The Oakland Raiders and Pittsburgh Steelers renew one of the AFC’s oldest and most storied rivalries when the two teams hook up in Week 8. The winner will take an important step toward getting back in the playoff hunt, while the loser will drop three games under .500 and face an uphill climb the rest of the season.
Both teams have more in common than just their respective 2-4 records.
The Raiders have gotten an up-and-down performance from their quarterback, very little production out of the running game and have had to mostly rely on a rebuilt defense.
The Steelers likewise have had issues at the quarterback position, not to mention a mostly mediocre ground attack and a defense that is nowhere near the dominant unit Pittsburgh has been accustomed to.
At least Oakland has history on its side. The Raiders have won three of the last four in the series with the Steelers, including the last two at the Coliseum.
Here are five ways the Raiders can get an edge on the Steelers in Sunday’s game.
Get after Ben Roethlisberger
Pittsburgh’s veteran quarterback has played extremely well the last two games after getting off to a sluggish start along with the rest of the offense. That’s why it’s critical that Oakland puts pressure on Big Ben the entire afternoon.
While he’s thrown just two touchdowns over the last eight quarters, Roethlisberger has nevertheless been very efficient. In wins over the New York Jets and Baltimore Ravens, he completed 40-of-53 throws for 424 yards without an interception.
Oakland’s defense has done a pretty good job all season of pressuring the quarterback, but they had just three sacks in the Week 6 loss to Kansas City, even though Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith was knocked around for most of the day.
Roethlisberger’s size (6’5”, 240 pounds) makes it difficult to take him down with one defender, so the Raiders have to be more sure-handed with their tackling and disciplined in the pass rush.
For weeks Raiders coach Dennis Allen has talked about the importance of forcing turnovers, yet the defense has only had sporadic luck in that department. If ever there was a perfect storm brewing for the Raiders, this appears to be the week.
Pittsburgh is among the league’s worst teams for turnover ratio, coming in at minus-10, which is tied for the second-worst mark in the NFL. Oakland, on the other hand, checks in even.
Defensive coordinator Jason Tarver has been harping on his unit to become more opportunistic and has emphasized that the second player coming in to make a tackle should be focused on getting the ball out instead of taking the opponent to the turf.
If Oakland can do that once or twice against Pittsburgh, it will make everyone else’s job a whole lot easier.
Turn Pryor loose
Since scorching the Indianapolis Colts with his read-option runs, Oakland quarterback Terrelle Pryor has kept his running to a minimum. Since the opener, he’s had only one game in which he’s reached double figures in carries.
Pittsburgh’s defense has been surprisingly weak defending the run this season, which makes it even more tempting for the Raiders to turn Pryor loose.
For all the problems he had against Kansas City in Week 6, Pryor remains a threat because of the success he’s had running with the ball. He’s been hesitant to take off as much since suffering a concussion against Denver on Sept. 23, but he can still do some damage.
A few good runs by the quarterback will force the Steelers to soften up their pressure, which would theoretically open up more room for running backs Darren McFadden and Rashad Jennings to get going.
Build an early lead
Pryor is still in the infancy of his learning curve, and as was evident in the loss to Kansas City, he can still get rattled fairly easily. He got shook up by the Chiefs pass rush, was unnerved by the crowd noise and began pressing once the Raiders fell behind.
Oakland’s offensive line is still a mess due to a plethora of injuries, so Pittsburgh will undoubtedly try to match that effort and attempt to knock Pryor around whenever they get the chance in hopes of shaking his confidence.
The best way for the Raiders to counter that is to get off to a fast start, build an early lead and let the defense do the rest.
Of course, even that doesn’t always do the trick. Oakland got off to a 14-point lead early against Washington earlier this season only to see it slip away in a 24-14 loss to the Redskins.
Playing at home will help settle Pryor’s nerves. A fast start and comfortable lead will do that and a whole lot more for the Raiders quarterback.
Don’t let it come down to the kicking game
Sebastian Janikowski made a 43-yard field goal as time expired to lift the Raiders to a 34-31 win over the Steelers in Week 3 last year. In 2009 he kicked a pair of field goals that provided the difference in a game Oakland won 24-21.
This year the Polish-born kicker has been anything but clutch.
Janikowski’s four misses already eclipses his total from a year ago and are his most since 2010. Two of the misses were pivotal in losses to the Indianapolis Colts and the Redskins.
The infield dirt at the Coliseum is gone, and the hope in Oakland is that Janikowski’s issues of getting comfortable with new holder Marquette King are gone as well.
That doesn’t mean all of Janikowski’s problems have disappeared, however. Until he gets back on track, the Raiders need to do whatever it takes to keep the game out of his hands—or feet, as the case may be.