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Las Vegas Raiders: 3 key matchups vs. Steelers

Steelers have a strong roster that will challenge Raiders in many areas

Seattle Seahawks v Las Vegas Raiders
Kolton Miller
Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

A downside to the Las Vegas Raiders opening the season on Monday Night Football is they don’t get much time to celebrate a big win. That’s especially true when Week Two features another extremely difficult matchup with the Pittsburgh Steelers.

It will likely take another full-team effort for the Raiders to come away with another big ‘W’, but winning the matchups below will go a long way toward accomplishing that goal.

Alex Leatherwood vs. T.J. Watt

Seattle Seahawks v Las Vegas Raiders
Alex Leatherwood
Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

I’ve already touched on Alex Leatherwood’s NFL debut in my Winners and Losers column earlier this week, so I’ll spare you the details and just summarize here: it was rough.

Leatherwood struggled to stay in front of veteran pass rusher Justin Houston for the majority of the night, and this Sunday presents an even more difficult matchup for the rookie.

T.J. Watt is one of the league’s premier pass rushers and that’s why the Steelers opened up the checkbook, making him the NFL’s highest-paid defender on a dollars per year basis with a four-year, $112 million contract. Per Pro Football Focus, Watt has ranked second and fifth in total pressures among edge rushers over the last two seasons, and his 2021 campaign got off to a hot start with seven pressures against the Buffalo Bills in Week One.

The five-year pro has almost exclusively lined up as LEO (wide defensive end) or standup outside linebacker on the offense’s right side since 2018. That trend held on Sunday as 64 of his 69 snaps came at either of those two positions, meaning Leatherwood and Watt will be matched up against each other for the majority of the game.

Pass blocking has been the biggest area of concern for Leatherwood and unfortunately, he’s not going to get the luxury of a couple of warmup games to get his feet wet in the league. Instead, the Alabama product will undergo trial by fire and have to figure things out against some top-tier NFL pass rushers, and figure things out quickly.

I’d expect head coach Jon Gruden to give Leatherwood some help with some chip blocks and keeping a tight end and/or running back in the pass protection scheme. But Gruden can only do so much and Leatherwood is going to have to win several one-on-one matchups against Watt.

The rookie is inevitably going to lose on the edge a few times, but he’ll need bounce-back and adjust quickly for the Raiders to have consistent success in the passing game.

Kolton Miller vs Melvin Ingram/Alex Highsmith

Las Vegas Raiders v Cleveland Browns
Kolton Miller
Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images

I know what you’re thinking right now, both offensive tackles and three pass rushers are key matchups? No duh, how stupid is this guy?

To answer the question, very stupid, but that’s a whole other topic we can dive into later.

The Steelers’ pass rush is so prolific that both of the Raiders’ offensive tackles are going to need to show up because Pittsburgh has three edge rushers that can quickly ruin an opponent's gameplan. So, it can’t just be Leatherwood or Kolton Miller, both have to show up and be on top of their games.

While Alex Highsmith is technically the starter for the Black and Gold, Melvin Ingram still took 54 snaps against the Bills last week. Highsmith took about 80 percent of his snaps as a REO or ROLB, while Ingram flipped sides more frequently but still spent about 72 percent of his time at ROLB.

The elder pass rusher obviously has a long history of wreaking havoc in the trenches that Raider fans are accustomed to from his time with the Chargers, whereas Highsmith is more of an unknown but still an impressive pass rusher.

The 2020 third-round pick played well and accumulated 21 pressures in a limited role last season, but he was dominant last month in the preseason, recording seven pressures and one sack on just 40 pass-rush snaps. Also, reports during training camp were that the Steelers’ coaching staff was excited about what Highsmith brings to the table, and he had a solid opening day performance with two pressures and a 71.2 PFF pass-rush grade.

During a press conference, Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin said he’s going to explore how the team can deploy all three pass rushers at once - Watt, Ingram and Highsmith - so Miller and the Raiders offensive line will have their hands full.

Miller should be up for the task, though. He was probably the lone bright spot for Las Vegas’ offensive line on Monday, earning the fourth-highest overall PFF Grade among offensive tackles (84.6) and allowing just two quarterback hurries. Hopefully, that trend continues.

Casey Hayward/Trayvon Mullen vs Chase Claypool/Diontae Johnson

Baltimore Ravens v Las Vegas Raiders
Casey Hayward
Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Since I went with a cop-out in the last section, I figured I’d just keep the theme going and combine two matchups into one.

Pittsburgh’s wide receivers are the strength of their offense and very rarely do they lineup in the same spot play after play. For example, Chase Claypool took 39 offensive snaps against Buffalo, 14 of which came at the left outside receiver spot, 12 on the right, 11 in the slot (either side), one in the backfield and another as a tight end. Diontae Johnson’s alignment was more consistent as 41 of his 44 reps came as an outside receiver, but his time was still split pretty evenly between the left and right sides.

Regardless of where they line up, both players are legitimate threats that Gus Bradley and company will have to keep in check.

At 6’4” and 238 pounds, Claypool has a rare combination of size and speed that is a matchup nightmare for defensive coordinators. If you put a corner on him, he’s just going to out-muscle them during the route or on contested catches. If you throw a linebacker or bigger safety on him, they better be able to run because the Notre Dame product ran a 4.42-second 40-yard dash a the 2020 combine.

While Johnson doesn’t have the physical traits that Claypool has, the former can still be a threat in all areas of the field. The former Toledo Rocket has the speed to win deep and is a threat in the short to intermediate areas of the field, as he ranked 14th among wide receivers with 402 yards after the catch last season.

That means the Raiders’ outside corners, Casey Hayward and Travyon Mullen, will have a difficult task on Sunday.

The good news is Hayward - 5’11” and 192 pounds - and Trayvon Mullen - 6’2” and 199 pounds - both have enough size that’s at least somewhat comparable to Claypool’s and should help them match his physicality. Plus, both Hayward and Mullen have decent speed so they should match up well against the Steelers’ wideouts, on paper at least.

Bradley had his corners flip sides a lot against the Ravens, as Haywards’ 58 snaps at wide corner were split right down the middle at 29 apiece, and Mullen played on the left side 22 times and the right 30. I’d expect the defensive coordinator to use a similar strategy in Pittsburgh this weekend by, in a way, fighting fire with fire by mixing up the looks/matchups he throws at the Steelers’ offense.

If so, that means both players must bring their ‘A-game’, and honestly, it’s going to be a full 60-minute fight to try and contain these wideouts regardless of the defensive scheme.