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Texans pass rushers will test sack-prone Steelers

PITTSBURGH (AP) -During his first four seasons, Ben Roethlisberger looked to his left at the line of scrimmage and was comforted by the sight of All-Pro guard Alan Faneca.
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/ Source: Associated Press Sports

PITTSBURGH (AP) -During his first four seasons, Ben Roethlisberger looked to his left at the line of scrimmage and was comforted by the sight of All-Pro guard Alan Faneca.

Not that long ago, Roethlisberger lined up behind Jeff Hartings, a Pro Bowl center and one of the NFL's most reliable protectors of quarterbacks.

Not any longer.

The only Steelers quarterback sacked more than Roethlisberger was Cliff Stoudt, who became so unpopular while being dropped 53 times during his only season as a starter in 1983 that he was pelted by snowballs during a USFL game in Pittsburgh a few months later.

Roethlisberger's year on the run turned out much better than Stoudt's as he signed a $102 million contract in March. The new deal, and the enviable talk of the Super Bowls that might come with it, didn't tidy up all the protection problems along the Steelers' offensive line that existed the last two seasons.

With Faneca, one of the best linemen in team history, now with the Jets, and Roethlisberger getting accustomed to his third center in three years, the Steelers have some major worries going into Sunday's opener against Houston and pass rusher deluxe Mario Williams.

"He may be Superman in cleats,'' Steelers right tackle Willie Colon said Wednesday of Williams, who had 18 1/2 sacks in his first two seasons.

The Steelers didn't pay out any substantial money to cut down on the 47 sacks they allowed last season, choosing to replace Faneca from within (fourth-year guard Chris Kemoeatu) and former starting center Sean Mahan via the waiver wire (Justin Hartwig).

Offensive lines get so little game time together during the preseason, even coach Mike Tomlin isn't certain how his reconfigured line will play against the Texans' Williams (14 sacks) and Amobi Okoye (5 1/2 sacks as a rookie). Texans nose tackle Travis Williams also was a first-round draft pick.

"Everybody is working on cohesion,'' Tomlin said. "That is what makes September football so exciting.''

Roethlisberger probably didn't find November and December football all that exciting, not after getting sacked 31 times in the Steelers' final eight games. The protection problems were part of the reason the Steelers lost four of their final five games.

"But I'm not going into this game thinking I'm scared of this defensive end (Williams) because that would be me saying I don't have confidence in my offensive line,'' Roethlisberger said. "I do. I think they're going to do a great job of keeping all those guys away.''

Williams has developed into one of the NFL's top defensive players after the Texans took considerable heat for drafting him rather than Southern Cal running back Reggie Bush with the No. 1 pick in 2006.

"I think you have to know where he's at all times because he's one of those impact-type players,'' Roethlisberger said. "Is it going to make us not run to that side? I don't think that.''

Still, Roethlisberger was dropped 93 times the last two seasons even with Faneca helping to protect him. Faneca's replacement, Kemoeatu, has had precious little playing time but performed well when he did play.

At 6-foot-3 and 344 pounds, Kemoeatu is larger than Faneca (6-5, 307), a quality that may help make up for his lack of experience. The Steelers also replaced Mahan (6-3, 301) with Hartwig (6-4, 312) because they wanted a bigger player at the position.

"I think we're ready to go,'' Colon said. "We have reached the point where there are no excuses. Whatever happens on Sunday, we're going to get better from it. We're going into it with a positive mind-set.''

With a pair of goals, too. The first, as always with the Steelers, is to get the running game going.

The second?

"We want to keep Ben upright,'' Colon said.

Both Steelers offensive tackles, Marvel Smith on the left side and Colon, will line up against Williams, who flip flops from one side to the other depending on the formation. That can create problems when the offense is hurrying to get a play off and the linemen have precious seconds to settle on their blocking assignments.

"We'll definitely find out this game,'' Smith said. "We've got a tough test in front of us.''