Like Las Vegas, Pittsburgh enters the contest 1-0 and is looking to continue that momentum into a playoff run.
The Steelers have an impressive defense top to bottom and while their offense certainly has question marks, there’s no shortage of playmakers on that side of the ball, too. Obviously, that presents a significant challenge for the Silver and Black as two of the team’s young position groups, offensive line and defensive backs, will be tested early and often.
Starting the year off against the Ravens’ and Steelers’ front sevens would be difficult for any center, let alone one who’s new to the position. Unfortunately, that’s the reality Andre James faces, and he’ll be in search of a bounce-back performance on Sunday.
James struggled as a run blocker against Baltimore, as he was blown up at the point of attack on a handful of occasions and earned the lowest run blocking grade among centers, per Pro Football Focus. In pass protection, the UCLA product was better but still left something to be desired. He allowed two pressures and earned an efficiency rating of 98.4, which ranked 17th at the position.
Now that team heads to Pittsburgh, James will get introduced to the likes of Cam Heyward, Tyson Alualu and Chris Wormley, all of whom are impressive interior defensive linemen.
As many of you probably already know, Heyward is one of the best defensive tackles in the league and can wreak havoc against the run. Last season, “Ironhead” junior ranked tied for 10th at his position with 26 run stops and last week, he was PFF’s highest-graded interior defender against the run by a wide margin.
Alualu is another stout run defender who’s average depth of tackle was 1.6 yards past the line of scrimmage in 2020. That mark was good enough to tie for 13th best among defensive tackles that registered at least 179 snaps against the run.
As for Wormley, he was banged up for the majority of last season and was rather quiet against the Bills, only recording one tackle this past weekend. However, he’s still a well-respected run defender that James will have to combat.
The good news is Heyward is the biggest and probably only significant threat as a pass rusher of those three, and he lines up of the guards or wider on passing downs. So, barring a gameplan change by the Steelers, James won’t hove to face him much in pass protection and might even have a slight advantage over Alualu and Wormley in that department.
But the Raiders will need to be able to run the ball against the Steelers since that’s the closest thing to a weakness that they have on defensive, and James’ success or failure will be a large factor in that equation.
With Denzelle Good out for the season and all signs pointing towards Richie Incognito not playing again this Sunday, Las Vegas will likely be counting on John Simpson for the second week in a row.
As mentioned above, the Steelers have a fearsome defensive line that puts a lot of pressure on interior offensive linemen. Simpson will also play a key role in the Raiders rushing attack and that’s what he was known for coming out of college. Of course, he’ll be tested as a run blocker this weekend but a strong performance will not only solidify any pre-draft narritives, but also serve as a big confidence booster for him moving forward.
However, the knock on the former Tiger was that he has flaws in pass protection and that was evident against the Ravens. He allowed four pressures and earned a 96.6 pass-blocking efficiency rating, which ranked tied for 53rd and tied for 40th among guards last week.
Unlike James, Simpson won’t be spared from Heywards’ wrath in pass protection this Sunday.
Heyward exclusively played on the offense’s left side last week and absolutely dominated as a pass rusher. He led all defensive tackles with 12 pressures - Aaron Donald finished tied for second with six - and his win rate of 35.1 percent was good enough for fourth-best. So, obviously the second-year guard has a tall task ahead of him this weekend.
Now, if Incogito is read-to-go by gameday, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Jermaine Eluemunor get the nod over Simpson. If that’s the case, swap Simpson out as an “x-factor” for Eluemunor for the same reasons. However, the latter is a much more balanced player that is solid in the ground game and passing attack but not great at either.
Pittsburgh has a very strong receiving corps that has quite a bit of depth, and I already touched on the outside guys earlier this week (see below) so we’ll focus on the slot, here.
Nate Hobbs was the talk of the preseason for Las Vegas. The coaching staff raved about him pretty much all of training camp and he was named to PFF’s All-Rookie team last month. The fifth-round pick’s performance was enough to earn a starting spot as a nickel corner, however, he didn't face competition anywhere close to the same level he’s going to see this weekend.
JuJu Smith-Schuster might be more well-known for his TikToks than performance on the turf nowadays, but don’t be mistaken, he’s still a very good slot receiver. Last year, he led the NFL with nine touchdowns from the slot and had the fourth-most receiving yards with 735. All 52 of his receiving yards a week ago came from that inside alignment, and his route running and shiftiness can put even some of the most veteran cornerbacks in a blender.
Slowing down Smith-Schuster will be a big part of Gus Bradley’s defensive gameplan, meaning he’ll be heavily relying on Hobbs. I’d expect the coach to give his rookie cornerback some help in coverage, but at the end of the day, the scheme can only account for so much and the latter will have to win a few one-on-one battles.
Speaking of slot receivers, the Raiders have an impressive one of their own in Hunter Renfrow, who had a strong season debut on Monday night.
For the majority of the game, it felt like he was the only wideout that showed up, and he finished with six catches for 70 yards, 59 of which came from the slot. The latter figure ranked tied for ninth among wide receivers, and his 40 yards after the catch when lined up inside ranked fourth.
Renfrow could be in for another big performance in Pittsburgh as they have a lot of question marks at nickel.
Mike Hilton held that spot down for the Black and Gold over the last four years and played well enough to earn a four-year, $24 million contact in the offseason, but with the Bengals.
The Steelers tried to use rookie Tre Norwood as Hilton’s replacement in Week One, but Norwood struggled, allowing four catches on five targets for 43 yards and a passer rating of 102.5 when targeted. Also, his seven coverage snaps per reception ranked 24th out of the 37 corners that took at least eight coverage snaps in the slot.
With how strong Pittsburgh’s pass rush is and how banged up Las Vegas’ offensive line is, Derek Carr is going to need to get the ball out quick, which means a heavy dose of targets to the slot and his security blanket, Renfrow.
Given that the Clemson product can make plays after the catch and the Steelers are weak in this area, I think he could be in for another big day. If not, it could be a long game for the Raiders’ offense and specifically, their passing attack.
Am I taking the low-hanging fruit by naming the reigning AFC Defensive Player of the Week as an X-factor? Absolutely, but Maxx Crosby will definitely play a vital role on Sunday.
I’ll save you all some time as I’m sure everyone reading is already well aware of Crosby’s dominance last week, and he could put together another fantastic outing against Pittsburgh.
Like the Raiders, the Steelers’ offensive line underwent some massive changes this offseason, especially at tackle. Their 2020 Week One starters won’t be playing this weekend as Alejandro Villanueva is in Baltimore and Zach Banner is on injured reserve. As a result, they turned to Dan Moore Jr. and Chukwuma Okorafor to hold down the edges against Buffalo.
Moore is a rookie fourth-round pick who had a solid NFL debut last week. He did allow a sack, but that was the only pressure he surrendered. However, it was a completely different story for Okorafor.
Okorafor played on the right side and gave up two pressures while also recording the ninth-worst PFF pass-blocking grade among offensive tackles with at least 15 pass-blocking snaps. The latter likely means he was getting beat quickly and often but the ball was out before the pass rusher could effect the quarterback.
Since Crosby primarily played at the left defensive end spot last week, Crosby could feast this Sunday once again. And Las Vegas is likely going to need him to replicate his efforts, especially if Yannick Ngakoue doesn’t play.
As mentioned above, the Steelers have great wide receivers that could give the Raiders’ defensive backs some trouble, but not if the AFC Defensive Player of the Week can get to Ben Roethlisberger first.