To kick off their last championship season, the Steelers hosted the Houston Texans, and pummeled them.
Willie Parker rushed for 138 yards and 3 touchdowns, Ben Roethlisberger completed 13 of 14 with 2 touchdowns, and newly teamed bookends James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley combined for 4 sacks, a forced fumble, a recovered fumble and an interception as the Steelers ran out to a 35-3 lead and cruised through the game, and then the 2008 season.
The Steelers travel to Houston today for the first meeting with the Texans since that game, and this time it’s the Texans who are hoping that it’s their game, their season.
And why not? It could be their time.
The Texans are 2-1 with their loss a narrow one last week at New Orleans in which the Texans blew a nine-point lead with 12 minutes remaining.
In spite of Drew Brees’s fourth-quarter heroics, the Texans come home to their dome brimming with a confidence sparked by a quarterback in his prime, a big, scary wide receiver who might be the best in the game, record-setting tight ends and fullbacks, the NFL’s leading rusher from a year ago, an offensive line that’s drawing raves for everything from its cohesion to its physicality, and a defense led by the former No. 1 pick of the 2006 draft who’s being called a bigger DeMarcus Ware.
Add it up, put it in a packed dome with a sprinkle of revenge and it’s not too difficult to imagine the Steelers limping home with a 2-2 record.
And why not? It appears it’s not the Steelers’ time.
Gone are the days of Roethlisberger using his running game to keep defenses off balance with his play-action game. The pass rush that hounded the Texans in 2008 has been a shell of its former self. And the offensive line? Well, Roethlisberger has somehow managed to keep himself healthy while the running game side-steps along at its worst clip since the disastrous 2003 season.
Yet, they’re 2-1 and could add some jet fuel to their season with a win Sunday.
To do so, they’ll need to stop the following:
* Matt Schaub – the 30-year-old quarterback has a career-best 101.9 passer rating.
* Andre Johnson – Ike Taylor calls him and Steve Smith the best in the game today. “A healthy Steve Smith,” corrected Taylor, the Steelers’ CB who’ll be assigned to Johnson. “He does everything Steve Smith does, but he’s big and he’s doing it.” The 6-3. 226-pound Johnson has 21 catches and is on pace for his fourth 100-catch season out of the last six.
* Owen Daniels and James Casey – the tight end and h-back/fullback are nearly identical, except that Daniels is a Pro Bowler of the past (2009) and Casey might be one in the future, particularly after his team-record 126 yards receiving out of the backfield last Sunday.
* Arian Foster – led the NFL in rushing with 1,616 yards last season and expects to play his first full and healthy game of the season Sunday after recovering from a hamstring injury.
* Mario Williams – was moved to OLB in new coordinator Wade Phillips’ 3-4 scheme, but hand up or hand down he has 50 career sacks and one of those nearly ended a Steelers’ championship run in its infancy. “I remember that sack. He was unblocked,” said Steelers replacement LT Trai Essex. “If he hits you, and you don’t block him, and he has all that momentum, you’ll get hurt. He’s like a Demarcus Ware clone, except bigger.”
Of course, the Steelers can keep up with the Texans if they take advantage of Texans nose tackle Shaun Cody (6-4, 301) and get their run game going. That would open up an historically soft pass defense that has improved with the offseason additions of CB Johnathan Joseph and FS Danieal Manning.
The Steelers certainly have the ability to keep up with this burgeoning, young AFC powerhouse, but has their time passed?
Sunday will provide a big chunk of that answer.