By Jeremy Hritz
The Pittsburgh Steelers played their best game of the season this past week against the Baltimore Ravens, winning a game of the close variety by three points, and salvaging a glimmer of hope that the season can somehow be saved.
Riding a two-game win streak, that glimmer has a chance to intensify as the Steelers travel to the West Coast to battle the Oakland Raiders, a team that despite being a league doormat for the last several years, has given the Steelers fits and miserable return flights to Pittsburgh.
While the Raiders are nowhere near being a solid team, they have been somewhat competitive this year behind new starting quarterback and Western Pennsylvania-native, Terrelle Pryor. Pryor, was the stuff of legend in WPIAL high school football lore at Jeannette High School, making mind-blowing plays with his arm and with his legs, and many envisioned him making the same types of plays in the NFL.
2013 has been Pryor’s first year as a starter, and while he has yet to match the electricity that he brought to varsity fields, he still has produced some big plays that have kept his Raiders competitive. Even though he has not proven himself to be the most accurate passer, his ability to scramble and create poses a threat to any NFL defense, and assuredly today against the Steelers, he will do the same, even though the Raiders passing game ranks dead last in the NFL.
As far as the Raiders running game is concerned, they rank 9th in the NFL, mainly because of Pryor’s contributions. Darren McFadden, who has not lived up to his level of play in college, is only averaging 3.9 yards per carry, but he has delivered big plays against the Steelers in the past, including a 64-yard touchdown run last year in a 34-31 victory. This is the biggest concern for the Steelers defense tomorrow, as they have been vulnerable to the big run this year, surrendering big chunks to Matt Forte and Adrian Peterson. If the Steelers can shut down the Raiders running game, they can make them one-dimensional and concentrate on bringing disciplined pressure on Pryor to force him into bad decisions.
Defensively, the Raiders have been playing decent football, entering the game as the NFL’s 13th ranked defense, 16th against the pass and 10th against the run. While they haven’t been great at getting pressure on opposing quarterbacks, recording only 16 sacks, with the uneven play of the Steelers offensive line this season, it is a given that the Raiders will try to exploit the Steelers protection.
Le’Veon Bell emerged last Sunday against the Ravens, and the Steelers will assuredly be looking to establishing the running game again to keep the defense off-balance so that Ben Roethlisberger can make plays downfield.
What to Expect
The Steelers should win this game, as they should have the previous times they played the Raiders in Oakland. The Black Hole has not been kind to the Steelers, and they cannot afford to come out flat early in this contest and fall behind. The Steelers will look to continue their style of play from the last two weeks, which has been based on the short passing game and an efficient running game. This approach has been effective the past two weeks, despite not lighting up the scoreboard, and there is no reason to believe they will change things up.
Keep an Eye On
Last week was Bell’s coming out party, so what better time than today for Jarvis Jones to record his first big game. Returning back to the field after missing last week with a concussion, Jones will be looking to take advantage of a beat up Oakland offensive line. The Steelers need their younger players to continue to step it up, and getting production from Jones would be a much welcomed jolt to a defense that has been playing well. Can Jones get his first sack this weekend? Let’s hope so.
Are the Steelers cursed in Oakland? Maybe in the past they have been. But the Steelers have been playing a much better brand of football of the last couple of weeks. If they can avoid turning the football over and protect Roethlisberger as they did against the Ravens, they will win their third consecutive game and set up an intriguing and meaningful matchup next week against the New England Patriots. The Steelers will climb out of the Black Hole with a rare win in another close game.
Steelers 26, Raiders 20