By BOB LABRIOLA
Perception is reality. Or is it?
The perception is that the Houston Texans, led by Mario Williams, are a sacking machine of a defense, and the Steelers, with an offensive line that lost Alan Faneca to free agency during the offseason, are a sieve capable of getting their quarterback killed.
Williams, the No. 1 overall pick of the 2006 NFL Draft, was second in the AFC with 14 sacks last season, and he and Amobi Okoye were the top defensive end-defensive tackle sack tandem in the NFL with 19.5.
The Steelers allowed 53 sacks in 17 games last season; then, in March their best offensive lineman joined the New York Jets as an unrestricted free agent, and they replaced center Sean Mahan with Justin Hartwig, who had been released by the 7-9 Carolina Panthers.
This clearly means Ben Roethlisberger's life will be in danger when the Texans visit Heinz Field for a 1 p.m. game this Sunday. Or does it?
"Defensively it starts up front for these guys," said Coach Mike Tomlin.
That it does, but for everything that Williams and Okoye bring to the Texans' defense, it's also worth noting the Steelers finished with more sacks last year (36-31), despite 2007 being a season in which Pittsburgh's pass rush often was criticized for lack of consistent production.
Still, that doesn't mean Williams should be considered anything less than the Pro Bowl-caliber player he is.
"They have three young (former) first-round picks who are very talented in their four-man front," said Tomlin. "That group is led by Mario Williams, who looks like the first pick in the draft. He is a talented player, very disruptive, athletic and powerful. He's in the backfield a bunch. They have a variety of different line stunts that are very difficult to pick up, not only getting hats-on-hats but once you get hats-on-hats, you have to win those battles. They have some talented guys."
To deal with those talented guys – former No. 1 picks Williams, Okoye and Travis Johnson, plus veteran Anthony Weaver – the Steelers offensive line is going to have to start off the season in mid-season form in terms of playing as a unit.
"The only way that you (develop cohesion) is by playing together," said Tomlin. "Those are problems that everybody has any time you have turnover. Everyone is working on cohesion. That's what makes September football so exciting. It will be exciting this weekend, and hopefully it will be exciting in a positive way for us."
What the Steelers are trying to accomplish is to avoid having Sunday's game turn exciting in a harrowing way for Roethlisberger, and if they are to provide their quarterback with any semblance of comfort in the pocket it will have to begin with finding ways to control Williams.
"This guy is extremely powerful and athletic," said Tomlin about Williams. "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's not a lot of time; somebody better block this guy. That is what makes him who he is and that is why they drafted him first overall."
The Texans drafted Williams first overall in a draft also offering Heisman Trophy winner Reggie Bush and national championship winning quarterback Vince Young, and they took a lot of heat about it. But as Williams has emerged as a top pass rusher, while Bush and Young still are trying to find their way at their respective positions, the Texans are starting to get credit for their decision.
And using their first-round picks to strengthen their defense has been a trait the Texans have employed often of late. The year before picking Williams, the Texans used their No. 1 pick on Johnson, a 6-3, 311-pound defensive end from Florida State, and then in 2007 they picked Okoye on the first round. That's three defensive linemen in three successive first rounds of the NFL Draft.
"We thought we could win by improving our defense, and that even if we had a Reggie Bush, our offense wouldn't be better than, say, Indianapolis," said Texans owner Bob McNair. "And so the way for us to win in our division was to strengthen our defense, and that was the decision that was made."
The Steelers have made some decisions of late regarding their offensive line, and while not as dramatic as the Texans', they are hopeful their decisions will result in Roethlisberger being sacked fewer times in 2008.
"I have commented several times that I have been pleased with the pocket in the preseason and in training camp," said Tomlin, "particularly in the area of play-action passing. That has been good, but again we will have a better idea of how it is on Sunday."
That's when all of this perception officially will become reality.