As the Green Bay Packers prepare to make their first visit to Houston since 1992 for their first ever game against the Houston Texans (the trip 12 years ago was to play the Oilers, now known as the Tennessee Titans), they will be facing a lot of unknowns.
Both in the stadium that they will be playing in and the style of play of their opponent, the visiting Packers, and especially their offensive line, will find themselves in some unfamiliar territory.
Reliant Stadium, home to the Texans, is the first stadium in NFL history with a retractable roof. Whether the roof is open or closed, the building has developed a reputation in its two and a half seasons of being one of the loudest home fields in the league.
While this trip won't be the first time the Packers have encountered a noisy crowd on the road, one thing that will be something they haven't encountered for a long time is the 3-4 defensive alignment that is employed by the Texans.
Both factors will provide an added challenge to the offensive line of the Green and Gold, both in respect to communication and facing an unfamiliar front.
Right tackle Mark Tauscher said that this week's practices are going to be crucial in preparing for Sunday night's prime-time match-up.
"They play a different look," Tauscher said. "We don't see this front on a week-to-week basis. We haven't seen the 3-4 in I think two years, so practice is going to be even more important this week to make sure we have everything down going into Houston, which is going to be a really loud place to play."
Texans' wide receiver Corey Bradford, a former Packer, said that his former teammates should expect a lot of noise when they come to town.
"At first I thought Minnesota was loud, but when they shut the roof here - I think the sound vibrates off the roof and comes back down - this has got to be one of the loudest places I've played in."
With that in mind, GM/Head Coach Mike Sherman has his charges practicing with the din of artificial crowd noise ringing in their ears all week to get ready for the 70,000-plus screaming fans expected to be in attendance.
"We practice exclusively in crowd noise," said Sherman. "When we get into team period, we keep it cranked up both on offense and defense because it affects the defense as well in regard to communication. They're exposed to it quite a bit. I think the number one way to handle crowd noise is to take a drive and score points. That seems to be in my history here in Green Bay, the best antidote is to have success on offense early.
"It's helped us in Minnesota, I thought it helped us in Indianapolis. The crowd noise was not a factor last year in Minnesota or in Indianapolis this year. I just think we function better in it than we have. Our record in domes isn't near as bad as it used to be right now. This isn't a dome but it certainly has the capacity for loud noise."
With the crowd noise expected to reach ear-splitting levels, the offensive line will have to be focused and ready to take on the Texans' three-man defensive line and the pass-rushing linebackers that are right behind them.
"Every guy is going to have to know their assignment so if we can't communicate like we need to, or like we want to, everybody will still be on the same page," said left guard Mike Wahle. "We're going to try to make as many calls as possible, but we do realize it's going to be loud down there.
"The most important thing (against the 3-4) is just knowing where you're going. We can execute fine - it's a matter of making sure everyone's on the same page. It's just like every other week - you just have to be prepared to play the guy you're facing. If it means you have to watch more film this week, then so be it. I think if you watch enough film, you can tell what everybody's going to do or at least what they're not going to do, and that's usually half the battle."
Right guard Marco Rivera offered up his recipe for taking on the 3-4 alignment.
"Basically, how do you beat a 3-4? You've got to be exact in your protection, you've got to be exact in your technique in the running game, you've got to get on your blocking angles and blocking points. Somehow you've got to move those linemen back to the linebackers and it's not easy, especially when they have the linebackers that they have."
The Packers offensive line is preparing to head into an environment filled with unfamiliarity. If they and their team are to emerge successful, the line will need to provide another strong outing, which is something that has become very familiar to them.