It's the second year in a row the Steelers will go up against a rookie left tackle. Last year, it was Cleveland's Joe Thomas. This year, it's Houston's Duane Brown. A talented, physical player, Brown looked a bit over-eager with his punch, and was off-balance at times in pass protection this preseason. Those are weaknesses Steelers returning Pro Bowl OLB James Harrison will devour.
Harrison is as relentless a player as there is in the NFL. Look for him to simply beat Brown up with straight bull rushes to set up his quick move to the inside against the pass. Against the run, Harrison will have to get inside of Brown, and stay alert in an effort to keep RB Ahman Green and rookie RB Steve Slaton to the inside. This will be a critical area for the Steelers, because the Texans have a talented blocking unit that will sideswipe defenders on the line and at the point of attack, knocking them out of the play.
LT Marvel Smith vs. RE Mario Williams
The best player on the field Sunday will likely be Texans DE Mario Williams. Enough has been written about him, but the biggest compliment to pay is to say his ability to disrupt the Steelers' offense may be enough on its own for the Texans to sneak a win at Pittsburgh. He's long, agile and plays with excellent leverage.
Smith, the savvy veteran, has to have flawless technique and keep his feet active in order to keep Williams at bay. Looking at the second half of Williams' 2007 season, it's not likely he can be shut down for four quarters, but a rotation of tight ends and running backs chipping him, much like the Steelers did to Vikings DE Jared Allen in the preseason (with a modicum of success), could be enough to give QB Ben Roethlisberger enough time to establish some passing rhythm. If Smith can't keep Williams in check, he could force a turnover or two that would negate the Steelers defensive advantage.
SS Troy Polamalu vs. TE Owen Daniels
The Steelers will get Polamalu at 100 percent, which hasn't happened in a while. The defense is significantly better when he's in there, and his missile-like speed and ability to penetrate off the blitz will be a key component to the Texans' ability to get the ground game going, therefore, set up WR Andre Johnson in space.
Daniels must not only help block Harrison and OLB LaMarr Woodley (making his first career start), but he has to be crisp enough of a route runner to draw defensive attention away from Johnson. If he is able to get open enough, and make a few catches on a Steelers linebacker, should they choose to cover Daniels with one, he will force Polamalu into coverage more often, and out of blitzing schemes.
WR Santonio Holmes vs. CB Fred Bennett
As a rookie, Houston CB Fred Bennett played well in eight starts last season, replacing injured Dunta Robinson. He'll make his first opening-day start Sunday, and have to face Holmes, who led the NFL in yards per catch last season. Bennett has a size advantage, which will help in run support, but very few cornerbacks, if any, can match Holmes' speed and acceleration. Bennett was beaten deep a few times this preseason, and Roethlisberger and Holmes have connected four times in two years on touchdowns from 35 yards or more.
The key for Holmes is going to be recognizing his role against the blitz. He and Roethlisberger need to be aware of where pressure will come from, and Holmes needs to be ready to find spots in Houston's zone if and when they start bringing linebackers or safeties. Holmes will want to use a double-move off play-action to see if Bennett's aggression against the run can be exploited.
|The Coolong Scorecard|
Neal Coolong is the author of On The Black Side, and his match-ups column appears weekly on Steel City Insider.