Carson Palmer got the best of Big Ben Sunday
Wow, where do we possibly begin with this game? Off of one of the most underwhelming performances in the last three years, the Raiders bounce back with an inspired effort to shock Pittsburgh 34-31 Sunday afternoon.
Darren McFadden's 113-yard performance, buoyed by a 64-yard romp on his first carry will be what dominates the stats for the Raiders.
I stated that the Raiders would not be able to sustain drives against the Steeler defense. I was obviously wrong. Palmer kept throws in the intermediate range and wound up 24/34 with three touchdowns.
There have been games in his Raider stint where the numbers looked better, but Palmer has not played better since his arrival. His lone mistake was the product of Denarius Moore falling on the infield dirt, leading to a Ryan Clark interception.
Defensively, the Raiders did manage to shut the Steeler running game down (54 yards on 20 carries). However, for most of the game, they were shredded by Roethlisberger, who hit passes in all situations on his way to four touchdowns.
That said, the Raiders made plays in the fourth quarter when necessary. A pass to Antonio Brown was completed, but Pat Lee made a nice strip and after a little hot potato, Phillip Wheeler recovered.
Then, the Raider defense rose up to stop the Steelers' last drive with their lone sack (Richard Seymour) and pressure from Miles Burris to force an errant throw.
By no means was the defense good overall. But in classic Raider fashion, plays were made with the game on the line. Not in classic Raider fashion, the team was once again highly disciplined, committing only three penalties for 25 yards.
By not beating themselves, Oakland was able to make plays to win its first game when trailing by 10+ points to start the fourth quarter since week two of 2003.
Credit must be given to a couple of unsung players. First, Philip Wheeler was fantastic. He made 11 total tackles and stopped a couple of series with great technique, something the defense has lacked in recent seasons.
But a player no one really saw today was great overall. Willie Smith replaced injured Khalif Barnes and played a very solid game. His block helped spring McFadden's long touchdown and he kept the Steelers' blitzes at bay for the bulk of the game.
Although I have discussed them, let's recap my five keys to the win and how they wound up shaking out.
First, I said the Raiders needed to minimize negative plays. Briefly, 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.
I said the Raiders needed to have less than half of the 12 they averaged in the first two weeks. Against the Steelers, the Raiders had nine. However, one was the Brown catch that resulted in a turnover and a Palmer kneel down to set up Sebastian Janikowski's game winning field goal. So definitely an improvement.
Who is most deserving of a game ball for the Raiders?
Next, the Raiders needed to make Pittsburgh one-dimensional. After 20 carries and 54 yards allowed, I'd say mission accomplished. Even though the Steelers came out throwing early and often, when they tried to catch Oakland off guard, the Raider defense was prepared.
That was crucial in the fourth quarter as Pittsburgh essentially abandoned the run game on the last two series as a result of its ineffectiveness. Now, time to take that show on the road.
The No. 3 key was solid special teams. Janikowski made both his field goals, including the game-winner. Shane Lechler averaged 51.6 yards per punt and while Antonio Brown did have a great return for a touchdown called back, the Raiders' coverage teams were better.
The biggest bonus was a pair of very good kick returns by Mike Goodson (51 yards that led to a touchdown) and Marcel Reece (36 yards). Another improved area.
I said the Raiders needed to make at least three big plays on offense (30+ yards) to win. They had zero and won. Palmer's accuracy was impeccable for the most part. Nine players caught at least one pass, none longer than 18 yards.
It was a fantastic job by the offensive line and Palmer being definitive with his throws and getting some solid catches by a beleaguered receiving corps. Speaking of which, I'd be remiss if I didn't wish a clean bill of health to Darrius Heyward-Bey.
DHB was knocked unconscious on a vicious helmet-to-helmet hit from Ryan Mundy that went unpenalized. Thankfully, he could move his extremities and gave a thumbs up as he was carted out of the stadium.
Lastly, I said the Raiders needed to force turnovers. They forced two and they were both humongous. They led to 10 points and in the case of the Brown fumble, probably even more as Pittsburgh was primed to score themselves.
Even more encouraging, they had another pair of forced fumbles that were nearly recovered. When a team has troubles getting stops, there is no better deodorant than turnovers.
It is very premature to make more of this game than what the game meant in and of itself: A single regular season victory.
But the Raiders showed a fight that was lacking in Miami and dissipated in the nightmarish second half against San Diego. The run game improved and more importantly, the Raiders showed they could move the ball methodically for the first time this year. It is just a start, but all first wins are.