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Raiders-Steelers: 3 key matchups, can Jermaine Eluemunor slow down red-hot T.J. Watt?

Las Vegas must bounce back this week and find a way to keep two very good defensive players in check.

NFL: Las Vegas Raiders at Pittsburgh Steelers
T.J. Watt, Jermaine Eluemunor
Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

It will be hard to find a more even matchup in Week 3 than the Sunday Night Football contest between the Las Vegas Raiders and Pittsburgh Steelers. Both teams are 1-1 while the Raiders have a negative 23-point differential and the Steelers are sitting at a difference of negative 19 points.

Also, our friends at DraftKings Sportsbook have the Raiders as slight favorites (at the time of writing), and the line has already moved and crossed zero since Sunday night. In other words, it’s pretty much a pick’em game.

That heightens the stakes for the three key matchups listed below as neither team can afford to fall below the .500 mark in what is expected to be a tight playoff race in the AFC.

1) Jermaine Eluemunor vs. T.J. Watt

Seeing as T.J. Watt has finished in the top three in voting for the AP Defensive Player of the Year Award—and won it once—and has made five Pro Bowls in six years, I think it’s safe to say he’s a key player on the Steelers defense.

Watt is undoubtedly a sack master with 81.5 career quarterback takedowns, including four in the last two weeks. He also currently holds the highest PFF pass-rush grade (92.2) of any defensive player and is tied for the most pressures with 13. The six-year veteran almost exclusively lines up on the offense’s right, making for a very interesting battle between him and Jermaine Eluemunor on Sunday.

Eluemunor was stellar in pass protection last season with only 26 pressures surrendered, and he’s carried that momentum into 2023 by giving up zero pressures through the first two weeks, per PFF. Only two other offensive tackles can say that this season—David Bakhtiari and Charles Cross—and both didn’t play in their team’s games last week.

Watt and Eluemunor squared off against each other last season and the Raiders’ right tackle was only beaten twice in that matchup. The Silver and Black are going to need a similar effort this time around as the pass-rusher has been on a mission on the campaign so far.

2) Marcus Peters & Jakorian Bennett vs. George Pickens

Las Vegas Raiders v Buffalo Bills
Marcus Peters
Photo by Kevin Sabitus/Getty Images

Especially with Dionte Johnson on injured reserve and the Steelers’ rushing attack struggling with just 96 yards in two games, keeping wide receiver George Pickens in check will be a point of emphasis for the Raiders’ defense.

So far, Pickens has hauled in nine catches for 163 yards and a touchdown on the season. His 18.1 yards per catch rank ninth among wide receivers as he flashed his big-play ability on Monday night with a 71-yard touchdown grab against the Browns. The Georgia product also stands at 6’3” and 200 pounds and uses his size well on contested catches, coming down with 19 of 28 contested targets (67.9 percent) a year ago.

Part of what can make Pickens so difficult for defenses to account for is that he’ll take snaps on both sides of the center. This season, he’s logged 54 snaps as a right wide receiver and 37 on the left, which means both Marcus Peters and Jakorian Bennett will have to be on top of their games as Las Vegas has their corners stick to one side.

Peters doesn’t have one of his patented interceptions yet and has allowed nine catches on 11 targets so far, but he’s only given up 68 yards and hasn’t surrendered a touchdown, per PFF. It’s been a bit of a different story for Bennett, who has been targeted 11 times and surrendered 10 catches, 123 yards, a touchdown and a 143.6 passer rating.

I’d expect Pittsburgh to try and pick on Bennett, especially early on, as he struggles to hold up against physical route-runners which Pickens can be. I also wouldn’t be surprised if the Raiders opt to start or turn to David Long Jr. early in the game given the rookie’s struggles, and Long Jr. was thrown at twice and gave up just 10 yards last week against the Bills.

3) Jimmy Garoppolo vs. Minkah Fitzpatrick

While Minkah Fitzpatrick suffered an injury on Monday night, head coach Mike Tomlin said Fitzpatrick’s hospitalization was a precaution and is doing better now, so sounds like there’s a good chance he’ll suit up on Sunday.

Similar to Watt, Fitzpatrick has been a key staple in Pittsburgh's defense over the last several years. He’s collected 17 interceptions in 63 games with the club, including a league-leading six a year ago. While he doesn’t have any picks yet this year, he’s only allowed 34 yards in coverage so far.

Part of what makes the defensive back so difficult for opposing offenses to gameplan for is he lines up all over the field. Of his 114 defensive snaps in 2023, 47 snaps have come at free safety, 27 over the slot, 20 in the box and 14 as a wide corner. That means Jimmy Garoppolo is going to have to have his eyes peeled to make sure he knows where No. 39 is on every play as not doing so could lead to Fitzpatrick creating turnovers.

Garoppolo has also been susceptible to giving the ball away during the early stages of the campaign. He has thrown as many interceptions as touchdown passes, three, and fumbled a snap during the season opener. Those are the types of plays he needs to avoid if he’s going to be the game manager everyone expects him to be for the Silver and Black.

The winner of this matchup should result in some momentum-changing plays that will have a direct impact on the scoreboard.