The Oakland Raiders continued their run of ineptitude last year, going 5-11 to extend their streak of 11 loss seasons to seven. Of course, one of those five wins was against a reeling Pittsburgh Steelers. That wasn’t the first time a defending Super Bowl champion Steelers team suffered an embarrassing defeat at the hands of the Raiders. In 2006, the Black and Gold lost to an Oakland team which would win only two (TWO!) games that entire season.
That was then, this is now. I don’t know how many virgins (assuming you can find one in California) the immortal Al Davis sacrificed to please his dark master but some sort of mystical forces have conspired to make the Raiders one of the NFL’s most surprising teams. No word on whether Count Al will make the trip to Heinz Field this Sunday. I hope he does because I’m kinda curious if he sparkles in the sunlight.
STEELERS DEFENSE vs. RAIDERS OFFENSE
The Raiders finally cut bait on Jamarcus Russell, the biggest draft bust in history. Jason Campbell brings respectability back to the quarterback position. Campbell never lived up to what Joe Gibbs saw in him and it seems the change in scenery has done him a world of good. His numbers aren’t great (7 TD-5 INT) but he’s been coming on in recent weeks with 5 of those touchdowns over the past three games.
This match-up will be an interesting test for the Steelers D. Some people like to parrot what they hear on TV or the radio about “the NFL is a passing league, you must throw the ball 55 times a game to win!” which is utter stupidity. Every team is different and you win by doing what you do well and minimizing what you do bad. There is no “magic formula.” Case in point is the Raiders.
Oakland has averaged 25 rushes per game and over 100 yards per game over the last 5 games. They are 4-1 over that span. Meanwhile, the Steelers have been throwing a lot more over the past three games, losing two of them. The Raiders recognize they aren’t an explosive offense and don’t try to be something they’re not. Too bad Bruce Arians doesn’t follow their example.
Speaking of offensive coordinators, a large part of the Raiders improvement can be traced to Hue Jackson taking over playcalling duties from head coach Tom Cable. He’s simply decided to put the ball in the hands of his best player, the Reggie Bushesque Darren McFadden. D-Mac is a multi-purpose threat averaging 5.4 yards per carry and 10.1 yards per reception. He is backed up by bruising Michael Bush, who could probably start for many teams.
Last week, the Patriots exposed how lousy the Steelers secondary is. This week, Tom Cable has already said they aren’t going to try copying their example. Of course, this may be classic coach misdirection. If we know that they know that we know they aren’t going to pass then they may actually do the opposite of what we thought they said we thought they weren’t going to do.
The Raiders may not have much choice since their top receiving threats WR Darius Heyward-Bey, WR Chaz Shilens and TE Zach Miller are all nursing injuries. The Steelers are suffering a rash of injuries, as well. Troy Polamalu hasn’t practiced with a strained achilles tendon, which may explain his steep decline the past few weeks. Brett Keisel is still hampered by a hamstring while his backup, Nick Eason, has been sick with a mystery illness. The good news is defensive MVP Lawrence Timmons has practiced and is expected to play.
Since Aaron Smith went down, we’ve been wondering if the run defense would go along with him. The Patriots, Bengals, and Saints aren’t running teams so those weren’t the most stiff of tests. Well, this week we play the 2nd best rushing offense in the NFL. The Steelers rush D is still ranked #1 overall. Something has to give.
STEELERS OFFENSE vs. RAIDERS DEFENSE
This match-up also presents some interesting questions. The Raiders defense was so lousy, they traded next year’s first round pick to the Patriots for 31 year old Richard Seymour. Then they went out and spent their first two picks on Rolando McClain (8th overall) and Lamarr Houston (44th) in an effort to bolster last year’s 29th ranked rushing defense. It worked so well, they’re now ranked 24th.
On the flip side, CB Nnamdi Asomugha has battled injury but remains one of the best corners in the league. Stanford Routt and Chris Johnson are the unfortunate duo who get picked on because teams stay away from Nnamdi. I’m sure a lot of people are saying, “Who?” Fair question but they, combined with a strong pass rush from Seymour and emerging star Tommy Kelly, are doing something right because the Raiders have the 2nd best pass defense in football.
Which is why I say this is an interesting match-up. The Raiders strength is secondary, their weakness is stopping the run. Since Ben Roethlisberger‘s return, the Steelers have steadily moved away from running the ball to the point Rashard Mendenhall, once the league’s second leading rusher, had only 11 carries for 50 yards last week. Chris Kemoeatu has practiced and is expected to play which means with the exception of Max Starks, our starting offensive line should be back together.
Kemo is a much better run blocker than pass blocker. Ditto with Flozell Adams. Same with Trai Essex. This is why the line looked so impressive in opening up gaping holes for Mendy while allowing few sacks the first month of the season. The offensive playcalling emphasized their strengths (rushing) and tried to downplay their weakness (pass blocking). Things have gone awry the past few games as Bruce Arians has attempted to bring his Flying Circus back into town.
Bottom line: this week we have an offensive line that is good at run blocking for a very good running back facing a defense that is fantastic against the pass but struggles against the run. Naturally, I expect Arians to roll out his empty backfield four wide set on the second or third play of the game.
Last week, I said that game was the tipping point for the entire season. I won’t make any grand proclamations this week. All I’ll say is nobody wants to relive the nightmare that was 2009. A loss to a Raiders team that is very much improved over the Raiders we lost to last season and it will be deju vu all over again.
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