“I guess I’m just a worrier. That’s why my friends call me ‘Whiskers.’”
– Fictional Harry Caray on “Space, The Infinite Frontier”
Outside of the 1st Quarter when their Pass Defense appeared to be on the verge of becoming shredded once again, the Steelers played a fine football game against the Jets last weekend. The 27-10 win upped Pittsburgh’s record to 1-1 as the Steelers won their 10th consecutive home-opener. Before Pittsburgh gets their much needed Week 4 Bye though, the Black & Gold must hit the road, and head West yet again to take on the 0-2 Raiders.
As it stands, the Steelers possess edges over the Raiders in almost every matchup category on the field, and are considered by a majority of people as heavy favorites to win the game and improve to 2-1 on the year. Advantages aside, I still have some sinking feelings that Pittsburgh’s matchup in Oakland next Sunday has the makings of turning into a quintessential “trap game.”
Intro. & Why
So why exactly do I believe the Steelers should be on “high-alert” for the possibility of a dog-fight in Oakland this weekend? Well to me, there are three things which the Raiders have working in their favor, and could use to their advantage on Sunday afternoon: Carson Palmer, Darren McFadden’s explosiveness, and the fact that the game will be played at the Oakland-Alameda Coliseum. So before you start to question my sanity, let me at least break down the few yet still relevant reasons why Pittsburgh should not take Oakland lightly this weekend.
Carson Palmer & Experience
Look, I am not one of those Carson Palmer fans which believe that the former #1 overall pick from the 2003 Draft is an “elite” signal-caller. He might have been well on his way to doing so before Kimo von Oelhoffen made his knee essentially explode. Heck, Palmer would have likely had a far superior career up to this point had spent the prime years of his career outside of an absolute dumpster-fire of a situation in Cincinnati and not missed significant time in 2008 due to an elbow issue. Could’ve, would’ve, should’ve aside, Palmer still remains a heady, veteran Quarterback. One which probably 10-12 teams in the League would trade for, and one which possesses loads of experience, and most importantly, loads of experience against the Pittsburgh Steelers and Dick LeBeau coached Defenses.
After a shaky debut with the Raiders during a 2011 season which he literally was signed off the couch because of Mike Brown’s frugal and stubborn nature, Palmer has actually been one of the few if only bright spots in Oakland’s Offense this season. Palmer ranks 3rd in the N.F.L. in Passing Yards with 670, and has been able to do so by literally throwing to a depleted and thus inexperienced Wide Receiving corps. While the weapons might not be named Cliff Branch or Tim Brown, Palmer can still sling the ball, and the Steelers’ Defense must not sleep on the fact that he has logged a significant amount of games against them over his career.
Overall, Palmer has started 12 regular season games against the Steelers, and has achieved some statistical success along the way. While the 4-8 record against Pittsburgh does not appear to be that impressive, Palmer’s stats (17 Pass TD’s, 1 Rush, 11 INT’s, 234 for 410 2,402 Yards) and play have illustrated that he can win, and did do so in some pretty important games. Each of Palmer’s victories were immensely important for the Bengals franchise at the time they were played. Palmer helped the Bengals all-but clinch the A.F.C. North crown at Heinz Field in 2005, won again at Heinz Field to drop Pittsburgh to 1-2 in 2006, and led a sweep of the Steelers in 2009.
The Steelers under Dick LeBeau have feasted on inexperienced Quarterbacks which have led less than stellar Offenses over the years. Granted, the Offense which Palmer is leading has its deficiencies, especially the Offensive Line which should have its hands full against LaMarr Woodley and Co.. But Palmer’s experience against LeBeau’s Zone-Blitz and Defensive Schemes can only work in his and his Offense’s favor. If Palmer is allowed get comfortable, he has illustrated that he can play well against Pittsburgh, and has done so against some more talented and dominating Defenses than Pittsburgh’s transitional 2012 unit.
Darren McFadden has shown flashes of being an explosive play-maker when he has been healthy during his four-plus years as a professional. McFadden however has been bottled up so far this season to the tune of 26 Rushes for 54 Yards and a Long Rush of 8. While the Raiders are one of the few teams in the League which have had less statistical success (68 Total Team Rushing Yards) than the Steelers, I fear McFadden and what he can do, especially since he rushed for over 5 Yards per carry during the 2010 and 2011 seasons.
If the Steelers come into this game and sleep on McFadden it could be a huge mistake which ends up costing them chunks of Yards if not points. Willis McGahee found some success running the ball against the Steelers in the opener, and Shonn Greene gashed the Defense last week during the 1st Half until he collided violently with Ryan Mundy. And although McFadden has had his issues running the ball so far, he has been a reliable target for Palmer and actually leads the Raiders in Receptions with 15. His abilities in the passing game should not be taken lightly by the Steelers, as I am sure that Palmer will look his way if his pass catchers are not up to par and/or McFadden is allowed to catch the ball in space.
On the Road, West Coast Struggles, Versus a Team with Nothing to Lose
It is an odd stat I know, but the Steelers have had their fair share of issues the last three times they have traveled to California, and cross-country games always scare me as a fan. The “Golden State” has been less than kind to the Black & Gold in recent years, and Pittsburgh has dropped each of their last contests at Jack Murphy Stadium, Candlestick Park, and Oakland-Alameda Coliseum. While the Steelers were definitely bested by a better Chargers team in 2006, and basically were behind the proverbial “8-ball” when the lights went out at Candlestick and Big Ben played on one-leg last season, Pittsburgh fell into a “trap” the last time they played in Oakland back in 2006.
To avoid rehashing any bad memories, I’ll just give the abridged version of the utter nonsense which transpired that day. The Defending Super Bowl Champions lost a game to the team which would finish with the eventual worst record in the League by a 20-13 score. Worst of all however was the fact that the Steelers’ Defense gave up only 98 Yards of Total Offense, but were nevertheless edged by an Oakland Defense which took two Roethlisberger passes back for Touchdowns.
Just like 2006, this Raiders team will get to face the Steelers at home in a game where they have nothing to lose, and everything to gain with a win. As much as people like to rag on them for their eccentric nature and sometimes violent behavior, I still salute the loyal members of “The Black Hole” which keep coming back year after year despite the fact that the team has been essentially non-relevant over the last decade. And I can guarantee that they will be out in full-force to support their under-dog Raiders as they try to pull an upset.
Oakland’s Defense will be pumped for the occasion also, and I am sure that they would love nothing more than to put a licking on Big Ben after losing to Rookie Ryan Tannehill last week, and division rival loud-mouth Philip Rivers the week before. Needing to avoid an 0-3 start and a possible finish in the cellar of the A.F.C. West, Oakland desperately needs this game just as much as the Steelers do, and will not “roll out the red carpet” for Pittsburgh and simply hand them the victory. This game will more than likely “make or break” their season, and even if Oakland is not a playoff contender, what better way to make a statement during the 2012 season than to beat a team like Pittsburgh?
In spite of my fears, all the Steelers really need to do this weekend is to not take the Raiders lightly and take care of business. The Bye Week looks enticing, and the Steelers just came off of a huge statement win against the Jets. Oakland however is still standing in their way, and should give the Steelers all they can handle later this week. Nevertheless, as long as Pittsburgh can limit their Turnovers and jump out early on Oakland, they should cruise to an easy victory. Yet the worst thing that this team can do is to allow the vastly inferior Raiders to hang around and believe they can win this game, especially if they can take advantage of things like Palmer’s experience, McFadden’s explosiveness, their home crowd, etc.. On any given Sunday, anything can happen, and this is something that Pittsburgh must keep in mind when they are running through the infield dirt and trying to make plays come Sunday afternoon.
Share Your Thoughts Readers: Will the Steelers win on Sunday? If so, by how much? Should they be worried at all?
Stats Courtesy of: Pro Football Reference.com