9 Things for Pittsburgh Steelers Fans to Watch for in Week 3 Matchup vs. Raiders
The Pittsburgh Steelers and Oakland Raiders have historically engaged in one of the NFL's most iconic rivalries, and though they're decades removed from the heyday of their ire, both Steeler Nation and Raider Nation know that games against each other still carry bragging rights.
As such, the Men of Steel would be wise not to overlook their Silver n' Black laden opponents, despite their anemic play thus far in 2012 and correlating 0-2 record.
After all, as the Black and Gold's last trip to Oakland in 2006 proved, winning in the Black Hole is never a sure thing. Likewise, the struggling Raiders know that a win over the Steelers would go a long way towards seizing a confidence and momentum that has thoroughly eluded them thus far.
Pittsburgh looks to secure its first winning record of the young campaign, while Oakland hopes to finally get a notch in the win column. Pride will be on the line when the game kicks off Sunday evening, live from Oakland-Alameda Coliseum.
Here are nine items for Steelers fans to watch for during Week 3.
A Reunion with Carson Palmer
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If nothing else, one former USC Trojan wiped the sweat from his brow with relief after it was announced that his former collegiate peer would be absent from Sunday's contest. After all, Carson Palmer has been frequently victimized by his college roommate, Troy Polamalu.
From running over Palmer en route to the end zone to diving—arms extended—over the pylon for six points in 2010, Troy's great play against Carson has marked their professional meetings in the past.
Yet, few unions were more downtrodden for Palmer than that between Kimo von Oelhoffen and the quarterback's own knee in the 2005-06 Wild Card playoffs. Pittsburgh beat Cincinnati, 31-17, on the path to a Super Bowl XL victory.
"I hate the Steelers more than I hate UCLA. Yeah, it's because I'm jealous and want what they have. It's how everybody in our locker room feels."
Palmer's interview with Sports Illustrated in the aftermath of his injury stuck with Steelers fans, who wanted nothing more than to put him in his place.
Fast-forwarding to the present, it's difficult to face off against Carson without recalling how he fell flat on his face in his mission to unseat the Steelers. Pittsburgh actually went on to knock Palmer's Bengals from the 2006-07 playoff picture in Week 17 of the following year, Bill Cowher's final game as head coach.
Additionally, Palmer is 4-9 against the Black and Gold.
Now, Polamalu's old college buddy wears Silver and Black. However, life back in California hasn't been so sunny for Carson. The Steelers will look to continue this trend.
Absent a solid run game in the first two weeks with Darren McFadden, the passer has been put on center stage late in games, where his lackluster aerial attack has been exposed.
Darrius Heyward-Bey and Denarius Moore have struggled to produce, and the Steelers secondary will look to suffocate Oakland targets much as they did last week against the Jets. The Raiders' most productive target has been Brandon Myers, who has 11 receptions for 151 yards.
Even absent Polamalu, the man-coverage skills of Keenan Lewis, Ike Taylor, Ryan Clark, and even Cortez Allen blossomed in the latter stages of Week 2's contest, and all indications would seem to lean towards the Steelers' defensive backfield having the edge again this week.
Yet, despite his heftily declining status from elite NFL passer to struggling misfit, Carson Palmer will need to be pressured to be ineffective. It's no secret that the key to disrupting the timing of an NFL passer is to congest his backfield. Carson Palmer, like any other quarterback, can frustrate a defense if his jersey stays clean.
So far, the Steelers defense has had more success bringing pressure from the middle of the line. Last week, Larry Foote had one of his better efforts in recent memory, and he will want to duplicate that success in order to keep Palmer rattled.
Likewise, Lamarr Woodley also got a sack last week, and his presence on the outside is still formidable, even with the absence of his anchoring peer, James Harrison.
Stopping Darren McFadden
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In a rebuilding year defensively,particularly after a full offseason of work, Raider Nation hoped that the combination of Carson Palmer and running back Darren McFadden would at least invigorate the offense.
In fact, a large portion of the Raiders' offensive success obviously stems from the production of their thoroughbred runner, which largely explains their ineptitude to-date. The Silver and Black averaged 12 points per game in Weeks 1 and 2 against the Dolphins and Chargers.
McFadden's performance has been unbelievably anemic. With an absent rushing threat and vanilla passing game, Oakland has fallen far behind in its contests.
1) The Raiders offensive play-calling has consisted of 94 passes and only 34 rush attempts. If they can't run early, they'll continue to fall behind quickly.
2) The total offensive production in Oakland has included 649 passing yards... and 68 rushing yards. Imbalance, anyone?
3) By comparison, the Steelers' running game, which most fans would mark as below average (at best) in 2012, has totaled 141 yards. That's double the rushing production in Oakland!
4) While Pittsburgh has averaged 2.6 yards per carry, Raiders' runners pick up a paltry 2.0 yards per attempts.
5) Darren McFadden, considered the keystone cog of the Raiders roster, has run the ball 26 times for a whopping 54 yards. While such dramatically low production will inevitably improve, the back is on pace for 432 total yards.
Obviously, if the Raiders have any hope of contention in Week 3 or beyond, the run game needs to improve dramatically. And, nobody is naive to the fact the numbers fall on the shoulders of McFadden.
Under coach Dennis Allen and offensive coordinator George Knapp, Oakland switched to a zone-blocking scheme this season, and many feel this adjustment is causing their early struggles. Still, part of the job of a running back is to manufacture yards, even when they're not readily available. In that role, McFadden has failed.
Pittsburgh hopes to continue that trend.
The Steelers' front line will have an important job on defense, keeping McFadden in check, maintaining gap discipline, and keeping offensive linemen from getting to the second level (the linebackers).
Likewise, the tackles will need to execute their assignments well, either wrapping up and containing the outside or getting solid leverage between the tackle and guard, whichever is called for by the play design. After all, McFadden is a very capable big play back, and allowing him to cut back or take the football around the tackles could well result in a game-breaking "splash run."
Use of Running Backs vs. Struggling Raiders' Run Defense
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For all of their struggles on offense, the Raiders have been worse on defense. Opposing rushers have averaged 4.7 yards per carry, racking up 295 rushing yards in two games.
While it is unlikely that a Steelers' runner will shred the Silver n' Black defense like Reggie Bush did last weekend, it still behooves the Black and Gold to start their best available back against a struggling unit.
With Mendenhall officially out of the lineup until after the bye week, the Steelers prepare for at least one more contest with the combination of Jonathan Dwyer and Isaac Redman.
Before their contest with the New York Jets, I advocated that the team should start Dwyer and/or give him the bulk of available carries. After the contest, I felt my opinion was vindicated, writing:
The jury may still be out on Dwyer, but I'd give him a shot with the bulk of carries against Oakland.
Though their numbers were similar against the Jets, Redman's hesitation in the backfield, in addition to the odd penchant to run him to the outside, resulted in a number of negative runs, any of which could have been a potential drive-killer.
Four of his first six touches landed the negative yardage for the offense, totaling -13 yards. In that series of rushes, he had a lone positive gain, a 13-yard burst that statistically washed his previous backwards efforts. Six runs, zero yards.
In the second half, Redman showcased flashes of his late 2011 self, but this was against a defense that was sucking wind in the midst of an emasculating ten minute drive.
Again, Jonathan Dwyer's numbers weren't mind-blowing, but he performed well in the offseason (coming into camp in the best shape of his life), camp (contending for the top job), the preseason (he was easily the most productive runner in exhibition, as well as the most durable), and the season opener (he averaged nearly five yards per carry).
Frankly, despite the statistics, his quickness to the hole—or at least to the line of scrimmage prior to any change in direction—prevented the slew of negative plays that the unit suffered with Redman as the primary runner.
The team is anxious to see the state of Rashard Mendenhall, who is likely the best option on the roster even at only 80 percent of his former glory. In the meantime, until it is certain that Rashard is ready to carry the load, the team needs to strongly consider swapping the starting and relief roles between Dwyer and Redman.
Keep in mind that Redman was effective as a change-of-pace back used in exclusive situations as a backup to Mendenhall.
Big Ben and Young Money Against a Depleted Secondary
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While they haven't struggled as mightily as the defensive front, the Oakland secondary hasn't had a stellar 2012 campaign themselves. They've allowed opposing quarterbacks to complete 67% of their passing attempts and have been unable to force a turnover in the passing game.
Though he had the aid of a superb running effort from Reggie Bush, Dolphins rookie Ryan Tannehill was able to unlock the handcuffs of his inexperience in the second half last week, showing great aplomb in his first career victory.
While comparative properties do not exactly pass for proper NFL analysis, one can't help but to salivate at the prospective answer to the following question:
If Tannehill and the Dolphins can do that.....
Then, what can Big Ben and "Young Money" accomplish in Week 3?
Adding to the Raiders' difficulties in the defensive backfield are a pair of injuries in both starting cornerbacks, Ron Bartell and Shawntae Spencer.
Rumor has it that free safety Michael Huff could see significant—if not exclusive—time at corner, helping to alleviate the stress of a depleted unit. In Huff's place will likely be Matt Giordano. When a top player is injured, the resulting decline in capability trickles through an entire unit.
With Mike Wallace, Antonio Brown, Emmanuel Sanders, and Jericho Cotchery, the Raiders will face their stiffest test in the backfield, and that's without even mentioning tight end Heath Miller (who is on pace for a career year).
If Pittsburgh can establish a running game, the end result and game-long guesswork would be nightmarish for the Raiders defense. With so many backups hoisted into starting roles, the Steelers would be wise to attack the secondary early.
Personally, I hope that Roethlisberger stretches the field right away, going deep early to keep the Raiders' corners honest.
The Return of D.V.D.
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Last weekend, the Jets' elevated Isiah Trufant had the football in his hands as his feet began to descend directly downward to the Pittsburgh 1-yard line. A perfect punt was about to pin Pittsburgh, trailing New York 10-6, deep in their own territory.
DeMarcus Van Dyke had other ideas. One week after downing a punt himself, forcing Peyton Manning and the Broncos to start a drive in the shadow of their own goal line, it was D.V.D. shoving Trufant into the end zone.
Now able to start at their own 20-yard line, the Pittsburgh offense had room to execute, engineering an 80-yard drive that culminated in a Heath Miller touchdown just before halftime. Instead of New York continuing a well-executed road game, Van Dyke's play set the stage for Pittsburgh to seize momentum in the contest.
It was a swagger they would not relinquish.
Then, with the Black and Gold leading in the second half, D.V.D.'s forceful presence was shown again, as he came bearing down on Jeremy Kerley like a torpedo. His presence caused Kerley to muff Drew Butler's punt. The Steelers recovered, and the rising publicity of a potential special teams phenom began to take shape. For Van Dyke, that's particularly note-worthy; after all, he's in a blue-collar city that loves its role players.
Interesting, the Raiders drafted Van Dyke in the third round of the 2011 draft. After releasing the corner, the Steelers acquired him days before the start of the season. As a member of a struggling Oakland secondary, he managed an interception and handful of pass defenses.
While the focus will continue to be on D.V.D.'s special teams antics, where his reputation as one of the fastest men in the NFL (a recorded 4.28 seconds in the 40-yard dash) surely assists his penchant for playmaking, his role could expand as the season progresses.
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The Raiders feature a great one-two punch. For most teams, such a combination would consist of two running backs or a starting quarterback and his change-of-pace replacement.
In Oakland, the one-two combo is punter Shane Lechler and kicker Sebastian Janikowski, two powerful field flippers who may arguable be the Raiders' most dangerous weapons.
While he's had his accuracy issues during some key moments in the past, Janikowski's powerful left leg can connect for three points with relative consistency at almost any distance, ranging as far back as 65-yards (feasibly).
Still, Shane Lechler is Oakland's true special teams gem.
Lechler is an outstanding punter, complete with a powerful leg that can be used for both flipping field position or pinning an opponent.
From the shadow of his own goal line, Lechler is known for backing returners well into their own territory, while his precision and back spin from the middle of the field allow the Raiders to down his kicks consistently inside the 10-yard line. These attributes make him a living nightmare for the opposition as it concerns winning the battle for field position.
Thankfully, the Steelers' kicker-punter pair have had their own strong start to 2012.
Drew Butler hasn't suffered from the "shanks" that rose eyebrows in training camp, and he's been able to pin the opposition deep in their own territory when called upon.
Shaun Suisham hasn't missed a field goal in the young season, most notably going 2-for-2 from 45-yards during last week's win at Heinz Field. This was notable, as Pittsburgh's unfriendly field makes attempts from 40+ yards tentative propositions at best.
Offensive Line vs. Richard Seymour and Tommy Kelly
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For the Raiders to have any defensive success against Pittsburgh, their linemen, particularly tackles Tommy Kelly and Richard Seymour, need to put pressure on Roethlisberger and make life easier for their short-handed secondary.
Though Oakland has struggled in run defense to start the year, the offensive linemen surely know that their hands will be full trying to move these two behemoths.
Likewise, with so much stress in the defensive backfield, Seymour and Kelly will be fully aware of their do-or-die role. They must be able to apply pressure in the backfield or their secondary is doomed.
The Steelers' offensive line has suffered through peaks and valleys, both in terms of health and performance. Their ability to handle the two star tackles will go a long way in determining just how much success the Black and Gold can have against the "black and blue" Silver and Black.
A Focus on the Officials
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This week, replacement officials' performances have come under attack, as the scrutiny of the NFL public has detected a lack of discipline and player control in a number of NFL games.
Likewise, many question the consistency in rules interpretation by the officiating teams, as seemingly one staff will throw flags on the mildest of infractions while the next will officiate by the adage "let 'em play!"
One thing is for sure: teams are feeling out the officials early in contests to gauge their style and tendencies. In other words, teams want to know what they can get away with.
Can defensive backs take liberties? Or, will they get flagged for interference even if they make literally no contact on an opposing player from snap to whistle (see: Ike Taylor, Week 2)?
How will the trenches (holding) be legislated?
How will activity after the whistles be tolerated? Does it behoove the team more to stay disciplined between play, or is the opportunity available to send an intimidating, physical message to the opposition thanks to a hands-off crew?
Taking on the Raiders this weekend, Steeler Nation can't help but recall a pair of interesting happenings in the two teams' last meeting, wondering how things may have turned out with the replacement officials on hand:
1) Most popularly, fans recall Richard Seymour throwing Ben Roethlisberger to the ground after a touchdown pass before halftime. Seymour was ejected from the game following a mild melee in the aftermath of his actions. Given the events of a few recent games, would the new officials lose control of such a situation? Would their presence inspire further "player liberties" in response to Seymour's actions?
2) Many fans have forgotten just how controversial calls can be even with the most veteran of officials. In that contest, the Steelers were seemingly flagged at will, and a number of momentum-turning plays (including an interception return for a touchdown) were negated by controversial calls.
In other words, human error is a reality of football, no matter the experience of the men clad in zebra stripes.
Heading into Week 3, opinions are largely mixed regarding the new referees. Some feel that the game has taken a step backwards due to the lack of consistency in their calls, while other fans appreciate a seemingly renewed defensive edge that has been present in many contests.
While they've rarely locked horns with mutual success in recent seasons, the Steelers and Raiders continue to carry a strong disdain for each other. It will be interesting to see how the game plays out in the wake of such strong emotions coupled with the replacement officials.
Is This a Trap Game?
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Coming off of an important victory against the Jets in Week 2, Steelers fans are optimistic that their team can easily dispatch a struggling Oakland squad and improve to 2-1 before the bye week.
With much needed rest just around the horizon, this is the rare case where a team should be thankful for an early bye week. The additional time off will give key injured players an opportunity to get healthy, thus bolstering a depleted roster that is simply praying for 60 minutes of injury-free football in California.
From Troy Polamalu and James Harrison to Rashard Menenhall, a number of key pieces will be absent from the starting lineup once again as the team takes on Oakland.
With a half month to rehab starting late evening on Sunday, many wonder if the timing of this particular contest isn't detrimental. Could the team look ahead, or worse yet, past the Raiders?
Many fans, albeit cynical or cautious, have labeled this game as a "trap game," the type of winnable affair in which an overconfident team takes victory for granted and ends up losing.
If "trap games" are a true NFL phenomenon where winning teams take victory for granted, it suffices to reason that this is that type of week.
After all, the Raiders have struggled both offensively, particularly on the ground, and defensively, where their secondary is injured beyond recognition. If anything promotes overconfidence, it could be having a perceived advantage in nearly every phase of the game.
So, do you buy the fact that this weekend's matchup is a tailor-made trap? Is there a chance that the Steelers lose due to overconfidence or looking ahead to the break?
Or, are allusions of such a set-up the product of unwarranted cynicism and negativity? What are your thoughts on the matter?
Personally, if an upset were to occur, I think that the notion of a "trap game" will have little to do with the result. In fact, I tend to believe that the term "trap" is a mere excuse conjured up by fan bases that lose in an upset.
I find the Steelers' performances away from Heinz Field to be a bit underwhelming of late, if not entirely undisciplined. If they put together a balanced, focused road effort, I fully anticipate a blowout win over the Raiders.
Only Sunday will tell.