The Pittsburgh Steelers take on the Oakland Raiders Sunday on the road and below is a preview breakdown of the game from an offensive, defensive and special teams perspective.
Steelers On Offense:
On Sunday the Steelers will play a Raiders defense that is down their two starting corners. That means Joselio Hanson and Pat Lee are expected to start and that free safety Michael Huff will most likely be the third corner when the Raiders use there nickel sub-package. At that point we should see Matt Giordano in the game at free safety.
Due to the shakeup in the secondary, you can probably bet that the Steelers will use quite a bit of 11 personnel groupings in this game that utilizes three wide receivers. In addition, it will not be surprising to see the use of the no-huddle depending on the crowd noise and the ability of the offense to communicate at the line of scrimmage.
The Raiders defense has been utilizing both man and zone coverages during their first two games so it is hard to speculate what they might use Sunday against the Steelers due to all of shuffling of bodies in the secondary. Regardless, the Steelers want to exploit some one on one matchups underneath as Mike Wallace should be able to draw enough safety attention over the top to allow plenty of space for Antonio Brown, Emmanuel Sanders and Heath Miller to work with.
While the invitation to throw all day will be there for the offense, it doesn\'t mean that they can abandon the run altogether. Middle linebacker Rolando McClain heads into the weekend as a gametime decision after suffering a concussion last week and he is also dealing with an ankle injury.
Odds are McClain will suit up and the Steelers should test him up the middle and force him to make plays. Last week against the New York Jets the Steelers offensive line was asked to be too athletic early on and that is just not a quality of the group. It should be back to basics this week with straight ahead power blocking that utilizes double teams and blocking down to the inside. Nothing fancy, just a hat on a hat and beat the man lined up in front of you this week and the yardage should be there.
As long as the offense does not turn the ball over, they should be able to score points. Even though they have possessed the ball well via long drives in the first two games, they have stayed behind the chains in the process and thus have been completely reliant on quarterback Ben Roethlisberger bailing them out on third downs. Sooner or later this will catch up to the offense, so moving the ball much better on early downs via the run or the pass has to start taking place in Oakland.
Steelers On Defense:
The Raiders run a West Coast style offense under new offensive coordinator Greg Knapp that utilizes a zone blocking scheme for the running game. Running back Darren McFadden has yet to get comfortable in the new scheme and the offensive line hasn\'t exactly executed well either. To make matters worse, the Raiders will be without right tackle Khalif Barnes, who is out with a groin injury. Hopefully LaMarr Woodley can take advantage of this, especially when asked to rush the passer.
Despite the problems that the Raiders have had running the ball, the Steelers defensive front five must stay square against the moving line and stay sound in their gap control while stringing things out. No matter what the blocking scheme is, McFadden is a homerun type of back who can take it to the house if given a lane.
The Raiders receiving group does not strike fear into anyone on paper and you might be surprised to learn that McFadden leads the team in both targets and receptions. Look for him to try and leak out on occasion and run away from a linebacker. While quarterback Carson Palmer doesn\'t get the ball out as fast as Peyton Manning or Mark Sanchez, the two quarterbacks that the defense has already faced so far this season, he gets it out fast enough, and he is generally swift at going through his progressions.
While the version of the West Coast offense that Palmer is running generally relies on short passes, the former Bengals quarterback is still not afraid to let it fly, especially outside the numbers. While Palmer will occasionally roll out of the pocket, he is not good under pressure, so the backside linebacker must maintain solid containment.
Through two games the Steelers defense has allowed 3.92 average yards per rush and 7.08 average yards per passing play on first downs and that needs to start going in the opposite direction to allow the defense to pin their ears back on second and third downs. Keep in mind that Palmer has faced Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau several times over the course of his career and his favorite Steelers receiver and former USC teammate, Troy Polamalu, is out once again this week with a calf strain.
The Steelers defense has done well at not giving up the explosive play thus far this season and they tackled the catch much better last week against the Jets in addition. While I do not expect them to totally shut down the Raiders offense, they should be able to keep them from sustaining long scoring drives.
Steelers On Special Teams:
Kicker Shaun Suisham and rookie punter Drew Butler are both off to hot starts and that needs to continue. Former Raider DeMarcus Van Dyke has more than earned his salary on special teams through the first two weeks of the season and he will get a chance on Sunday to show his former team that they made a mistake in releasing him. The Raiders are last in the league in kickoff return average with a 15 yard average, while the Steelers have allowed an average of 28 yards per return. Is this the week that rookie Chris Rainey gets the center stage? If he does, it is high time we see him break a few long ones to flip the field. Raiders kicker Sebastian Janikowski and punter Shane Lechler are two of the best specialist in the game. Janikowski is money from 50 yards and in, while Lechler can flip the field in a heartbeat. The Raiders certainly have the edge in this phase of the game and the Steelers can\'t help them by turning the ball over via a return. Not making a mistake on special teams, regardless of the yardage gained, is a win for the Steelers here.
It\'s too bad that games are not played on paper as it would save the team traveling all the way out west to the Black Hole. The Steelers last trip out there was not a memorable one and the only way I see them losing this game is if the ball is turned over several times just as it was back in 2006. If the offense jumps out to a big lead early, it will make the Raiders one dimensional. If the game is close heading into the fourth quarter, all bets are off on the road. I think the Steelers win this game, but I also think it might be much closer than many expect it to be.