense is going to flow through him. Houston quarterback David Carr either didn't look very hard or couldn't find the 5-foot-10 blitzing strong safety. Polamalu had three of the Steelers' eight sacks, albeit against one of the worst offensive lines in NFL history, but his maneuvering can't be overlooked. Polamalu is emblematic of a defense that is growing into its prime in its second season under LeBeau.
The poll didn't include Roethlisberger, who was off of his perfect opener but not by much. Roethlisberger completed 14 of 21 passes for 254 yards and the two TDs to Ward. His passer rating was 139.6. My calculator tells me that it's "Hall of Fame!" material; so was the deep throw to Cedrick Wilson. Anyone who questions Roethlisberger's arm strength didn't see this third-and-5 rollout pass. Roethlisberger threw – off his wrong foot – from the far right 32 to the 24 on the opposite side of the field to Cedrick Wilson. The ball had to travel at least 60 yards and set up the final score of the game.
Roethlisberger made another heads-up play when he rushed the team to the line of scrimmage to snap the ball before replay could overrule a 36-yard catch by Wilson on which he may have failed to drag his second foot inbounds.
The honorable mentions include Clark Haggans for forcing the first turnover; Casey Hampton for clogging up the middle and playing with enthusiasm on his homecoming trip to Houston; and Kendall Simmons, who didn't miss a snap in the 120-degree heat on the field.
Simmons did miss some blocks, including one on Morlon Greenwood that resulted in a tackle for loss on Parker, but Simmons did bury the rushing Walker in the Steelers' end zone and then buried the middle linebacker on Parker's 10-yard touchdown run. For a player who struggled with heat and its affect on his diabetes in training camp, Simmons played well enough in Houston and should only get stronger because of it.
So the winner? Well, I've come off my initial selection of Ward and will go with Parker. He's the missing link for an offense that had come to rely on strength more than speed. Now, the Steelers have a mixture of the two to go along with that lightening quick defense.
No, the Steelers aren't peaking right now. It's OK to beat the Patriots this week. Remember, the Steelers are only two weeks removed from their awful preseason. They have plenty of room to grow, and it appears as if they will.