The last time the Raiders paid a visit to Pittsburgh, that guy was our quarterback. [via i.cdn.turner.com]
Last Thursday, the Oakland Raiders suffered a disappointing 24-7 loss at the hands of the Dallas Cowboys on Thanksgiving. It doesn't get much easier, however, as the team travels to Pittsburgh to renew their once-heated rivalry with the Steelers. Pittsburgh is sputtering of late, as they've dropped three straight games; however, at 6-5, they're still very much alive in the playoff hunt in the AFC. Let's see if Oakland can play spoiler to the host Steelers. It's sure to be a formidable task, but we know the Raiders have upset potential and let's see if they can live up to it at Heinz Field.
Let's take a look at their schedule and see how they've fared so far.
Week 1: Tennessee Titans -- W, 13-10 (F/OT)
Week 2: @ Chicago Bears -- L, 14-17
Week 3: @ Cincinnati Bengals -- L, 20-23
Week 4: San Diego Chargers -- W, 38-28
Week 5: @ Detroit Lions -- W, 28-20
Week 6: Cleveland Browns -- W, 27-14
Week 7: Minnesota Vikings -- W, 27-17
Week 8: Bye Week
Week 9: @ Denver Broncos -- W, 28-10
Week 10: Cincinnati Bengals -- L, 12-18
Week 11: @ Kansas City Chiefs -- L, 24-27 (F/OT)
Week 12: @ Baltimore Ravens -- L, 17-20 (F/OT)
Let's take a look at the Steeler offense first.
Pass Offense Rank: 275.9 yards/game; 6th in NFL
Rush Offense Rank: 115.4 yards/game; 15th in NFL
Total Offense Rank: 37.4 yards/game; 9th in NFL
Scoring Offense Rank: 22.5 points/game; 15th in NFL
Mike Tomlin, 37, became the youngest head coach to win a Super Bowl. [via community.post-gazette.com]
There is no doubt that the leader of this team on the field is quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, but he has been slowed down by concussions this year. It's something that kept him out of tonight's game -- a very big divisional game -- against the Baltimore Ravens. Whether or not he'll play on Sunday against the Raiders remains in question, but there are other weapons on this team that can hurt you without the quarterback. Their leader on the sidelines is just as important, and I would say as head coach Mike Tomlin has done a great job with the team in just just over two seasons. He has guided his team to a career record of 28-13 during the regular season and 31-14 overall if you count the playoffs.
Ben Roethlisberger, QB: Like I said, we don't even know if Big Ben is going to play. You have to be prepared for either situation. Roethlisberger is a big guy and is having a career year throwing the football. The Steelers have gone from being a smash mouth, run-first team and have turned into a pass-happy offense. With so many weapons around Ben, though, how could you blame them? The key to getting Roethlisbeger off of his game is to pressure him. That's the old cliche, though, right? Still, it's how you have to go about playing against Big Ben. Knock him around like the Cincinnati Bengals did and you can limit his aerial attack.
Dennis Dixon, QB: What, we have to defend two quarterbacks? Well, no, but we have to prepare for a couple of them. Dennis Dixon, a one-time Heisman hopeful from the University of Oregon, made his first career start tonight and could go for number two next week against us depending on Roethlisberger's health. We don't know much about him, but he's definitely a threat with his legs. That's how he made his mark at Oregon.
Rashard Mendenhall, HB: The Willie Parker era is essentially over in Pittsburgh and largely in part to this guy. Averaging 5.1 yards per carry, the second-year man from the University of Illinois has nicely replaced Parker. A pass-first team now, Pittsburgh hasn't forgotten how to hand the ball off quite yet. And if Dixon is starting instead of Roethlisberger, Mendenhall is probably getting a few more carries. Our rush defense, ranked just 29th in the league, is going to have to wrap up this bulky ball-carrier if they want to give the ball back to the offense.
Mewelde Moore, HB: Like the majority of NFL teams, the Steelers have two backs they like to use. Mewelde Moore, the ex-Viking, is more of a pass-catching threat than Mendenhall. They're pretty much neck-and-neck, but beware of Moore out of the backfield. He'll waltz right by you, right, Chris Berman?
Hines Ward, WR: In his 12th season out of the University of Georgia, Hines Ward has earned a reputation in this league for being one of the best all-around players in the game. He leads the Steelers in receptions (66), yards (845) and touchdowns (5). We imagine that Nnamdi Asomugha, the best cornerback in the league, will be on him for most of the day; however, with Asomugha not moved around quite often, other defensive backs will have to step up and their part. We're looking at you guys in particular, Chris Johnson and Stanford Routt. Ward is unfortunately not the only guy that can hurt you in this offense, though.
Santonio Holmes, WR: This young stud from Ohio State University made a name for himself in this past year's Super Bowl with big-time catches in big-time situations. Pittsburgh's top deep threat, Holmes likes to use his speed to get by defenders. Chris Johnson is probably the best fit for defending Johnson, but since he's prone to getting beat as we all know, the answer isn't quite simple. I think we need to be physical with Holmes and bump him off of his route as much as possible.
Mike Wallace, WR: The wild card of the wide receiver group, Mike Wallace has stepped up in some big situations for the Steelers. Although Holmes is the deep threat, Wallace is the guy that truly stretches the field out of the slot. I think this could be our biggest mismatch with Stanford Routt likely spending most of his time against Wallace. Just a rookie from the University of Mississippi, you have to keep your eye on Wallace at all times. He's averaging almost 18 yards per reception.
Heath Miller, TE: Not only do the Steelers have very formidable receivers, they also have one of the best tight ends in the AFC. Heath Miller is a huge threat in the red zone every time the Steelers are entering the enemy's end zone. Roethlisbeger has a lot of confidence in Miller, and Dennis Dixon should as well depending on which quarterback gets the nod from head coach Mike Tomlin.
Let's shift gears to the Steeler defense now.
Pass Defense Rank: 213.5 yards/game; 15th in NFL
Rush Defense Rank: 74.9 yards/game; 1st in NFL
Total Defense Rank: 288.4 yards/game; 3rd in NFL
Scoring Defense Rank: 18.5 points/game; 8th in NFL
Defensive coordinator Dick Lebeau is in his 36th year as a coach. [via graphics8.nytimes.com]
Defensively, the Pittsburgh Steelers are just as physical as anyone. Defensive coordinator Dick Lebeau, the master of the zone blitz, has heralded much praise for his 3-4 schemes. Led up front by nose tackle Casey Hampton, Pittsburgh's rush defense is tops in the NFL by a pretty wide margin. Simply put, you almost have to beat the Steelers through the air. That's potentially a mismatch for the Raiders, as our strength is really getting the ground game going to take the pressure off of quarterback Bruce Gradkowski and the young receiving core. Pittsburgh's 3-4 defense is really highlighted by their linebackers James Harrison, LaMarr Woodley, James Farrior and Lawrence Timmons. A good mix of veteran and young players, they all have a high football IQ and fly to the ball. They also all excel at rushing the passer. Even with Troy Polamalu out with a knee injury, one of the top defensive players in football, the defense is no pushover.
While their rushing defense is really stout, I don't think we should give up on running the football. Become one-dimensional would be disastrous. You don't want to set yourself up for failure in any game, especially on the road against a great defense where it could really get out of hand. The Steelers have some holes in the secondary that I think we can exploit. Zach Miller is clearly our go-to-guy, and putting us in third down situations with six yards or less is key against a defense as tough as Pittsburgh's. Gradkowski should look to Miller early, often and over and over again. Pittsburgh's corners are veterans. Ike Taylor, six-foot-two, has the height to match up better against Chaz Schilens than most cornerbacks; however, Schilens' wider frame could be a problem for Taylor. Opposite Taylor lines up William Gay, a young cornerback from Louisville. It could be an interesting match-up with Gay likely matching up with Darrius Heyward-Bey; however, Heyward-Bey only averages about a catch a game. I don't know where I was going with that hype.
Feel free to leave your predictions or even your own thoughts and ideas about the Pittsburgh Steelers and how we can earn a win our fourth win of the season on Sunday.
*-All stats are through Monday, November 30, 2009.