On the heels of a two-game winning streak, the Pittsburgh Steelers travel to Oakland this Sunday to take on the Oakland Raiders. The Raiders bring an identical 2-4 record to the party, along with some new wrinkles the Steelers haven't really seen yet this season.
So, without further ado, let's dive right into the particulars of the Steelers' game plan to beat the Raiders.
All stats provided by ESPN.com unless otherwise specified.
The two starting quarterbacks in this game are diametrically opposed in terms of their styles and resumes. Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is a two-time Super Bowl champion and one of the truly elite signal-callers in the league. Big Ben uses his savvy and strength to impose his will on opposing defenses at times.
On the other hand, the Raiders have quarterback Terrelle Pryor. Pryor is in his first year as a starter, more athlete than quarterback, but is proving to be a real spark plug for this new and diverse Raiders offense.
When the Steelers are on offense
Lo and behold, the Steelers found themselves a run game last Sunday against the Baltimore Ravens to the tune of 141 yards on 29 rushes. This resurgence can be attributed in part to the continued development of rookie running back Le'Veon Bell.
However, don't sell short the play of the Steelers offensive line, a line that was smaller and more athletic than previous incarnations and did a much better job operating in space.
This week, even against the league's 10th-ranked rushing defense, I expect the Steelers to come out and establish the run. Quick-hitting plays that maximize the vision and cutback ability of Bell will be on tap. Bell is exceptional at seeing a crease as it develops and using his lateral agility to get there in a hurry.
The other wrinkle the Raiders have to be wondering about will be the inclusion of the Wildcat package the Steelers debuted last Sunday. It's unclear as to how much of the Wildcat the Steelers will put on the field against the Raiders, but the fact they've had to prepare for it means it worked.
The passing game should become an extension of the run game this week. The Raiders are allowing 241 yards each week through the air. Against weapons like wide receivers Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders, as well as tight end Heath Miller, the Raiders secondary will be tested early and often.
In particular, the play-action pass will be a weapon. I have belabored the point this season, but Roethlisberger and the Steelers' offensive coaches have done a very good job this year working the deep safeties.
After reviewing the film of the Raiders' last game, a loss to the Kansas City Chiefs, their defensive scheme seemed fairly basic. They use a ton of two-deep safeties and play man in front of them. They bluffed a lot of one-deep and then dropped back to bracket wide receiver Dwayne Bowe.
In this picture, the Raiders safety circled bluffed a rush to the line at the snap and then dropped deep. Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith read the rush and looked to roll right and hit Bowe deep. It never happened because the deep pass got cut off and Smith was forced to scramble.
The Steelers can account for this by using crossing routes, forcing the Raiders to chase those speedy receivers across the formation and pull those safeties up. The same holds for the run game. Even with running back Jamaal Charles in the game, the Raiders did not commit eight or nine in the box. The Steelers should do their best to exploit that with their heavy sets that incorporate an extra offensive lineman.
When the Steelers are on defense
Contending with the packages that the Raiders are going to throw at the Steelers this Sunday will be a challenge. Having Pryor at the helm means the playbook can become very diverse very quickly.
There is one personnel grouping in particular that could pose a problem for the Steelers.
I'm not sure what the Raiders call this, but in my day, it was the full-house backfield. It's a short shotgun or pistol with skill players flanking Pryor as well as a running back behind him.
The Raiders use this in a multitude of ways, from simple iso runs to zone-read plays. There were even some very interesting passing sets against Kansas City in which all three "backs" went into the pattern and Pryor would roll to his left or right, giving the defense three short and intermediate levels to defend. Not to mention it still gave Pryor the option to run the ball.
How do the Steelers defend this kind of trickery? To be honest, they do it by keeping things simple. A win this week is going to come down to strong fundamentals on defense. A mobile quarterback like Pryor will run against man coverage, so the Steelers will have to play a lot of zone and keep plays in front of them.
This should be an opportunity to confuse the young quarterback, but the Steelers must do so while maintaining things like gap integrity and man responsibility. It's OK to want to toss some things at Pryor in an attempt to force him into some mistakes, but if those things don't work, he could make the defense pay.
The Steelers might even consider a spy on Pryor with a player like linebacker Lawrence Timmons or safety Shamarko Thomas. Both are fast and instinctual and can close in a hurry. But regardless of how they do it, they must focus on containing Pryor and forcing him to beat them by making reads, going through progressions and making throws under duress.
Prediction and Implications
The Steelers team we all saw the last two weeks can win. But if the one from the first four weeks of the season rears its ugly head, it has very little chance. I am counting on the new Steelers to be the Steelers going forward.
I am also counting on the Steelers defense being able to confuse and contain Pryor, and the offense being able to mix it up enough to keep the Raiders defense off-balance. This is a big game and would be a big win for the Steelers.
A win here would move the Steelers to 3-4 and inch them ever closer to relevance in the AFC North. The Cincinnati Bengals are in the driver's seat in the division as of now, but so much can change in just a few weeks. All the Steelers need to do is keep winning now and hope things sort themselves out at the end of the season.