It's the Pittsburgh. It's the Raiders. It's the Steelers. It's the 70s. Ok, maybe it's not the 70s anymore, but for some of the older fans, it wasn't so long ago that these two teams were the most bitter of rivals. And the fact that the biggest highlight the Steelers have to celebrate the rivalry was a fluke controversial play that only happened because of a great defensive play by the Raiders.
The Raiders would get their revenge in 1977 and their dynasty would last well into the 80s after the Steelers dynasty of the 70s was long since past. But in recent years, the Steelers were able to get back to the Super Bowl and win it, while the Raiders have made one brutal trip to the Super Bowl in the past 30 plus years.
Even in the past few years with the Raiders struggling, they still have taken 4 of the last 5 games from the Steelers. Though, the Raiders have also lost 4 of 5 in Pittsburgh. The funny thing is, prior to the Raiders' win over the Browns in week three of this season, the last win they had in the east was in Pittsburgh in 2009. Good times.
That's right. The Raiders at 4-3 are now hearing "playoffs" being discussed. The last time that happened was 2011 when the Raiders had the exact same 4-3 record seven games into the season. A win Sunday would do a lot to furthering the idea that they are a playoff worthy team. It would put them two games above .500 at the halfway point of the season after having beaten their top two Wild Card contending teams - Jets and Steelers - in consecutive weeks. A loss wouldn't knock them out of the conversation, but it would hurt their chances greatly. It is still a bit premature at this point, though. A lot that can happen between now and then. For instance, in that 2011 season, the Raiders were reserving playoff tickets at 7-4 before losing four of their last five, finishing 8-8 and missing the playoffs.
Next return man up
The Raiders swapped out return men this week, signing free agent Marcus Thigpen and cutting Walt Powell who had been on the team the past two weeks, but was inactive both weeks. This week, punt returner, TJ Carrie is banged up with a shoulder and hip injury, making him questionable for the game. He is expected to be able to make a go of it, but you'd have to think the Raiders would be wise and give him a break from his punt return duties this week in favor of Thigpen. Carrie is far too valuable in the secondary to risk further injury returning punts. At least for now.
Mack good to go after hamstring scare
Late in the Raiders win over the Jets last week, Khalil Mack sacked Geno Smith. Afterward he came out of the game, limping to the sideline. Following the game, Jack Del Rio said he was just a little banged up but was fine. Come Wednesday, Mack was held out of practice with a hamstring injury. Mack said at the time, it was just a "little tweak" and he would be back the next day. He returned Thursday as promised and is officially probable for the game. It will hopefully not hinder him in the game because he is crucial to this Raiders defense.
Derek Carr vs Road contender
This week, it became clear the Raiders have found their franchise quarterback in Derek Carr (even though some fans clearly ‘knew' all along. Just like they knew with all the Raiders other countless drafted QB successes. Aaanyway...). In the past two wins over the Chargers and Jets, Carr showed he had made great strides, along with some new skills which he hadn't consistently shown before (leading his receivers on the deep ball for instance).
Even still, this game presents a big test for him. Both of those wins came in front of a friendly crowd. One was in San Diego where the crowd was mostly Raiders, and the other was in Oakland. This after the team's three wins last season were all at home. Carr has won a game on the road this season, but it was in Cleveland against a very bad Browns team.
Now the Raiders will be on the road, in a hostile environment, against a very good team in Pittsburgh. Carr will have to run the Raiders offense with a roaring crowd making things difficult and an opposing team very capable of coming back to win it should the Raiders offense stall late as it has the past two weeks. Huge test for him that could be another big step in his development.
Big Ben containment
If you are team who has to face Ben Roethlisberger in a game, you can sympathize with Richard Seymour. For those unfamiliar, Seymour was ejected for punching Roethlisberger in the face in a game a few years back. Big Ben is a pain to corral and just as tough to bring down once the defender does get to him. Strange really to see a guy his size and sloth actually be able to slip pressure as he does. He will often buy himself enough time to either find an open receiver or throw the ball away.
The Raiders have the speed on the edges and the strength on the line to get to him and bring him down. Whether they have the discipline in the secondary is another issue altogether. Those three areas must work in tandem or they won't work at all. It's the biggest task of the defense in this game.
Facing another Oline with big problems at center
This will be the third week in a row the Raiders will face a team missing their starting center and the second week in a row, that center was an All Pro. Two weeks ago, the Chargers were without starting center Chris Watt, last week the Jets were without All Pro center Nick Mangold, and this week they face the Steelers who are without All Pro center Maurkice Pouncey. Pouncey's replacement, Cody Wallace, has been downright terrible. He has given up 3 sacks and leads the team with 4 hits given up along with 13 hurries. Pro Football Focus graded him as the third worst center in the NFL (32 overall) and the third worst run blocking offensive lineman. The other two instances worked out in the Raiders favor.
Raiders top run defense vs DeAngelo Williams
Losing Le'Veon Bell would hurt any team. But for those who recall, the Steelers were without Bell early this season, and did pretty well. DeAngelo Williams had a resurgence early this season for the Steelers. The 32-year-old back had 204 yards and 3 touchdowns in two starts for the Steelers. Last week after Bell left the game, Williams had 71 yards on just 9 carries (7.8 ypc). He is not to be taken lightly.
Also not to be taken lightly is the Raiders run defense, which is sitting at number two in the NFL right now. They are right behind the Jets, who they faced last week and ran all over. So, one might say, the Raiders are actually the top run defense in the league. It could be very telling who wins the battle this Sunday.
DJ Hayden vs Antonio Brown
East week it seems Hayden is facing one of the best receiving in the NFL. Two weeks ago, he face then NFL leading receiver Keenan Allen. Last week he faced Brandon Marshall who is currently 8th in the NFL in receiving. This week it's All Pro Antonio Brown who led the NFL in receiving last season and currently sits fourth in the NFL in receiving. Brown has surpassed 100 yards receiving four times this season, including three of the four games Roethlisberger has played this season. Granted, Hayden won't be facing Brown alone, but Hayden is still considered the Raiders number one cornerback, so he will line up from him a majority of the time.
Clive Walford vs Mike Mitchell
Walford had his coming out party a couple weeks ago in San Diego. It was a sign he was ready to take the reins as the starting tight end for the Raiders. He will face fiery former Raiders second round pick safety, Mike Mitchell this week who was tasked with covering tight ends quite a bit during his time in Oakland. Both players will be looking to make an impression on the Raiders for very different reasons. Walford will want to show the Raiders they made the right choice selecting him in the third round of the draft while Mitchell will want to show the Raiders new regime they made a mistake in letting him go.