The Pittsburgh Steelers take their 1-1 record out west to the Black Hole to face the winless Oakland Raiders on Sunday afternoon. Below are 7 things to watch for specifically in this game along with my prediction at the end of it. In case you missed it, here is my full preview of the game that was posted on Friday.
Stopping Zone - The Raiders have yet to get a good grasp on their new zone blocking scheme and running back Darren McFadden is struggling as a result. The Steelers defensive line did not handle the moving scheme when facing it in games last year and they must do a better job at staying square, keeping their feet and stringing out the play. Also important is the play of the backside linebacker to cut off the possibility of any backside cuts, as well as quarterback roll outs. This will be a good test to see just how athletic the Steelers defensive line really is this season and I suspect we will see more Steve McLendon in this game as Casey Hampton is still rounding into game shape.
This One Goes To 11 - The Raiders are now down both their starting cornerbacks heading into this game which means Joselio Hanson and Pat Lee will likely start with free safety Michael Huff likely to see time as a corner in their nickel sub-package. Hanson is 31 and only 5 foot, 9 inches, and both he and Lee had rough games against the Miami Dolphins last week. Look for the Steelers to use quite a bit of 11 personnel featuring Mike Wallace, Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders in an effort to take advantage of these matchups.
LaMarr Plays With Willie - Former undrafted free agent Willie Smith will likely start at right tackle for the injured Khalif Barnes, who has been ruled out for this game with a groin injury, so LaMarr Woodley is set up to have a huge game. The Raiders will more than likely give Smith help in the form of a running back or a tight end and it is important that Woodley forces them to do that if they intend on trying to control him. Woodley recorded his first sack of the season last week against the New York Jets and had a good game pressuring the quarterback as well. There is no reason for him not to light up the stat sheet in this game or at the very least commanding enough attention that others on the front five can.
Full Steam Ahead - The Steelers running game has gotten off to slow start this season. Instead of trying to be so athletic, the scheme needs to be more straight ahead this week and basic in nature. Left guard Willie Colon has not been light on his feet when asked to pull so far this season and the line as a whole has done a poor job on the move. While defensive tackles Richard Seymour and Tommy Kelly can\'t be taken lightly, they can be wore down. Middle linebacker Rolando McClain is fighting through a concussion and ankle injury that he suffered last week, so the Steelers offense would be advised to make him make as many plays as possible. Both Isaac Redman and Jonathan Dwyer need to hit the hole faster this week and fullback Will Johnson needs to be on his screws when asked to lead through the hole this week.
Palmer Takes His Dumps - McFadden, Mike Goodson and Marcel Reese have combine to catch 22 of the 56 passes from quarterback Carson Palmer so far this season. It is no secret that the Raiders short West Coast style passing game will utilize the running backs out of the backfield, so the Steelers linebackers must respect this and tackle the catch quickly. Goodson had a long catch for a touchdown last week in Miami and McFadden is a homerun threat whenever he touches the ball.
Speed Kills - Al Davis loved drafting speed at the skill positions, because it can kill opponents via the explosive play. While Darrius Heyward-Bey, Denarius Moore and Rod Streater are not the best route runners, they all posses great speed and can get behind a defense if the corners are not careful. Even though the Raiders offense is mostly reliant on the shorter pass, Palmer is not afraid to take his shots down the field. Ike Taylor and Keenan Lewis have to be on the lookout for the sluggo routes and have to make sure that they tackle the catch cleanly on all of the underneath catches or the speedsters will wind up in the endzone.
Third & Off - The Raiders as a team are just 6 of 27 on third downs through their first two games this year and Palmer is 10-of-17 passing with just 3 first downs when faced with 6 more yards to go. The Steelers defense has allowed nearly a 43% conversion rate through their first two games, so they have to do better job at keeping the Raiders offense in more predictable situations and behind the chains. Palmer is far from washed up and is wise enough to remain patient and take what is given him. Pressuring the former Bengals quarterback is the only way to get him to make mistakes, so the blitzes must be well timed and more importantly, the blitzers must get home.
Prediction - Everything points to big a Steelers win in this game, but the fact that is on the West Coast and that the defense has struggled in the past against zone blocking schemes makes me think that this one might be closer than many think it will be. I also believe the Raiders will break an explosive play or two in this game for a touchdown and think that quarterback Ben Roethlisberger will have to win this game in the fourth quarter with his arm. On paper this has the makings of a 41-7 game. I think the Steelers win it, but the Raiders cover the spread at home.
Final Score - Steelers 23 Raiders 20