It is amazing how even though the rivalry with the Steelers has long passed it’s peak from the 70’s, it still very much exists to this day. It just matters a little bit more when the game is against Pittsburgh, and just like any true rivalry you can throw out the team’s records for the match-up.
It’s the one game over the past decade and a half that the Raiders always seem ready for, and yesterday was no different. Even better, Oakland actually outscored a team in the 4th quarter! Derek Carr has been playing so much better over the last few games after the abysmal start to the season, and now to further show his 2016 form he can tack on a 4th quarter comeback as more proof of him taking a step forward again.
It can not be understated how important it is for Derek Carr to be playing this well again and to get some wins under his belt even it does mess up the draft position for the Raiders. The wins and confidence it brings are more important than the draft position, especially considering how much of a difference it can have in the players trusting Jon Gruden’s system moving forward.
It sucks that this is finally coming together at the end of the year after being embarrassed for most of it, but it’d be worse to continue to play terrible. For most of this season they were a discombobulated mess, but suddenly they are looking like a cohesive unit that is finally truly embracing Jon Gruden’s system.
It’s like the Khalil Mack trade put this team into sleep mode, but the Amari Cooper trade has rebooted them into a real team again. It’s rare to have a trade work out so well (for now anyway) for both teams involved, but it truly seems to be the case regarding Amari Cooper heading to Dallas. He’s happy there, and the Raiders have played much better since he was traded.
That is especially true for Derek Carr though, he had some truly spectacular throws against the Steelers. His final stats of 25 of 34 passing for 322 yards and 2 touchdowns are impressive, but the real magic was in a couple of those late throws. His passes on the game winning drive for the Raiders to Marcel Ateman early in the drive and then the deep ball to Seth Roberts down to the Pittsburgh 7 were possibly his two best throws of the entire season.
Something that was pivotal in this win against Steelers too but would be easy to overlook is that the Raiders never gave up running the ball even though they were ineffective at doing so. Doug Martin and Jalen Richard combined for just 56 yards on 24 carries, a measly 2.33 ypc, but just being willing to keep running anyway kept the Raiders from becoming one dimensional.
Despite being stuffed in the running game repeatedly, they never gave up on it and in doing so they made the Steelers have to play for it. That opened up the passing game and especially the tight ends who had several plays from them sneaking out from running play formations. This is a staple of Jon Gruden’s offenses and they were executed to perfection even if the running game struggled all day.
It helps having Jared Cook playing like a man possessed, he has been outstanding all season long and needs to be re-signed the second a replacement GM is in place after Reggie McKenzie’s firing this morning. His 7 catches for 116 yards were huge in this game, even though most of his damage was done in the first half.
Cook’s play opened up the offense completely thanks to forcing the Steelers defense to concentrate on him all game long. Both his fellow tight ends and the Raiders wide receivers all benefited from the extra space they were able to work with because of Cook. His presence also directly created the game winning touchdown catch from TE Derek Carrier who was able to sneak out uncovered thanks to the attention that Cook dragged the other way.
As for the other side of the ball, Gareon Conley is the real deal at cornerback. He has developed so far from the beginning of this season that it doesn’t even look like the same player. He seems like he has gotten past his injury problems and he has been outstanding for the Raiders over the 2nd half of the season.
This game he had two terrific passes that he deflected and was big in finally stopping Raider killer Antonio Brown from having his usual monster game against Oakland. Brown ended up only having 5 catches for 35 yards in this whole game which for him is the definition of being shut down. Thankfully the Raiders didn’t trade Conley at the deadline because he is looking like the outstanding player he was at Ohio State again.
The Raiders defense as a whole played very well in this game actually, though they got help from knocking Ben Roethlisberger out of the game late in the first half until he came back for the Steelers final two drives. Though Oakland only got 1 sack on the day, they were in the backfield more consistently than in any other game this season. They also got a huge 4th down stop, 2 passes defensed and an interception from Tahir Whitehead who easily had his best game as a Raider.
Next on the docket for the Raiders is a match-up against the Cincinnati Bengals who just lost to the Los Angeles Chargers yesterday 26-21. They are 5-8 on the season, but they are currently on a 5 game losing streak. That doesn’t mean the Raiders can take them lightly at all, they can’t take any team lightly sitting at 3-10 on the season, but it does mean they have a legitimate chance of winning two games in a row for the first time this season.
Those of you rooting for draft position might be disappointed if they do, but I personally would love it. There was a time where it looked like even getting a 2nd win was unrealistic for this team, so now having a shot at a 4th win seems like an entirely different team. Now let’s just see what they do about it though, because a sudden implosion in Cincinnati would be an annoying and frustrating fall after playing so much better these past 3 weeks.