The Raiders play host to the Pittsburgh Steelers this week so I caught up with Steeler blogger Neal Coolong of Behind the Steel Curtain. Or as I like to call it, Behind the Neal Curtain. He gave some very indepth insight into the Steelers as the Raiders will see them this week.
Me: The Raiders have a young, mobile quarterback who got rattled and began making mistakes and they have a very good run defense. It seems as if the Steelers just beat two teams that embody those exact characteristics in the Jets and Ravens so it seems as if they could do the same to the Raiders. Is it that simple or am I missing something?
Neal: I think the Steelers handled the quarterback who best fits that description, Geno Smith, pretty well, but Baltimore's Joe Flacco played well. Therein lies the challenge for Pryor in this game; can he play like a seasoned veteran, or will he wilt like a rookie?
The Steelers are 17-2 in the time Dick LeBeau has been their defensive coordinator (2004 to present) against rookie quarterbacks, and those two losses have fairly big asterisks next to them (a meaningless Week 17 game in which starters didn't play, and an eight-turnover dungheap against Cleveland last year).
Flacco certainly has the experience against the Steelers defense, and played the CEO role in Week 7 - took gains when they were there, didn't take losses and didn't take big chances. He nearly led his team to victory in a game his defense was getting handled pretty consistently. Pryor is likely to be less the CEO and more the binge-spender, but players like that are always a concern. He can break big plays, and he can keep a play alive long enough to break contain and make something happen.
He can also turn the ball over quite a bit, but since the Steelers don't force turnovers, that issue may be mitigated.
Ben Roethlisberger said the Steelers won their last two games because they stopped shooting themselves in both feet. Do you see that mistake-free play continuing or is this team more likely to revert back to the 0-4 team to start the season?
Mistakes are going to happen, but Roethlisberger himself has hugely reduced the ones he made in the first four games. He turned the ball over eight times in those four losses, and hasn't turned it over in the two wins. I'm not a rocket surgeon, but even I can detect a trend here. While the quarterback gets the bulk of the praise and criticism, the lack of mistakes speaks to a much higher sense of structure within the offense. It's more fluid, more dynamic and more consistent.
The ability to run the ball certainly helps that, although, Roethlisberger will still be the reason they return to going Burress on their own feet in this game.
Oakland's defense has a bit of an advantage over the Ravens in the sense they're very active, the gang-tackle and they fly to the ball. Those who enjoy old-school defense can see a lot of good things in what they're doing right now. Those teams tend to force more turnovers and make more plays - we saw it last year when Oakland forced two huge turnovers in the second half, helping them pull out a win over Pittsburgh. The Steelers will need to be prepared for a higher sense of intensity than they saw last week.
It depends on whether the Raiders want to put Pryor into situations in which mistakes come at a higher proportion of times. I'm not Walsh or Coryell, but I'm not going to let Pryor take more than a three-step drop against a defense as aggressive as the Chiefs. The Steelers are a far cry from Kansas City's ability to generate pressure, but it's clear over six games this season the Steelers can be victimized by their own design. LeBeau's scheme calls for defensive backs to be capable tacklers and solid zone defenders. The cliche that comes out of that is "tackle the catch." The goal is to prevent the big play so the front seven can be aggressive in their pursuit of the quarterback.
By and large, they've tackled the catch and prevented the big play over the last two seasons and six games, but they are not getting to the quarterback. My opinion, the sacks aren't coming because game plans are centered largely on the quarterback's ability to get rid of the ball quickly, and just take what the secondary is giving them underneath. Not to question LeBeau - a guy who sat on his toilet this morning and lost more football knowledge than I will ever know - but the scheme's general weakness is completions. If a quarterback can complete 10 passes on one drive that results in a touchdown, then ok, but you're not going to be able to do that often throughout a game.
I think that's changing. I think quarterbacks are becoming not just good enough to do that, but trained specifically to do that. They're entering the league smarter, stronger and better prepared. Dink-and-Dunk is becoming much more prevalent, because an offensive line doesn't need to be as outstanding, and the freakish level of skill from the younger pass rushers coming up in the league is getting so much they may as well spread the field and throw quickly to a receiver flanked out wide, out of the way of that pass rusher.
Now...is Pryor capable of doing that? I don't think he is. I think he'll struggle, and the more big-play chances Oakland's game plan calls for him to take, the more mistakes he's going to make. But he may hit on a few of those chances. Hell, Gradkowski did in 2009. Those chances earned him a contract with Pittsburgh.
Jason Tarver's defense appears to be modeled very much after the kind of defense Dick LeBeau is known for. Do you see that working in the Raiders favor or work against them?
I answered some of this earlier...lesson that maybe I should just shut up sometimes. Point being, what I see is Tarver's defense now is a lot of guys who like to play football. A very Gruden-like answer, I know, but they play defense like a team, not a collection of individuals. I think we're going to see a few post-whistle scrums in this game (paying tribute to Richard Seymour, perhaps), but it will be several Raiders players involved with several Steelers players behind the main combatants.
Maybe I'm not politically correct, but I like that mentality. Guys willing to defend their teammates is more important to me than a 15-yard penalty here and there. Teams that fight together are playing together. That's the essence of defense, and if that's something people see as a trait of a Dick LeBeau defense, then yes, I'd say Tarver's working well in that direction.
I'm just happy Philip Wheeler isn't there anymore.
The Steelers were averaging less than 70 yards rushing per game going into the Ravens game. Then they more than doubled that average against a stout run defense in Baltimore. How did they do it?
When Haloti Ngata is not on the field, the Ravens do not stop the run well. The team struggled last year when Ngata was hurt, and they won a Super Bowl after he came back healthy. They were up huge on San Francisco until Ngata went down, then the 49ers ran all over them.
It's not the same Ravens run defense as it once was, and the tipping point is the lack of Ngata. The Jets did a great job in the run game against the Steelers in Week 6. While Pittsburgh is enjoying the fruits of the labor David DeCastro has put in (he'll make his 10th career start in Week 8), the offensive line is starting to jell along its interior. Captain Maurkice Pouncey went down eight plays into the season, and Fernando Velasco is growing more confident with each game. He and DeCastro were dominant against Baltimore (DeCastro in particular), which paved some pretty large holes for rookie Le'Veon Bell.
Speaking of him...it's nice to have a running back who can bring more than one element to the team at a time. He's shown great patience and vision in the four games he's played, and his quickness is underrated. He makes very sharp and fast cuts, which is far more the reason behind his ability to make a two-yard gain into a five yard gain than the power he's often credited with having.
He runs with great balance and has that internal sense of how to gain a few more yards on a carry. It all adds up to extended drives and strong overall production.
The Steelers really didn't have that in the first three games this season, when their running game resembled a drunk tortoise walking through pine tar.