Fresh off a bye week, Terrelle Pryor and the Oakland Raiders (2-4) host the Pittsburgh Steelers (2-4) Sunday afternoon. Pittsburgh seems to have stolen a lot of the national attention coming off of two consecutive wins against the Jets and Ravens, but the numbers dictate that this should be a much better game for the Raiders than many expect. Most analysts are pointing to the Raiders’ decade-long losing streak after the bye week as the reason that they will struggle again, but this statistic is just about meaningless for a number of reasons. The most important reason is also the most obvious: this team isn’t even close to any of those Raiders teams. As of this writing, these are the only players that are starting for the Raiders that were also on last year’s team: Darren McFadden, Denarius Moore, Steven Wisniewski (who is probable to play), Khalif Barnes, Mike Brisiel, and Lamaar Houston. Out of twenty-two starters, only six even played on this team last year. I just wanted to repeat that so people can stop quoting a useless statistic as the reason that the Raiders will lose. Besides, it’s not even like the Raiders have looked bad under Dennis Allen after the bye; last year, the Raiders almost knocked off the 6-0 Atlanta Falcons on the road after their bye before Carson Palmer threw a game-changing pick six in the final minutes.
Sorry for that little rant, but the hate for the Raiders has been somewhat ridiculous this season. It seems a bit odd that many people are having trouble accepting that the Raiders have been a competitive team this year, but this week is a potential pivot point for the season. The Raiders have a very manageable schedule ahead, and a win at home against an AFC rival could spring a winning streak that could keep this team competitive late into the year. While the national focus has been on Pittsburgh’s two-game winning streak, the Steelers are still 2-4, the same as the Raiders. Let’s take a look at the next installment of this classic AFC showdown and see what the Raiders need to do to pull out a win.
Steelers Offense vs Raiders Defense
After a four-game losing streak to start the season, the Steelers have pulled out back-to-back wins against AFC competition. This potentially saved the Steelers’ season, pulling them out of an early-season funk and gaining valuable head-to-head tiebreakers against two teams that may be competing for a wildcard spot late in the season. Before focusing on how stellar the defense has been in order to turn this around, it is worth noting that the Steelers’ offense is improving and becoming more and more efficient each week. Pittsburgh’s rushing offense struggled in the early season, but with the return of rookie runningback Le’Veon Bell, it has returned to being an efficient attack. After Bell rushed for 93 yards against the Ravens last week, many expect similar results this week against the Raiders. Unlike the Steelers teams of past years, however, the rushing offense isn’t this team’s offensive strength. Ben Roethlisberger had a rough start to the year, throwing at least one interception in each of the first four games, but he has played safe and efficient football during Pittsburgh’s two-game winning streak. His 66.5% completion percentage is fifth-best in the league, and Roethlisberger’s efficient play has helped turn Antonio Brown into one of the league’s most underrated receivers.** Heath Miller, who is probable for Sunday’s game, has been a consistent security blanket for Roethlisberger, averaging over 50 yards a game this season and scoring his first touchdown last week.
It will be up to the Oakland defense to stop an emerging offensive threat like the Steelers. Contrary to popular opinion, the Raiders have played surprisingly solid football after a worrisome offseason and preseason. DJ Hayden has had a mixed rookie season so far, combining opportunistic turnovers with rookie mistakes, but he has displayed some impressive coverage in almost every matchup. After Antonio Brown, the Steelers’ receiving corps is very inexperienced, so the Raiders could enjoy plus matchups across the board if Hayden is able to hold his coverage. He has been running well with his receivers, but he does need to work on avoiding interference calls and showing more consistent playmaking ability. If Hayden can do this, it will allow for the rest of the defense to focus on shutting down Le’Veon Bell, Pittsburgh’s second-round draft pick. Bell seems to be a prototypical Steelers runninback: a tough, downhill runner that knows how keep gaining yardage. His 61.3 yards per game is 20th in the NFL, and he has undoubtedly been a part of the team’s offensive success. Many expect Bell to explode against the Raiders, given how poorly the team has defended the run in years past, but he may be surprised on Sunday. Bell is a powerful runner, but he isn’t very explosive, having no run this season of more than eleven yards. Against a rush defense that hasn’t allowed a run of longer than nineteen yards all season (best in the NFL), this could be a problem. Jason Tarver’s scheming and use of his players has been excellent so far this season, helping the Raiders limit teams to just 3.8 yards per carry (sixth in the NFL), and 99.0 rushing yards per game (tied for ninth). If the Raiders are able to shut down Bell and the run game, it may force Roethlisberger into mistakes, especially an opportunistic defense that has forced five turnovers in its past two games.
Steelers Defense vs Raiders Offense
The Steelers’ defense, even during its four-game losing streak, has been unsurprisingly amazing in a number of key statistics. They rank fourth in passing yards against them, eleventh in rushing yards against, and second in first downs against. It will be tough sledding for a Raiders offense that ranks dead last in first downs. Also encouraging news is the return of Jarvis Jones, the team’s first-round pick. He too has been inconsistent, mixing mental mistakes with big playmaking ability, but such is to be expected from a rookie defensive player. Despite very solid coverage, the Steelers’ defense has suffered a bit from the completely impenetrable defense of seasons past. They have been unable to provide much pressure on opposing QB’s with just eight sacks all season, only ahead of the New York Giants (side note: seeing Chicago, Pittsburgh, and NYG as the three teams with under ten sacks this season is really weird). Against a quarterback as mobile as Terrelle Pryor, that could be a significant issue. The team will likely place Lawrence Timmons on Pryor, which could limit the amount of gamebreaking runs that he has and force the young QB to beat him with his arm. Pittsburgh, surprisingly, has also been extremely ineffective at forcing turnovers. They are the only team without a fumble recovery, and their two interceptions of Geno Smith (their only turnovers of the season) rank as a league-worst mark as well.
While the Oakland offense has been inconsistent and has yet to put together a full game, there are encouraging signs that they can right the ship, especially if the Steelers are willing to let Pryor hang in the pocket for too long. Pryor had played well up to the second half of the Chiefs game, having a couple nice runs and a 39-yard catch-and-run by Denarius Moore to put the Raiders up 7-0. Unfortunately, the team went into emergency mode in the second half as injuries decimated an already-destroyed offensive line. Pryor admitted to doing too much in the loss, something that he sounds intent on learning from after throwing three fourth-quarter interceptions to turn a close win into a blowout loss. He spent the bye week working again with QB coach Tom House to further improve his throwing mechanics, something that has already seemed to significantly help his progression through the first six weeks, and now has an opportunity to beat his hometown Steelers. Sounds pretty similar to another Oakland game a few years ago…
The first-year starter for the Raiders has played well this season, even though his stat line against the Chiefs may suggest otherwise. While his passing numbers are below-average, Pryor has quietly been one of the more efficient quarterbacks in the league with an inconsistent receiving corps and limited help in the run game. His 7.69 yards per attempt is thirteenth in the NFL, ahead of gunslingers such as Tony Romo and Matthew Stafford. He has still only thrown five interceptions on the season, tying him with QB’s like Brady, Brees, and Rivers. His passing yardage may not be very high, but Pryor is unlike any QB in the league in that he can use even minimal passing numbers to complement his true strength: running. The Raiders are ninth in the NFL in rushing yards per game, and much of this has to do with how lethal Pryor has been so far. His 285 yards rushing leads the Oakland Raiders and is good for 27th in the entire NFL (3rd among QB’s). His 6.5 yards per attempt is first in the league in qualified players and has helped him average an astounding 57.0 rushing yards per game, seventeenth in the league and first among QB’s by over ten yards per game. 14 of his 44 rushes have gone for first downs, fourth among QB’s, showcasing an overall impressive ability of improvising and moving the chains to keep drives alive. Against a stingy Steelers defense, it will be critical for Pryor to pick up first downs however he can. The Steelers are known for a complex defensive scheme that tends to confuse a lot of inexperienced quarterbacks, but it is worth noting that Pryor has practiced against a fairly complex defense all offseason with Tarver’s zone blitzes.
If Pryor can move the ball, it will open up a lot of opportunities in the run game. One of the few highlights in last year’s 4-12 team was a sixty-yard run by Darren McFadden, showcasing some of his powerful running. While the offensive line is still extremely injured, which has limited a lot of McFadden’s inside running, Pryor’s playmaking ability is likely to be the primary focus of the Steelers’ defense. While it is entirely possible that DMC has a breakout game on Sunday, I am personally more inclined to believe that it’s another player that steps up: Marcel Reece. The Raiders seem very intent Reece more in the run game, at least if offensive coordinator Greg Olson has anything to say about it. The playmaking fullback/halfback/tight end/receiver has just one rushing touchdown this season, so expect him to likely be the benefactor of the loosened coverage. Just a hunch, but judging by the article I linked, it sounds like Olson will be trying to hand the ball off to Reece more than in weeks past.
I would analyze the special teams as well, but this article is getting pretty long. Regardless, I hope I’ve proven that this matchup could very well end up being the best game on Sunday. The Steelers and the Raiders match up well in pretty much every way, with each team having strengths over the other, and it should be an enjoyable game for both teams. The winner will be 3-4 and on its way to sneaking into the playoffs, so both the Steelers and Raiders will likely be playing their best games of the season so far.