The Pittsburgh Steelers travel to Oakland to take on the pesky Raiders on Sunday. With the Steelers on a mission to turn their season around—they have won two games in a row coming off of their bye week after starting the year 0-4—this away contest heads into must-win territory.
To take the Raiders down, the Steelers should look to their 2012 season for the blueprint.
No, not the Steelers' Week 3, 34-31 loss to the Carson Palmer-led Raiders last year. Palmer had his best game of the season that week, completing 70.6 percent of his passes for 209 yards, three touchdowns and an interception, while running back Darren McFadden rushed 18 times for 113 yards and a score.
Though there are lessons to be learned from that loss—namely, that defensive adjustments are a must—the best game to look back to for this week's plan is their Week 8, 27-12 drubbing of the Washington Redskins.
With Palmer no longer in Oakland, the quarterback now under center is Terrelle Pryor. Pryor is strikingly similar in style to Washington's quarterback, Robert Griffin III, and like Washington with Alfred Morris, Pryor has a productive running back in McFadden to help boost the ground game.
Pryor and Griffin are both mobile quarterbacks, which presents a unique set of challenges to opposing defenses. While Pryor is not as strong-armed or accurate a passer as Griffin is, he's still dangerous when he drops back. But luckily for the Steelers, if they take pointers from their dispatching of Griffin and his Washington team last year, they should have similar success in Oakland this Sunday.
In last year's win, the Steelers held Griffin to only 16 completions on his 34 pass attempts for 177 yards and a touchdown. He ran just six times, netting eight yards. Morris was held to only 59 yards on his 13 carries. Pittsburgh's defense effectively shut down Washington's two top offensive weapons, which is what it will need to do this Sunday against Oakland.
Through 5 games
The key to stopping a mobile quarterback is to hit him. Per Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk, Steelers safety Ryan Clark said that was the Steelers defense's No. 1 priority in last year's win over Washington, and we've seen it employed effectively by many teams against Griffin, Russell Wilson and Colin Kaepernick, who are also threats to run.
Keeping pressure on Pryor without allowing him to run will be necessary on Sunday. He's carried the ball 44 times so far this season for 285 yards, and though he has no rushing touchdowns, he's averaging a dangerous 6.7 yards per rush. He simply cannot be allowed to run free on Sunday, which means the pressure on him must be truly suffocating—he must not be able to find anywhere to go.
Hitting him—even if it doesn't result in a sack—puts him off his game and forces him to be a passer. He'll need a clean pocket rather than running lanes if every time he tries to run or scramble, linebacker LaMarr Woodley is on him before he can make a gain. Keeping the pocket clean might be hard for Oakland's offensive line, considering Pryor has been sacked 20 times already this year.
The Steelers sacked Griffin only once in last year's win, but when he was faced with pressure in concert with an inability to run, he completed just three of his 11 pressured passes, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), netting only five yards.
Playing physical defense in run situations also removed the threat of Morris last year, and it can do the same thing against McFadden in Oakland this week. However, it must be noted that the Steelers aren't faring as well against the run as they did last year, allowing a 19th-ranked 109.3 average rushing yards per game compared to 90.6 per game in 2012.
This may mean a better performance from McFadden on Sunday than Morris last year, but if the Steelers approach Oakland's offense in the same way they did Washington's, McFadden still shouldn't have a very good day. He certainly won't have over 100 rushing yards like he did in the Steelers' 2012 loss to the Raiders.
Luckily for the Steelers, they again have one of the best pass defenses in the league; they rank fourth in passing yardage allowed, at 197.5, all without producing many turnovers or sacks.
Pryor is playing well, completing 64.5 percent of his passes and averaging 7.7 yards per attempt. However, in his five games, he's thrown five touchdowns to five interceptions and has taken those aforementioned 20 sacks, which means the Steelers could find themselves with many opportunities to force him into making mistakes.
Pryor is the kind of inexperienced young quarterback the Steelers live to harass. Griffin was held to a completion percentage below 50 in the game last year, and it's possible that if Pittsburgh's defense follows the same aggressive game plan, Pryor too will have a difficult day passing the football.
Also worth noting is that the Steelers effectively shut down Washington's offense last year without the aid of safety Troy Polamalu. Polamalu will be on the field against the Raiders on Sunday, which will only make Pittsburgh's defense that much harder to control.
Quarterbacks must always account of Polamalu's presence, and his unpredictable nature should give Pryor a difficult time on Sunday. It's not likely he's seen a player with Polamalu's style in his brief NFL career—and it's even less likely that he'll be able to figure Polamalu out in their first meeting.
Polamalu doesn't have a sack or an interception yet this year, but he's been great in coverage, allowing only eight of 15 passes thrown his way to be caught for 62 yards, 22 yards after the catch and no touchdowns. He's defended two passes, opposing quarterbacks have a passer rating of just 63.8 when they're targeting receivers in his direction and he has 33 combined tackles.
Considering what the Steelers were able to do against Washington without him last year, having him in the mix this week against Oakland and Pryor only makes it more likely they can recreate their Griffin-stopping performance of 2012.
The fact that the Steelers had so much success defending against Griffin, Morris and the rest of the Washington offense last year puts them in a good position to repeat that against the Raiders on Sunday. It provides the perfect template for their defensive game plan and, if executed similarly, should produce the same result—a win.