TV: CBS (Gus Johnson, Randy Cross)
SERIES: 3rd meeting. Series tied, 1-1, The Texans lost to the Steelers at home, but upset the Steelers, 24-6, in their only trip to Heinz Field in 2002. The offense mustered just 47 net yards, but the defense scored three touchdowns to win the game.
PREDICTION: Steelers 27-20
KEYS TO THE GAME: Texans RB Ahman Green hasn't played since the first snap of the preseason due to a balky groin. He's healthy, but won't approach 25 carries as Houston tries to keep him fresh with help from Chris Taylor and shifty rookie Steve Slaton. Watch for Slaton's speed and quick cuts in the zone blocking scheme. But to pull the road upset, QB Matt Schaub is going to have to find WR Andre Johnson for a few big plays. ... QB Ben Roethlisberger was sacked 47 times last season, and pass protection continued to be shaky during the preseason. To combat the Texans' talented young line led by emerging star DE Mario Williams, look for several draws and screen passes. The Steelers have RB Willie Parker healthy, and now rookie Rashard Mendenhall to relieve him and help wear down defenses.
Slaton (turf toe) and OT Ephraim Salaam (knee) returned to practice Wednesday and will play.
LB James Harrison (shoulder) should play.
NEED TO KNOW: Williams had a franchise record 14 sacks last season. ... Roethlisberger needs 1,656 passing yards to move into second place behind Terry Bradshaw on the franchise's all-time list.
LB Xavier Adibi (Achilles) missed practice again and will not suit up for the season opener. The Texans hope by continuing to rest him, that he will be able to practice next week. Each time they have brought him back, he has suffered a setback. So they are trying to give him ample time this time around.
--LT Duane Brown said he is nervous but ready to start his first NFL game. The Texans will have him on the left side protecting Matt Schaub's blindside.
--SAM Zac Diles will make his first start with the Texans. He moved from the middle to the outside in the offseason and won the starting job. The Texans expect to capitalize on his speed and athleticism on the outside.
--RB Ahman Green has continued to make strides in practice and remains slated to be the starter Sunday. He hasn't played since he injured his groin on the first play of the first preseason game.
--LG Chester Pitts has missed some time in the preseason but is expected to start. He will likely be the one constantly in rookie LT Duane Brown's ear as the season opens. Pitts plans to talk to him before, during and after every snap to make sure the rookie knows where to go.
LB James Harrison returned to practice full time on Thursday and coach Mike Tomlin said he's fine. Harrison, the team's MVP at right outside linebacker last year, missed part of practice Wednesday with his shoulder in a wrap.
--WR Limas Sweed, their second-round draft choice this year, likely will be inactive on Sunday as the fifth receiver. The Steelers had hoped he could climb to No. 3 when they drafted him.
--FB Carey Davis is being considered as the goal-line runner in the early going. Davis showed good drive in short yardage, something rookie Rashard Mendenhall did not do.
--RB Mewelde Moore will return punts and also serve as the third-down back, and he presents their best receiving threat in that spot in years.
--TE Heath Miller will be used instead of a fifth wide receiver when the Steelers use five wide. He also will line up at fullback, wing and tight end.
INSIDE THE CAMPS:
On an offense where the passing game is clearly the strength, the Texans worked this season on improving that area even more. They started focusing on yards after the catch, hoping to turn some short passes into big gains.
"Getting yards after the catch is huge," quarterback Matt Schaub said. "If you complete a pass, whether it's a 5-yard hitch or a screen and you get 20 yards out of it, it can be deflating for a defense."
"Statistics show that if you make what's called an explosive play in a drive (20 or more yards), your odds of scoring go way up," Schaub said. "If you can do that after an easy completion, it just gets everybody going.
"I think the key is understanding defenses and where the defenders are coming from."
Johnson (6-3, 223), Walter (6-3, 215) and Daniels (6-3, 243) are big and strong enough to break tackles after making a catch. But there's much more to it than being big and strong.
"After you catch the ball, the key is finding a way to get away from the first guy," Johnson said. "As soon as you catch it, you have to turn and try to get straight up the field. Those first three or four steps are so important. You just try to explode."
Johnson missed seven games last season because of a knee injury. He still had 60 receptions for 851 yards (14.2 average) and eight touchdowns. Projecting his 265 YAC over a full season, he would have totaled about 470.
"We work on it all the time because it's so important," Johnson said. "You can make a big play, and you can keep the chains moving.
"If you can turn a 10- or 12-yard catch into a 20-yard catch, that can mean so much to the offense."
Walter was the Texans' best receiver in the preseason when it came to getting yards after the catch.
"I hope it carries over into regular season," Walter said. "That's the No. 1 thing I want to improve from last year."
The Steelers enter Sunday's game against the Houston Texans at Heinz Field with two new starters in the offensive line and a whole bunch of them on the final years of their contracts.
No contract extensions will be reached with any of their players by the time the regular season starts, the deadline the Steelers have installed for new contracts to be reached. That means the Steelers likely will lose the left side of their starting line after this season as well.
Left tackle Marvel Smith wanted an extension beyond this season and likely won't re-sign with Pittsburgh when it's over, becoming a free agent. New left guard Chris Kemoeatu, replacing departed Alan Faneca, also will be an unrestricted free agent and likely to leave. Their top two backup tackles also are in their final years, both veterans, Max Starks and Trai Essex. Their right starting tackle, Willie Colon, will be a restricted free agent after the season.
Others working on the final years of their contracts and UFAs next year are No. 3 cornerback Bryant McFadden, No. 3 wide receiver Nate Washington and backup quarterbacks Charlie Batch, who is on injured reserve, and Byron Leftwich.
"I don't worry about it, I moved forward already," Smith said. "It's not something I'm dwelling on."
The Steelers extended two contracts -- quarterback Ben Roethlisberger received a $100 million deal and linebacker James Farrior received a $5 million bonus on a new five-year contract.
Kemoeatu and veteran center Justin Hartwig are the two new starters in the offensive line that will try to protect Roethlisberger better than last season, when he was sacked 47 times, second most in Steelers history. Smith will face Houston defensive end Mario Williams, who was second in the AFC with 14 sacks last season.