By BOB LABRIOLA
The following are some of the interesting matchups to watch when the Steelers open the 2008 regular season against the Houston Texans at 1 p.m. on Sunday at Heinz Field:
STEELERS WR SANTONIO HOLMES VS. TEXANS CBs JACQUES REEVES AND FRED BENNETT:
With DE Mario Williams being joined by Amobi Okoye, the Texans could have a fearsome pass rush, but what happens on those occasions when they can't get to the quarterback? Top cornerback Dunta Robinson starts the season on PUP, which means Jacques Reeves, an offseason pickup from Dallas, will start opposite second-year pro Fred Bennett.
"We picked up Jacques Reeves from Dallas and we have been very pleased with him," said Coach Gary Kubiak, "and we have a young kid that we drafted out of Eastern Kentucky, the (Antwaun) Molden kid. We feel good back there."
That may be true, or Kubiak may be whistling past the graveyard, because the Texans, like the Steelers, managed only 11 interceptions in 2007.
"The one thing about your secondary is, you are only as good as how quickly you can make that guy get rid of the football," said Kubiak. "The key, if you let anybody in this league sit back there in the pocket, they are going to pick you apart. I think that the key for us is making him get rid of the ball."
Holmes, who led the NFL in yards-per-catch last season, seems primed for a breakout year, and if the Steelers can give Ben Roethlisberger some time that breakout year could begin on Sunday vs. the Texans.
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STEELERS LT MARVEL SMITH VS. TEXANS DE MARIO WILLIAMS:
Speaking of protecting Roethlisberger, it's all going to begin with controlling Williams, the first overall pick of the 2006 NFL Draft, a player who had to prove to Texans fans he was worth selecting ahead of Heisman Trophy winner Reggie Bush and national championship quarterback Vince Young.
"This guy is extremely powerful and athletic," said Coach Mike Tomlin. "His line stunts, he runs them very efficiently. This morning, I counted, and he took four steps to get to the quarterback on a stunt. That is not a lot of time. Somebody better block this guy."
Most often, that guy is going to be Smith, but the Texans also like to make Williams a moving target for opposing blocking schemes. There will be times when the Steelers break the huddle and RT Willie Colon will find Williams lined up across from him.
"He had a lot of pressure on him at first here, and that was put on him because of us and the decision we made," said Kubiak. "He's gotten better every day. He gained a lot of confidence in the second part of last year. He had an excellent training camp, and he is a very smart young man so we can ask him to do a lot of things. I am very pleased with his progress. The future of our team had a lot to do with him becoming a fine player, and it sure looks like he is on his way."
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STEELERS ROLB JAMES HARRISON VS. TEXANS LT DUANE BROWN:
A case can be made that the Texans should be more worried about dealing with Harrison than the Steelers should be about dealing with Williams. First of all, Brown is a rookie, and it's a guarantee that he's never had to face someone with Harrison's combination of speed and power packed into a frame posing a leverage nightmare for a 6-foot-4 offensive tackle. Also, the Texans will be adjusting to offensive line coach Alex Gibbs' system, and while that won't impact the pass blocking necessarily, it's bound to have a rookie thinking instead of simply playing.
Brown is a converted tight end, and so he's also relatively inexperienced in the art of left tackle, and one of the negatives in his game is that he gets too high in pass protection. Harrison, on the other hand, has shown marked improvement from one season to the next, and it's worth remembering that he was a Pro Bowl/team MVP player last year. If the Texans believe Brown can handle Harrison one-on-one for an entire afternoon, well, by the end of it Matt Schaub might disagree.
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STEELERS KICKOFF COVERAGE VS. TEXANS KOR ANDRE DAVIS:
To describe the Steelers kick coverage in 2007 as hideous would be inaccurate, but it's fair to point out that it did fail them in some critical situations, such as the playoff loss to the Jaguars when Maurice Jones-Drew returned a kickoff 96 yards. Davis, who began his career with the Browns, returned three kickoffs for touchdowns last season, and Texans special teams coach Joe Marciano always seems to develop solid units wherever he has been.
"Andre' has a lot of speed and if we find a way to get him a couple of cracks then he is very dangerous as far as going the distance," said Kubiak. "We have done a pretty good job around here on special teams. Marciano does a great job; our return game, when it has been good, has really helped our team excel. We are counting on Andre' and Jacoby (Jones) being able to do that again this year."
The Steelers changed some procedures in terms of their approach to special teams during training camp, and things went relatively smoothly with the exception of Buffalo's Leodis McKelvin returning a kickoff for a touchdown in the second preseason game. Teams use a lot of different combinations on special teams during the preseason in order to evaluate the backups' abilities, and so the potential is there for some rustiness early in the season. A special teams touchdown in this game could have a huge impact.
Steelers - Texans Match-ups
By BOB LABRIOLA