Oakland Raiders Week 3: 5 Keys to Victory
In the midst of a couple of poor quarters, the Raiders have not played that badly. But unfortunately, they have not been able to put enough elements together to win. Facing an 0-3 start and losses in their first two home games, the Raiders have to put together a complete game to defeat the Steelers.
Saying that is not the same as doing it.
Pittsburgh may not be the elite team they've been, but they're still led by three of the best players in football at their positions: Ben Roethlisberger, James Harrison and Troy Polamalu. Harrison and Polamalu may be slowed by injuries Sunday, but it appears they will play.
Note: According to SFGate.com Raider blogger Vic Tafur, Harrison and Polamalu will likely miss Sunday's game.
So, here are my five keys to a victory Sunday at the Coliseum.
No. 5: Minimize Negative Plays
All of the talk for the Raiders going into the 2012 season was about eliminating penalties. Through the first two weeks, they have only committed 11, good for eighth best in the game.
In that sense, there has been progress made.
The problem has been the amount of negative plays the team has committed in the first two weeks. I define negative plays as running or passing plays that amount in losing yardage, sacks, runs of over 10 yards, botched special teams plays and passes over 20 yards.
To beat a team like Pittsburgh, that number will have to be cut in half, and I am not even accounting for turnovers at this point!
No. 4: Make Steelers One Dimensional
The most disheartening element of the Dolphin loss was the fact that the Raiders weren't able to slow down a rookie QB in Ryan Tannehill. Instead of stacking the run and forcing Tannehill to throw, the Raider defense consistently tried to rush four and drop into a zone-based coverage.
Given plenty of time, Tannehill hit Brian Hartline nine times, most of them on the same out route against the Raiders left cornerback (Pat Lee/Joselio Hanson).
My point is, this is not a strong enough unit to just line up and stop people. It must take something away or force a team's hand.
For years, the New Orleans Saints offset their overall lack of talent by pure aggression, forcing turnovers at a high rate under Gregg Williams. The Raiders have to ratchet up pressure and be consistent with it if the front four is not doing the job.
Pittsburgh has not run the ball very well thus far in 2012. Averaging 70.5 yards per game, now is not the week to allow them to get healthy. Rashard Mendenhall will not play, so Jonathan Dwyer will continue to carry the load. The Raiders must shut him down and then take their chances with Ben Roethlisberger in the pass game.
Sounds daunting considering the performance just last week against Miami right? Maybe, but there is a formula to this.
Even a pair of lesser teams in 2006 and 2009 were able to beat Pittsburgh because they forced the onus of the Steeler offense to fall exclusively on Big Ben's shoulders. Granted, the 2009 game was won by the heroics of former Raider QB Bruce Gradkowski, but the point is valid.
When the Raiders keep them one dimensional, they are competitive. When the Steelers run the ball, well, they beat the Raiders 35-3 in 2010 running for 162 yards.
No. 3: Solid Special Teams
The hidden element of this year has been the fact that the Raiders have faced long fields for much of both games this year. Their average starting field position has been their own 17-yard line. That is a combination of poor coverage and the inability by the defense to flip field position.
What is the cure for this? It is simple. Sebastian Janikowski must stop the Steelers from returning kickoffs. Touchbacks are a necessity. When the Raiders punt, and there's nothing to suggest they won't be, Shane Lechler has to pin the Steelers deep.
This is an abject necessity. Pittsburgh will move the ball. However, it is much easier to stop a team going 80 yards than 45.
In terms of the return game, taking a touchback is probably the best thing for the kick return unit. They have been atrocious. Four total returns have netted 60 yards, a mere 15-yard average per return.
That is putrid.
By contrast, Phillip Adams has shown a spark for the Raiders returning punts. Two great returns were wiped out by penalties, but Adams still averaged 11.6 yards a return in Miami. A big return or two may be the tonic needed to spark the offense this week.
No. 2: Big Pass Plays
Offensively, I just can't see the Raiders sustaining long drives and converting third down after third down against Pittsburgh. With a running game stuck in neutral, it is imperative that the Raiders get a couple of chances to get down the field. Then, they must hit them.
That is the way this offense is going to score against the Steelers.
This does not mean just throwing bombs down the field. Oakland can exploit its speed horizontally as well. Denarius Moore and Darrius Heyward-Bey can get behind Pittsburgh's linebackers, but Carson Palmer has to be at his most accurate Sunday afternoon.
All that said, two or three times, Palmer is going to have to take a deep shot against either Ike Taylor or Keenan Lewis. With Polamalu slowed at the least (and now likely out for Sunday), Oakland will have one-on-one chances, and while Palmer is no Peyton Manning, he does have the arm strength Manning currently lacks.
The passing game will have to generate at least two big plays (30-plus yards) for the Raiders to have a chance to win.
No. 1: Force Turnovers
Two games in to the 2012 NFL season and the Oakland Raiders have caused as many turnovers as I have. Which is to say, zero. No number means more to this team having success going forward. With a deficient running game and the inability to stop teams defensively, the Raiders have to generate turnovers and flip the field in their favor.
In this game, that means making plays against Ben Roethlisberger first.
In their 2006 upset win, the Raiders intercepted four passes and returned two for touchdowns. I think that is probably asking too much, but if the Raiders could do half of that, they would be in a better position to win.
That means Jason Tarver is going to have to throw everything at Pittsburgh. This is a must-win game. Blitzes, zone blitzes, rolled coverages, double teams—Oakland should leave no stone unturned to get stops Sunday.
Yes, that's easy to say, but with both corners out, the Raiders defensive backs are going to need assistance. There is no just lining up and playing off Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown of Pittsburgh.
That is a recipe for disaster.
In the running game, it's time to try for turnovers—stripping at the ball, gang tackling, etc. Oakland's defense seems to be okay at getting to the ball. That won't be enough. They have to take it away. If this is a just a matter of stopping Pittsburgh for four quarters, they won't win.
I'll go further. If it is just about getting stops and forcing punts, Pittsburgh will blow the Raiders out. Multiple turnovers are a must have.
Ultimately, the Raiders will have to make some serious alterations in their performance of the first two weeks to win. While I expect improvement from Darren McFadden, that probably won't equate to some huge rushing performance.
That will be more a product of the Steelers run defense than the Raiders execution.
However, there will be opportunities passing the ball to make things happen. It won't be a matter of the chances, but if Carson Palmer and his receivers can capitalize. Winning requires four quarters of focus and doing all of the small things on a big scale. That means completing passes when receivers are open, not stopping yourself on penalties, dropped exchanges on reverses, all of the small things that have slowed Oakland down.
Defensively, it is a matter of taking chances and living with the consequences. The Raiders will have to make plays and get themselves off the field. If Pittsburgh establishes the run, this game will be a carbon copy of the Miami game.
If they can be stopped, the Raiders have a chance to stick around. At home, that could mean all the difference. But I don't think it will be enough.
Prediction: Pittsburgh 26, Oakland 16