The Steelers open the season at home, favored by 6 1/2 and I think most would agree that a loss to the Houston Texans would qualify as a pretty big surprise. I'm not saying that it can't happen by any means but I do think that most fans fully expect to come out of this weekend with a solid win. There are some interesting match-ups though that should prove to be a big test for a couple of key Steelers players.
Marvel Smith: We all know a bad back led to his poor play in 2007 and eventually ended his season prematurely. He looks to be healthy now though and he's look pretty good in the preseason despite going against several good defensive ends. He'll be in for another big test on Sunday though when Mario Williams lines up against him. Williams put in together towards the end of last season, finishing with ten sacks in the final seven games. He's a physical freak (6'7 295) who's got the speed to turn the corner or the pure strength to bull rush an opposing OT right into the quarterback's lap. Smith will have to bring his A-game every single snap or Mario will abuse him.
Ike Taylor: Many Steelers fans think Ike is a borderline Pro Bowler and he'll get a chance to prove it right out of the gate this week. Andre Johnson is one of the best receivers in the league when he's healthy and he's finally got a quarterback who can get him the ball. He's averaged nearly 70 yards per game throughout his career despite playing most of it without a decent quarterback and he upped that average to 95 yards per game last year when Matt Schaub came to town. Johnson's a big target who a touchdown magnet in the red zone (8 TDs in 9 games last year) and has the speed to run by almost any corner (14.2 ypc in 2007). It'll be interesting to see if the Steelers decide to let Ike go where ever Johnson is or if they make him stick to his side of the field. Either way, he'll have his share of snaps against the big man and if wants to prove he's a Pro Bowl level corner, he'll have his chance on Sunday.
Special Teams Coverage: Ok so this isn't exactly a single player matchup but I just couldn't ignore this storyline. We all know the Steelers issues in covering punts and kickoffs last season and if they wanted a measuring stick this week, they'll get it. The Texans returned four kickoffs for touchdowns last year and their top punt returner averaged 9.5 yards per return. Andre Davis averaged 30.5 yards per return last year and took three kickoffs back for scores last year and Jacoby Jones returned 30 punts for 286 yards, including a 74 yarder. Special teams coverage cost the Steelers at least a couple games last year and arguably a playoff game. They'll have to start proving from week one that those days are behind them now or this will be a reoccurring nightmare all season long.
Thoughts? How do you see these playing out?