Steelers vs. Raiders: Sketching out a Game Plan for Oakland

Christopher Hansen@ChrisHansenNFLNFL AnalystSeptember 22, 2012

Darren McFadden and Carson Palmer must lead the Raiders to victory on Sunday.
Darren McFadden and Carson Palmer must lead the Raiders to victory on Sunday.Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

The Oakland Raiders are 0-2 and at serious risk of falling to 0-3 with a tough game against the Pittsburgh Steelers at home. After two ugly performances, the Raiders are already being pegged as one of the league’s worst teams.

It’s not that surprising because the Raiders are in the midst of significant changes, but the fans and fantasy owners have been most disappointed with the lack of offense. Carson Palmer and Darren McFadden were supposed to carry the defense through the rebuilding process, but through two games there have been very few bright spots on either side of the ball.

A big victory at home against the Steelers would help the Raiders reclaim some respectability, and the only way that is going to happen is if the offense leads the way. The defense is too banged up at cornerback and Oakland was already thin at that position.

Oakland’s secondary might have issues stopping Pittsburgh’s passing attack, but Pittsburgh’s defense is susceptible to both the run and pass. Pittsburgh’s defense is particularly vulnerable without James Harrison and Troy Polamalu, both good all-around players who can support the run and pass equally.


On Offense

In the case of matching up against Pittsburgh’s defense, it’s not always necessary to look at the most recent two games to know how to game plan against them. Dick LeBeau has been the defensive coordinator in Pittsburgh since 2004 and the personnel has transitioned at a snail’s pace.

The last time Pittsburgh played an offense like Oakland’s was in Week 4 of the 2011 season against the Houston Texans. That day, Pittsburgh would lose 17-10 while surrendering 180 yards rushing on 35 carries (5.1 YPC).

The zone-blocking scheme has been blamed for a lot of Oakland’s problems running the ball, but it is a proven system and eventually even Oakland’s version will start to be productive. The Raiders need the scheme to start working this week if they are going to have any chance against Pittsburgh.

There are runs in Greg Knapp’s playbook that require less from Darren McFadden and more from the offensive line and Houston ran such a play against the Steelers last year. The play in question allowed Ben Tate to get up to speed, burst through the hole and get into the secondary without a complex read or cutback.

Houston’s blocking relies on the right tackle getting a seal block on linebacker LaMarr Woodley (56), but note that a similar play can be run to either side of the field. This is a good example of why smart offensive linemen are required to run the zone-blocking scheme; the right tackle can open the running lane to his right or left depending on the position of the defender.

The other key to the play is the tight end that blocks Lawrence Timmons (94) out of the running lane. The wide receiver and center attempt blocks at the second level of the defense.

Polamalu is prone to taking poor angles and combined with the wide receivers getting in his way, Tate is able to run past the attempt. Darren McFadden is extremely difficult to tackle in open space and would benefit from the running space Tate had on this play. Tate tries to cut back and get past the safety, but is dragged down.

This play really only requires two players to get good blocks to be successful and another, the center, to get a block at the second level to spring the running back for a big play. Once in the secondary, McFadden is extremely dangerous.The Raiders should try to incorporate fewer runs that require all five linemen and McFadden to execute perfectly and more runs like this one that only requires a couple blockers and is a much easier read for the McFadden.  

The Raiders also need to get the speed they have at wide receiver into open spaces with the football in their hands. On this next play, Matt Schaub is going to get the ball to Andre Johnson with room to run.

Polamalu blitzes from the edge and Schaub has to modify his normal rollout (yellow arc) and drop vertically (blue line). Schaub has the option to hit the wide receiver dragging across the formation if not for the pressure from the safety, but it can be effective both ways.   

Schaub throws the ball over the top of the charging Polamalu and will get it to Andre Johnson who faked like he was running a slant and then broke toward the sideline.

Johnson catches the ball and has a ton of room to run and the dragging wide receiver is in position to throw a block for him. Johnson takes two steps and crumples to the ground in pain, but had a chance to turn the short pass into a long gain if not for a non-contact injury.

This play is designed to work in conjunction with the running game and should give Palmer a simple read on only one side of the field. Denarius Moore would run Johnson’s underneath out route, Darrius Heyward-Bey would be dragging across the field and Marcel Reece would be a prime candidate to run the deep seem instead of the tight end that Houston deployed.


On Defense

Last week against the Miami Dolphins, the Raiders played off-man coverage on the outside. It was almost too easy for Ryan Tannehill and Brian Hartline to connect on short comeback routes. The Raiders didn’t play physical or press the wide receivers with any regularity.

Against the Steelers, pressing the wide receivers is almost required. By doing so, the cornerbacks are giving the defensive line and extra second to put pressure on Ben Roethlisberger. Pressuring Roethlisberger increases the odds of him making a mistake or locking onto a wide receiver when his initial read is tangled with the cornerback at the line of scrimmage.

The Raiders might have to keep two safeties back to prevent the big play, but it’s not like Pittsburgh’s ground game is going to gash the Raiders around the edge like Reggie Bush did in Week 2. The Raiders should be able to limit the ground game without an eighth defender in the box.

Let’s take a look at Tracy Porter’s interception of Roethlisberger to see what the Raiders might learn from the play about how best to defense Pittsburgh’s passing attack.

Pittsburgh has three receivers to the right and one to the left. The defensive backs press the receivers at the line of scrimmage.

Roethlisberger briefly looks to his right, but his receivers are tied up in the press coverage. The defenders can only contact the receivers for another yard, but Roethlisberger doesn’t keep his eyes on that half of the field long enough to see his tight end come wide open.

The safeties are playing very deep to prevent the big play and provide the cornerbacks with a safety net. The tight end is open, but by this point Roethlisberger is already locked on to his intended receiver.

Porter read the route and had the opportunity to make a play on the ball because he was pressing the wide receiver. Porter cut in front of the receiver and scored a touchdown on the return, which is a lot more than you should expect from the Raiders. The important thing was Porter was there to make a play. 

The press coverage and deep safety help allowed the Broncos to make this play, and the Raiders should try similar tactics to slow down Pittsburgh’s air attack. Free safety Michael Huff is likely to see time at cornerback opposite Pat Lee and both are better fits to play in press coverage than in off-man coverage like the Raiders deployed last week. 


The Conclusion

The Raiders have their hands full with the Steelers, but the team is desperate for a win. Pittsburgh will be without its two best defensive players, and it’s only a matter of time before Oakland’s offense starts to put things together.

If the Raiders can force a turnover or two and get McFadden rolling on the ground, they will have a very good chance to beat the Steelers at home. In the absence of alternatives to slow down Pittsburgh’s passing attack, the Raiders will use press coverage in hopes that it works to some extent like it did for the Broncos.

Look for the Raiders to rebound from two poor weeks and be competitive in this game, and don’t be surprised if they pull off the upset. 


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