The Raiders play host to the Steelers on Sunday. Recent history between these two teams suggests the Raiders have the advantage. But even more recent history-as in the first two games of this season for the Raiders-suggest otherwise. But it's hard to base the success of a team on history. To really get a feel for it, you have to look at the current setting.
The personnel for the Steelers is very much the same as it has been in recent seasons, outside of some key injuries. Good teams are usually built from the inside and hold onto their good players. The Raiders, on the other hand, will be fielded a very different team than the one that came into Three Rivers two seasons ago and walked away with a win. The heroes of that game were Bruce Gradkowski and Louis Murphy-both of whom are no longer with the team.
So with that in mind, here are those matchups which will have the greatest impact on this game.
Raiders offensive line vs Steelers defensive line
This may seem like taking the easy way out but there's really no other way to say it. The Raiders' offensive line play has been horrendous through the first two games. The primary issue has been in the run game but pass protection has not been great either. With the deployment of the zone blocking scheme, this line needs to work as a cohesive unit and open up holes for Darren McFadden we have yet to see. Add in new starting right tackle in Willie Smith and they will have their work cut out for them.
The Steelers have not gotten great play from their defensive line. Not like the Dolphins last week which mauled the Raiders offensive line at pretty much a constant. The Raiders will certainly try to take advantage but if McFadden can't average more than the 2.0 yards per carry he has through the first two games, the Raiders won't do much.
To do their work, the Raiders offensive line will face nose tackle Casey Hampton in the middle bookended by veteran Brett Keisel and part time starter, Evander Hood. This trio has been part of the issue that has allowed opponents 4.1 yards per game this season. And they won't have the help of All Pro outside linebacker James Harrison.
This one has blood bath written all over it. Lee and Hanson were eaten up by Brian Hartline last week to the tune of 9 catches for 111 yards. Now they face two of the best receivers in the NFL.
Hanson and Lee have been instructed to play well off the receivers in a "bend but not break" style, but that hasn't been getting it done. The opposing offenses have just been taking what they want in smaller doses and sustaining long drives.
Wallace and Brown are both deep threats and would prefer the big strikes but they will take a short pass if that's what they're given. The two receivers have combined for 20 catches for 264 yards and 2 touchdowns this season.
Heath Miller is arguably the most underrated tight end in the NFL. He is a mountain of a man and is extremely dependable in the passing game. He has seven catches this season and has had a touchdown in both games. He is very consistent and it will be up to both Branch and Wheeler to try and do what most teams can't-knock him off his game.
The majority of the time, it is Wheeler and Branch who switch off on tight end coverage duties for the Raiders. Wheeler has the size to match up with the tight ends and Branch has the speed to more than keep up with any tight end in the game who gets out of Wheeler's jurisdiction.
Sometimes Branch will be asked to drop back and help out the corners with the wide receivers while Wheeler covers Miller. Other times Wheeler will be send on a pass rush while Branch covers Miller. How well this dynamic works could play a significant part in the result.
Houston came into camp looking lean and fast. He lost nearly 20 pounds and was expected to make an impact in the pass rush more so this season than in previous seasons. That has not happened. While Matt Shaughnessy has gotten some decent pressure, and even got a sack on Pro Bowl left tackle Jake Long last week, Houston has done nothing. His pass rush is the missing component.
The Raiders as a whole have yielded just two sacks in two games. That is pathetic and Houston has got to find a way to change that in this game. He faces Marcus Gilbert who started 13 games as a rookie last season and led all rookies in pass blocking efficiency. He averaged less than two QB pressures per game last season so it will be a tough task for Lamarr. But one he must win or Ben Roethlisberger will just sit in the pocket and tear the Raiders' weak cornerbacks to shreds.