Opener may foretell season for Texans, Steelers

PITTSBURGH, PA The Steelers' still-blitzing, still-talented defense was statistically the NFL's best last season, ranking third against the run and the pass, and first overall. The problem was the Steelers' defense really wasn't the Steelers' defense past the midpoint of the season.

Defensive end Aaron Smith and safety Ryan Clark were hurt and safety Troy Polamalu never was himself due to multiple injuries -- he didn't have a sack or an interception. That No. 1 defense allowed an average of 29 points over its last five games. Not surprisingly, the Steelers lost four.

The Steelers are skewing younger now that second-year linebacker LaMarr Woodley is starting and 2007 first-round pick Lawrence Timmons is playing a much bigger role.

Still, six starters will be 30 or older by this month, including linebacker James Farrior, who is 33 yet was given a new contract. With age often comes declining performance and injuries, and an increasing chance that younger teams -- such as season-opening opponent Houston -- might discover more weaknesses than before.

Defensive end Brett Keisel's response? An aging team doesn't necessarily mean a declining team.

"We are getting old; I mean age is not on our side," Keisel said. "But on the other hand, I feel we're a very experienced group and when you're out there playing on Sundays with guys that have seen different looks, it makes a big difference. This group has a lot of great playmakers on it."

That's one reason why a Houston-Pittsburgh game matching teams that rarely play each other could provide a good read on the season to come for both.

"We're not looking down the road. We're looking right here," Texans tackle Eric Winston said. "We know how important this first game is to get off to a good start."

Getting off to a good start is a big worry to Texans rookie Duane Brown, who must protect quarterback Matt Schaub from Pittsburgh's myriad of defensive fronts in his first game as an NFL starting tackle. Brown will go against Pro Bowl outside linebacker James Harrison, who had 81/2 of Pittsburgh's 36 sacks last season.

"Oh yeah, definitely," Brown said when asked if he's nervous. "It's at Pittsburgh against a team with great tradition and a great defense, so nerves are going to be there."

Another intriguing matchup is between assistant coaches. Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau popularized the zone blitz, while Alex Gibbs designed the zone blocking attack.

"Coach LeBeau, he's still a wizard," Clark said. The Texans were getting better at the same time the Steelers were sliding late last season, winning three of their final four to finish at .500 (8-8) for the first time. Schaub developed into a reliable quarterback in his 11 starts, and wide receiver Andre Johnson had eight touchdown catches in nine games.

It's on defense where the Texans are very young and very good, with 2006 No. 1 pick Mario Williams getting 14 sacks in his second season.

"Mario Williams is a beast," Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward said.

Williams and a defensive line loaded with three first-round picks will challenge a Steelers offensive line that not only gave up 47 sacks last season, but lost its best player in All-Pro guard Alan Faneca, who signed with the Jets.

"Their front seven -- young, fast, quick -- that's the strength of their team," left tackle Marvel Smith said.

Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, in his first game since signing a $102 million contract, has two new starting linemen protecting him in left guard Chris Kemoeatu, a former backup who is Faneca's replacement, and center Justin Hartwig.

"We go as they go," Roethlisberger said.

This will be running back Willie Parker's first game since breaking a leg in the next-to-last game of the season, possibly costing him the NFL rushing title. The Steelers have since added first-round draft pick Rashard Mendenhall, who ran for 158 yards but fumbled three times in the final two exhibition games.

With a difficult schedule -- the Patriots, Cowboys, Colts, Giants, Chargers, Browns and Jaguars await -- the Steelers know they can't afford to give away games. Or exactly what they did the last time Houston visited Pittsburgh, a baffling 24-6 loss in 2002 in which the Texans were held to three first downs and were outgained 422-47, yet scored three defensive touchdowns.

"This is a (improved) team you can't have any flaws against," Steelers wide receiver Santonio Holmes said.

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