This may come as a surprise to many of you, but I have friends. Yes, friends. Plural. Some of them are actually real, too!
One of those friends is a Steelers fanatic. He grew up in Pennsylvania, in a small town outside Pittsburgh (he tries to claim he's from Pittsburgh, but he's not). That buddy of mine is coming into town this weekend for the game, so we've been exchanging e-mails throughout the week. After the jump, take a look at my buddy's purported keys to Sunday's game (a/k/a "the ramblings of an insanely bitter Steelers fan"), which were sent to me a couple of days ago.
I will confess that my confidence in a Steelers blowout has been shaken as a result of the Colts debacle. I knew going into that game that Jonathan Scott sucked (he did replace Max Starks following injury last year and started some last year). I didn't realize, however, that he is a gutless coward who is a quitter...typical Longhorn. As long as Jonathan Scott is on the field, the Steelers can lose to anyone. In any event, here are the keys to the game (from the Steelers perspective):
TEXANS WITH THE BALL
1. Casey Hampton. Casey Hampton has been playing tentatively because of all the high/low combo chop blocks he has been getting this season. Rather than go down and create a pile when faced with a doubleteam, Hampton has retreated off of the line of scrimmage in order to protect his knees. There were a couple of plays in the Colts game where he was 3-5 yards off of the line of scrimmage, something I have never seen out of Big Snack before. If Casey plays tentative again as a result of the Texans' chop blocking, the Texans will have some room in the running game. If he is motivated and plays angry in what is likely his last appearance at Reliant, he still has the talent to dominate the line of scrimmage.
The talk of the demise of the Steelers' defense is largely premature. But if Big Snack isn't playing like Big Snack, there will be creases in the running game, especially since Aaron Smith looks done at this point (stopping the run in the 3-4 starts with the unsung heros on the defensive line; subpar performance of 2/3 of the DL has caused some issues for the Steelers' run D thus far).
2. James Casey/Owen Daniels. The Steelers' defense has traditionally struggled with athletic tight ends. This year has been no different, at least in the Ravens game anyway. If Schaub is patient, doesn't pee himself in the face of pressure, and takes the underneath stuff to the TEs, there will be yards to be had.
3. How Troy is utilized. Polamalu has been looking better every week, and last week looked the best he has since the first half of the 2009 opener (before Fat Alge Crumpler injured him by landing on his knee). If the Steelers play aggressively and let Polamalu freelance in and around the line of scrimmage, it could be a long day for the Texans, even though doing so would probably mean putting Ike Taylor on an island with Andre Johnson (I'm not afraid of that matchup). If, on the other hand, the Steelers keep Troy deep in a cover 2/deep halves look, he will largely be neutralized and the Texans should have their way with the underneath stuff. I hope the Steelers choose to utilize Troy aggressively, but am afraid that they will choose to go with the "bend but not break" strategy in light of the Texans' red zone woes.
STEELERS WITH THE BALL
1. OL health. Their rookie RT, Marcus Gilbert, is the best tackle on the team. He was injured in the 3rd quarter of the game against the Colts, which is when the wheels really came off the wagon on the offense (no offense can function needing to give help to both tackles). He came back in the game with Jonathan Scott was injured, playing better with one arm than Scott did while healthy. If Gilbert can go, and early indications are that he will, then the Steelers should have competent RT play. By the same token, I am keeping my fingers crossed that Jonathan Scott's ankle injury keeps him off the field this week. I actually hope he develops some sort of career-ending complication and that I never have to see the gutless F*** ever put on the black and gold again.
The other starters on the o-line have all been banged up this year as well. The starting RG will probably not be able to go, but his backup (who was the starter last year) will probably be an upgrade. The end result of all of these injuries and the aforementioned injuries to the tackles (including Willie Colon's season-ending injury) is that the Steelers' already putrid o-line will likely have some communication errors and struggle some in blitz pick-ups, especially in a noisy environment like Reliant.
If the o-line somehow gives Ben any semblance of time, he will absolutely shred the Texans. The Steelers' young receivers (Wallace, Brown, Sanders, or the "young money crew," as Ward dubbed them) are scary good.
2. Hines Ward. Ward should not see the field when the Steelers go 1 WR or 2 WR. For years, he hasn't been able to get separation in tight man coverage, but at least he could still get open against zone coverages and contribute in the running game. Now, he is so slow that teams are able to effectively cover him with a linebacker, and he lacks the quickness to even get to the place he needs to be on run plays. As a result, teams have been able to put 8 in the box every time the Steelers go 2 WR because it is the functional equivalent to going 1 WR/3 TE in terms of the passing threat. The more Hines Ward continues to see the field on early downs in conventional offensive sets, the less effective the offense will be. He should only see the field when the Steelers go 3 or 4 wide.
3. Rashard Mendenhall. I have always been a fan and a defender of Rashard Mendenhall, even after his costly Super Bowl fumble. His performance against the Colts, however, was the most gutless effort I have ever seen by a Steeler who is not a Texas alum. No matter how bad the Texans' interior rush defense may be, the Steelers will not have any success running the ball if Mendenhall continues to tip-toe like a ballerina instead of hitting the hole. There were consistently small creases against the Colts that would have yielded 2-4 yard gains if he put his head down, but instead Mendenhall felt the need to turn his back to the line of scrimmage and go down like a ^%&^$@. I spent most of the Colts game screaming for backup Isaac Redman and even former Public Enemy No.1 Mewelde Moore.
Your reaction? Feeling better or worse about the Texans' chances on Sunday after reading that screed?