In slightly more than two (2) days, your Houston Texans will officially open their 2008 season at Heinz Field. No more holding the starters out. No more keeping it close to the vest. Basically, no more half-assing. Come Sunday afternoon, the gloves are off.
With that in mind, the regular season version of Pre-Game Recon kicks off today. Our first regular season conversation is with Blitzburgh of SB Nation's stupendous source for all things Steelers, the aptly named Behind the Steel Curtain. So let's see how he handled the brutal inquiries of yours truly, shall we? Awaaaaaaay we go!
1. Let's begin this exercise with the big boy...what's the latest on Casey Hampton? As a Texas Ex, it pains me to see pictures of him in which he appears to have consumed an entire sperm whale. Is he out of Tomlin's doghouse? Will he start and/or contribute on Sunday?
BTSC: Casey Hampton's going to be fine. When he reported to training camp overweight, Mike Tomlin forced him to work on conditioning and conditioning only. That may sound humiliating, but when your job consists of clogging up holes and not much else, there's just very little to work on scheme-wise for a veteran like Hampton. It's also worth noting that Tomlin toned it down a bit with his more veteran players this traning camp. The decision to make Hampton just do conditioning drills repeatedly could be interpreted as a way to not expose Hampton to too much unnecessary contact while still prompting him to get in shape.
Anyway, although he still looks beastial (fine, fat), I think he's close enough to his playing weight of years past that I'm not overly alarmed. But, he's no spring chicken either. Perhaps he's a bit overconfident that his body will respond the same way as it did when he was 26 years old. We'll see, but yes, he will most certainly start, and will likely play a big role in limiting the Texans rushing attack. P.S.: Go Horns! Lived in Austin for many years.
2. I don't mind telling you that I am petrified of how the Houston secondary is going to hold up against Roethlisberger & Co. Seriously...I'm having night terrors about this. What do you expect out of the passing game on Sunday? Please don't say 400+ yards. I'd like to sleep between now and kickoff.
BTSC: Well, I'm not sure exactly how offensive coordinator Bruce Arians is going to script this one. On the one hand, you'd think that Pittsburgh might take to the ground with the two-headed monster of Willie Parker and Rashard Mendenhall, and limit Roethlisberger to 18-25 throws. Furthermore, I'm sure the Steelers coaching staff is well aware of the Texans' impressive pass-rush. Not exactly the best opponent to start the season with when you're trying to replace two new starters along the line, including perennial Pro Bowler Alan Faneca. So, in other words, we might see a persistent rushing attack from Pittsburgh, and if not, I wouldn't be surprised if we were focused on quick-hitting pass plays that limited Mario Willaims & Co.'s ability to get to the QB. If the Texans back-7 tackles well and limits yards after the catch, they might have a good chance to keep Big Ben under 200-220 yards.
3. In my humble opinion (as well as those who are much smarter than me), Rashard Mendenhall was a helluva value pick in the first round. The immediate reaction, of course, was whether his arrival spelled the beginning of the end for Willie Parker. How do you see carries being allocated between the two of them this season? And should we expect to see Mendenhall toting the rock in most goal line situations?
BTSC: I agree with you that the Mendenhall pick was excellent, and Steelers fans, myself included, can't wait to see him develop the next several years. But, don't listen to anyone who tells you that Willie Parker won't be an integral part of the Steelers' offense in 2008. In fact, if I had to bet, I'd guess that Parker totes the ball dozens more times than Mendenhall. As for the goal line situations, the Steelers do have a very effective short-yardage back that moonlights as a FB on occassion named Gary Russell. We all think he's the better option at the goal line, and Mendenhall has certainly not helped his cause with the substantial fumbling problem he's had this preseason. The problem is bad enough that Hines Ward and Willie Parker have implemented a rule that if anyone strips the rookie in the team's facility or on the practice field, they get $100 of the rook's dough. I thought it might help, but the kid fumbled early in the preseason game that followed the implementation of the rule. So in other words, until that problem is cleared up, it wouldn't surprise me to see Russell or Parker get the ball deep in opposing territory. Turnovers are just too costly in the red zone.
4. Faneca's gone, and I understand there are real questions surrounding how the OL will perform in 2008. One of my good buddies is a Steelers fanatic, and he's spent the last several months preaching that (1) Faneca is/was horribly overrated and (2) the OL will actually be better this season. The aforementioned friend--learned sage or raving lunatic?
BTSC: Well, I'll say that your friend is probably being a bit hyperbolic and harsh when he says that Alan Faneca is way overrated. Did he regress a bit at age 31 compared to when he was in his prime? Sure. Did he deserve to be All-Pro last year? Probably not. But that guy's been a mauler for a decade now and deserves most all of the praise he gets. One final thought on the subject - it is entirely possible that Faneca's play slipped last year due to the extremely poor play of the center playing beside him. He might have been trying to pick up some of the slack for Sean Mahan, our center last year who was traded just days ago, and looked terrible in the process. That's a question that I don't think there's an answer to, unfortunately.
As for the line improving? I think your friend is correct. Heck, it's tough to be much worse than a 47 sack team. By the way, I noticed the Texans only surrendered 22 sacks last year. Very impressive and quite the change from the David Carr era! I digress. We'll have to just wait and see how things materialize, but our left tackle is healthy again, Faneca's replacement at G is a bulldozer in the running game, and our other tackle got a very valuable year of experience under his belt last year which will hopefully pay dividends in the form of marked improvement in 2008. Make no mistake about it though - this team will only go as far as the line will take them. It's the 800 pound gorilla in the room that Steelers fans have been obsessing about all offseason.
5.What facet of the Texans strikes the most fear in your heart? Why? And finally...
PUT YOUR NAME ON IT: The final score of Sunday's game will be Houston _____, Pittsburgh _____. More importantly, the Steelers will win _____ playoff game(s) this year.
BTSC: Special teams. 4 returned kickoffs for TDs from the Texans last year! Wowzers. Andre Davis can fly. It should be noted that special teams was almost as bad as the offensive line was last year for Pittsburgh. One example that summarizes how bad and crippling it was last year for us: In the Wild Card Round of the playoffs, the Steelers took their opening drive down the field on a 10 play, 80 yard scoring drive. A gorgeous drive. We were ecstatic. Then, Maurice Jones Drew returns the ensuing kickoff 96 yards and poof, there went any momentum we established on that first drive. Andre Johnson in the passing game also gives me nightmares, though I like our #1 cover-guy Ike Taylor enough to think that he might limit Johnson to only one or two big plays.
Steelers 27, Texans 16. Not going to make any playoff predictions just yet. But I will say that I think Pittsburgh will again make the playoffs by virtue of winning the AFC North.