Stopping run, Slaton key to beating Texans

The Steelers open the 2008 season today against the Houston Texans at Heinz Field. The key to the game could very well be the Steelers' ability to contain someone who's had big games here in the past.

PITTSBURGH – Just for yuks, someone asked James Farrior about the Steelers' No. 1 priority on defense in the opener against the Houston Texans.

Potsie wasn't amused.

"Come on, man, I've been doing this same interview for years," he said.

But Farrior still summoned up the long-standing answer and shouted it out: "STOP THE RUN."

Yet, the Texans don't really have any backs. Even their coach, Gary Kubiak, said that veteran Ahman Green, who's coming off 12 months of injuries, would receive only 12 carries or so.

"Yeah," Farrior said, "But they've got the boy from West Virginia. He looked good in preseason."

That boy, Steve Slaton, is well known to Pittsburgh football fans. He looked like Gale Sayers reincarnate from the middle of the 2005 season through the end of the 2006 season for West Virginia University.

William Gay, the Steelers' reserve cornerback from Louisville, remembers that time well. He was on the field when Slaton ran for 188 yards and scored six touchdowns as WVU rallied from a 24-7 deficit to beat Louisville in triple overtime in the middle of 2005. Slaton then ran for 179 yards against Pitt and was the MVP of WVU's win over Georgia in the Sugar Bowl.

The 5-9, 197-pound Slaton ran up against Louisville again the following season in a prime-time game matching undefeated teams, and Louisville had Slaton's name circled on the blackboard.

It paid off. Slaton fumbled twice to start the second half and left the game because he couldn't grip the ball. It was the beginning of a decline that ended with Slaton leaving WVU a year early and lasting until the third round of the draft, where the Texans took him.

"I think even Pitt stopped him last year," Gay said of Slaton. "But this preseason he's looked like the old Steve Slaton to me – quick. We hear he might get a lot of reps Sunday, so we'll see if he can bring what he had in college into the NFL. What's interesting to me is him being in the I-formation now."

Slaton, the Texans' leading preseason rusher with 138 yards (4.1 avg.), probably won't start today's 1 o'clock game, but is the main threat in the Texans' backfield and therefore priority No. 1, because if the Texans can't get their running game untracked, quarterback Matt Schaub must contend with a Steelers pass rush intent on exploiting rookie left tackle Duane Brown.

Brown told Houston reporters this week that he's not worried about James Harrison and company because "the Dallas (preseason) game really helped us out a lot going against the 3-4 (defense), great players and great speed." However, the Texans never gave Brown a chance to fail against the Cowboys. The Texans consistently rolled right away from Dallas DE Demarcus Ware and dumped short passes throughout the first half, most of them to tight end Owen Daniels.

But if Slaton, Green and the Texans' running game get rolling, Schaub will have time to throw deep to vertical threats Andre Johnson and Andre Davis. Johnson (6-3, 223) is a two-time Pro Bowler who scored eight touchdowns in nine games last season. Davis, the former Cleveland Brown, averaged 17.7 yards per catch in 2007.

The Texans will likely need all facets of their offense clicking in order to keep pace with Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers. Even though the Pittsburgh media treated the Texans pass rush this week as if it's the second coming of the '85 Bears, the Texans had only 31 sacks last season. Mario Williams, the RDE, had 14 of them, but his celebrated linemate, defensive tackle Amobi Okoye, is struggling.

Here's what the 's Lance Zierlein, son of Steelers' line coach Larry Zierlein, wrote of the 302-pound Okoye after the third preseason game:

"What I saw was a DT who got pushed around against the run just like last season. It was more of the same for Okoye, Travis Jackson and Anthony Weaver. I'm still waiting for the Texans to cut Okoye loose and let him shoot the gaps and be a disruptive player rather than a ‘block catcher' who gets moved around too easily. He isn't going to win too many physical battles, so he has to be put in position to be disruptive and play angles. If that isn't the answer either, he won't have a very successful NFL career."

If the Steelers can run on the Texans, it'll open the passing game against a Texans' secondary that ranks as the weakest facet of the team – unless of course it's their running game. And Steve Slaton's name is already circled.

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