Let's take a look at which team has the upper hand at various positions in Sunday's matchup between the Houston Texans and the Pittsburgh Steelers. Let's start things off on the offensive side of the ball.
Quarterback: Matt Schuab is a solid quarterback, and it wouldn't surprise me if he did some nice things Sunday against our defense. If neither team gets any pressure, and the game morphs into a contest between the two quarterbacks to see who can throw more accurately with their feet set comfortably, Schaub might deserve the nod over Roethlisberger. But that scenario isn't that likely. Instead, we're likely to see the Steelers confuse Schaub with their multiple blitz packages. And on the flip side, the Texans impressive front-four will likely force Roetlisberger to break contain and make something happen outside of the pocket. Fine by me. That's what he's good at, and when it comes to improvising and making something out of nothing, Schaub falls way short of Big Ben. If the game were left in the hands of the two back-ups, I'd go with Houston. Sage Rosenfels put the team on his back on multiple occasions last year while Schaub was injured, and there's no way that team gets to .500 without some of the remarkable moments he had filling in. EDGE: Pittsburgh
Running Backs: With Chris Brown scratched and Ahmad Green listed as probable (if he plays, it won't be at 100%) the Texans might have to turn to Chris Taylor and Steve Slaton to find a way to slow down the Steelers pass-rush with some productivity in the ground game. No small task, especially for two guys with one year of combined experience and only respectable, not outstanding, physical capabilities. And in Green's case, I admire his resilience, but I have a hard time seeing him do much against a fast and stout Steelers rush defense. Of course, success in the running game is usually determined by the play of the line, so it's quite possible that those three are provided some daylight to at least keep the Steelers D somewhat honest.
For Pittsburgh, excitement must be running high for the prospects of a top-5 ground game this year. Willie Parker's hungry, I can tell, to remind people that he's still here and a big-time ball carrier. And Mendenhall can take the first (giant) step towards alleviating any concerns about his fumbling problems, by actually protecting the ball in a game that counts. However, a Delicious Mendenhall cough-up could be just what the Dr. ordered for the Texans to stay in this game. Again though, this one's an easy pick. EDGE: Pittsburgh
Wide Receivers: This is a tougher call for me than the first two, simply because I think the Texans have the best WR of either team in Andre Johnson. At 6'3" and 220+ pounds, he's big enough to withstandi whatever bumps corners give him at the line of scrimmage, and fast enough to blow by even the fastest corners on moment's notice. I can't wait to see him and Ike battle on Sunday. Santonio Holmes is no slouch himself, of course, and I am eager to see how he starts the season that could validate him as one of the ten best WRs in the game. Behind Johnson, the Texans are probably a bit weaker across the board than are the Steelers. Andre Davis is a dynamite return guy, but still has room for growth as a consistent route runner. Kevin Walter won't keep defensive coordinators up at night, but he did have a 30-reception month last October, including a 12 catch, 160 yard outburst against Jacksonville. Impressive, I know, but remember that A. Johnson was out all of last October, bumping Walter into the #1 role in many of Schaub and Rosenfel's progressions. It's also worth noting that Rosenfels was the QB during that huge month for Walter. There is seemingly some sort of rapport between those two that's missing when Schaub is behind center. Anyhow, because the Texans have the best player in the bunch in my estimation, I'll give them the slight edge in this department. EDGE: Houston
Tight Ends: If you're like me, you haven't thought of the name Mark Bruener in awhile. Lo and behold, there he is at #2 on the Texans' depth chart at TE. Back to him later. Houston's #1 option at TE is Owen Daniels, a player of the same physical mold as Heath Miller. Daniels is from from the Univ. of Wisconsin and will be entering his 3rd year.
Daniels made exactly the type of progress that you want to see out of your draft picks. He elevated his receptions from 34 to 63; his yards per catch increased from 10.4 to 12.2, and he started all 16 games, after having missed two his rookie season. Another number that caught my eye was his outstanding 44 receptions for 1st downs. The kid can play, and our LBs and secondary will have to keep an eye on him in the seam.
As for Heath Miller? Well, I've harped on this subject plenty, but I really thought we'd see Heath's numbers where Daniels are by now. 47 receptions is a joke for a guy as sure-handed as Miller. It wasn't until the playoffs when we really utilized his skill set. Against Jacksonville, he had 8 catches for 85 yards and a TD. I hope to see more lines like that as opposed to the 3 catches for 41 yards that were all too prevalent in his first two years.
Mark Bruener, who spent his first nine years in Pittsburgh, was re-signed to a one-year deal this past March to help run-block. At nearly 36 years old, he's still making a living doing the most unsexy of jobs. Good for him. For Pittsburgh, Matt Spaeth provides more of a pass-catching threat, though he could learn a thing or two from Bruener in terms of toughness and intelligence in the running game. Who knows what Spaeth's production will be, but I'm sure we'll see him make a few big plays this year, and hopefully demonstrate some more toughness physically and mentally. To conclude, I guess I'd say that the Steelers have the more talented players physically, but Houston seems to utilize the TE more effectively than we do. EDGE: Push
Offensive Line: Ah, where these games are largely decided. And in Pittsburgh's cases, the $1 million dollar question all offseason. Would the Steelers offensive line improve enough from last year's rocky performance to allow Roethlisberger to maximize all the options he has at his disposal. We'll just have to wait and see at this point, as we've gone over every last scenario and hypothesis all spring and summer. As cgolden mentioned earlier, Marvel Smith will have his hands full with Mario Williams. But, I'll also be keeping a close eye on new center Justin Hartwig and Chris Kemoeatu. Hell, I'll have a curious eye on the play of all of them, as each and every one has something to prove and question marks attached to them and their capabilities.
As for Houston, rookie T Duane Brown is set to start his first professional game. On the road. Against Dick LeBeau and his blitzing Steelers. Good luck, kid. The rest of the line is pretty solid. Chester Pitts is neither outstanding nor a liability at G, Chris Myers joins the Texans after playing the first two years of his career in Denver, and T Eric Winston has improved sufficiently since the dark early days of his career trying to protect David Carr. I think part of the credit goes to the offensive coordinator and to the QB, but by the end of last year, the Texans' offensive line had only surrendered 22 sacks, 25 fewer than did Pittsburgh's offensive line. For that reason alone, depsite the fact that I think they might struggle Sunday, Houston gets the nod here. EDGE: Houston
We'll do the same with the defenses next.