Sunday’s game against the Pittsburgh Steelers wasn’t suppose to be a win for the Raiders. Oakland faired admirably last week in defeat against the Chiefs but the Steelers are another animal. Pittsburgh boasts a top 10 run defense (ranked 7th in rushing yards and rushing 1st downs allowed) and a blitz happy scheme that racked up 41 sacks coming into the game; good for 1st in the league.
Defending Pittsburgh’s offense is no easy task either, even without RB James Conner (who sat out Sunday’s contest with an injury) the Steelers have 2x Super Bowl winning QB Ben Roethlisberger throwing to a dangerous receiving tandem; all-world WR’s Antonio Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster.
The Raiders never backed down from the challenge however and continued the trend of playing their best football this season by gutting out a win at home. Here’s how they did it.
Impenetrable run defense
Losing RB James Conner to injury was a big blow for the Steelers who ended the the game with 40 yards rushing on 24 carries.
The defense swarmed to the ball on all levels and didn’t give up a big gain on the ground unlike the majority of the season. The Raiders came out in a “Big Nickel” package, lining up with 3 safeties on the field and putting Marcus Gilchrist in the slot.
Defensive Coordinator Paul Guenther calls a stunt with DT Johnathan Hankins twisting with fellow DT P.J. Hall. But midway through the stunt, Hankins reads out of it and fights off his blocker to stuff the running back for a small gain. That’s the benefit of having veteran players, even if they are getting older, they add savvy play to the mix.
The Big Nickel package was efficient against the run. Marcus Gilchrist again lines up over the slot and when he reads run, pushes his blocker into the backfield while keeping the outside edge. Gilchrist’s path forces the ball carrier to cut back inside. Running the alley is S Erik Harris who combines for a tackle with Gilchrist for a 1 yard gain.
Tight ends step up
With the Raiders depleted WR corps it has been left to Jared Cook to step up in place of perimeter playmakers. All the Tight Ends however played a major role in the victory Sunday and were able to make key plays in the pass game.
Reminiscent of 2016 when the Raiders would throw fades in 1-yard situations. In 2018, even without Michael Crabtree and Amari Cooper, Derek Carr is getting it going with his new favorite weapon, Jared Cook.
On this play Carr sees Cook matched up with a linebacker in 1-on-1 coverage and audibles to a fade route. Carr drops a perfect dime on the Raiders first drive to take Oakland into opponent’s territory. This drive would later end in a 1 yard touchdown run from Doug Martin.
Later in the game, Raiders were able to put together a drive into the red zone. The offense comes out in a run heavy personnel with 3 TEs. The motion back and forth from WR Dwayne Harris is just window dressing on this play and Gruden has another target in mind.
TE Lee Smith runs the “Throwback” play where the QB shows play-action, 3 WRs run one way and the play side TE sneaks off in the opposite direction. Lee Smith went years without a TD reception and now has 2 in consecutive weeks for his team.
Big plays on defense
The defense has been playing better as a unit, getting takeaways in recent weeks. Guys like Karl Joseph, Tahir Whitehead, and Arden Key have taken steps forward in their play, the results of which have allowed the Raiders to stay in games late.
On this play the Raiders defense is in a standard Nickel defense and again Paul Guenther calls for a twist from the defensive tackles. PJ Hall draws three blockers across the formation and DT Clint McDonald comes around to finish Roethlisberger for a sack.
The defense ranks dead last in sacks so anytime they can get the QB on the ground is huge. The biggest implication from this play however was causing injury to Roethlisberger who would leave the game after this series with a rib injury.
The Raiders defense was able to take advantage of the backup QB Joshua Dobbs who couldn’t get much going on offense for the Steelers.
This play above highlights CB Gareon Conley’s progress as he executes text book man coverage against Antonio Brown, breaking up this pass while avoiding an interference call. LB Tahir Whitehead comes to clean it up and hauls in the interception.
4th quarter comeback
With the game on the line, Carr and company trot out onto the field and engineer a dramatic come from behind victory. Derek Carr is tied for 1st with 16 4th quarter comeback victories since he entered the league (only Lions QB Matt Stafford has as many).
This is arguably the play of the game for the Raiders. Gruden said in his press conference he didn’t even want Carr to throw to Roberts on this play instead targeting Jared Cook at the top of the screen.
Carr checks for Cook who is doubled by two defenders and immediately opts to thread the needle to WR Seth Roberts on a 40 yard bomb. This puts the Raiders in striking range with the clock ticking down.
After 3 unsuccessful tries in the red zone, Carr and the offense are faced with a 4th down attempt for a TD. Carr has proven he is able to step up in moments like this on numerous occasions and Sunday was no different.
3rd string TE Derek Carrier is in the game. He is lined up inside the numbers and sells the quick out on the front line before turning back inside for an easy throw and catch. Carr knows he is going here the whole time and waits for Carrier to get open before firing a dart in the small crease that opens up due to the route concept. Great play calling and execution for the win.
- Field conditions were either “terrible” or “less than ideal”, depending on which Ben Roethlisberger you ask; but both teams have to play on it and that’s part of a home field advantage. It worked in Oakland’s favor in the end with Steelers kicker Boswell slipping on the potential game-tying field goal attempt, officially ending the game in a Raiders victory.
- The Raiders had 13 penalties for 130 yards in a relatively poorly officiated game. Despite the amount of yards given up due to penalty and the drives it killed on offense, the Raiders overcame it.
- Many pundits pointed to Mike Tomlin’s comments post game about how they could have put Roethlisberger back in the game earlier after leaving with a rib injury as a primary factor in the Raiders getting the upset victory. But when a defense can knock the starting QB out of the game, that’s a credit to them and majority of the time will lead to a win.
- Facing adversity, whether it be lack of talent, questionable officiating, or their own mistakes Carr marched his team to victory and is helping end a lost season on a high. If the Raiders can continue to put together these performances, going into next season with positive momentum is more valuable than draft position.