Steelers Week 9 Opponent Preview: The 46 Horsemen of the Apocalypse
Week 8 in the NFL started with a mixture of apprehension and excitement as the Steelers awaited a visit from the undefeated Bengals.
There were missing pieces for the Steelers in all three phases. The offensive line was being anchored by newbie Alejandro Villanueva, who, while putting in a mostly credible performance the previous week, gave up a couple of sacks, or one, depending on who you blame.
Stephon Tuitt was still out, necessitating some reshuffling of the defensive line. The Steelers were perilously thin at defensive back, an area of the team which wasn’t getting much respect even with the starters. Special teams was missing their most veteran presence, Terence Garvin. I think Garvin’s injury has been lost in the shuffle of much bigger-name players, but on Sunday it looked like they were missing him a lot.
But as far as offensive skills players, for the first time all season the band was back together. There was concern that Ben might not play up to his early-season level, and given the Bengals’ seeming inability to stop the run, many of us were calling for a heavy dose of No. 26.
And we got it, too. Right up until we lost him for the season, due to a sickening tangle of a tackle by Vontaze Burfict, himself just returned from an absence of a full year.
I think it is fair to say the mood in Steeler Nation is much more subdued. There’s hope for Ben to return to his old self, but fear that it might take too long to save this season, which started with such promise.
And right on cue, The Death Dealers of Doom, aka the Oakland Raiders, are flying out to Pittsburgh. Filled with playoff hopes, uncharacteristic for this late in the season in recent years, sporting a winning record, stocked with playmakers signed from the 49ers and the Seahawks and gleaned from their draft picks, they fly into the City of Champions with the determination to continue their march to a wild card berth. And, like the Steelers, it’s probably a wild card or nothing, as their division is headed by the undefeated Broncos. Will they further damage our beleaguered quarterback and crush our hopes in the process?
Sorry. Somehow, the coming game seems to require an extra dose of drama in the narrative. Here are some actual facts.
Although the Raiders haven’t been very good during the past decade and more, the Steelers have, strangely, struggled against the team. Some seasons, one of the Raiders’ few wins are against the Black and Gold. Since 2006 the record is Oakland 4, Steelers 1. During this time the Raiders have never been to the playoffs, and the Steelers are the only team they have a winning record against.
Admittedly, the four wins were against the 2006, 2009, 2012 and 2013 Steelers. None of those teams will go down in Steelers history as one of the finer Steelers squads. Nonetheless, here are the records for Oakland:
2006: 2-14. They were shut out by the Chargers, Seahawks, and Rams. They only mustered three points in losses to the Broncos and Jets, and only topped ten points in half of their games. The final indignity is, the Browns beat them.
2009: 5-11. They were shut out by the Jets, and only topped 10 points in seven of their games.
2012: 4-12. A much more competitive team, they scored less than 10 points in only three games, quite a switch. Nonetheless, the Steelers were their only win until their sixth game, when they beat Jacksonville.
2013: 4-12. Once again the Steelers were one of only four wins that season.
The sole win was by the 2010 Super Bowl bound Steelers.
My phrase above about this season’s team—that it is stocked with playmakers from their draft picks—would seem obvious, given how bad the team has been. It’s a lot harder to screw up if you’re picking in the top five most of the time.
But one of Al Davis’ final body blows to the team he loved so well was to trade away a boatload of draft picks to none other than last week’s opponent, the Bengals, for their used quarterback, Carson Palmer. The irony is, Palmer and the Bengals were so estranged that it didn’t make sense for the team to hold onto him, except out of spite.
But in waltzes Al Davis with a king’s ransom in exchange for a player he might have gotten much cheaper if he had waited a few weeks or months, and who didn’t pan out anyhow. In the meantime he may have completely messed up the balance of power in the AFC North. (Of course, the Bengals’ disgusting health—they weren’t missing a single player they began the season with last Sunday—has something to do with it as well.)
As a result the Raiders were severely stymied in what they could pick up in the 2011 and 2012 drafts, and they exacerbated the situation by taking Terelle Pryor in the supplemental draft as well. But they had quite productive drafts in 2013 and 2014. Strangely, some of their better picks in 2013 were from the 6th round, where they had four picks and got three good players, including Latavius Murray, their starting halfback, and Mychal Rivera, their starting TE.
In 2014 they got Khalil Mack with the fifth overall pick, and finally found a quarterback in the second round in Derek Carr. The rest of the draft is quite impressive as well: They picked up their starting left guard in Round 3, their starting left DT in the fourth round, their back-up left corner in the fourth round, and their starting left corner in the sevnth. (They had no picks in round 5 and 6.) Oh, and they also got a backup DE in round seven, and a S, who they cut but is now on the Dolphins’ active roster. Pretty nice haul.
Let’s look at some numbers:
The Football Outsiders ranking for the two offenses according to DVOA:
- Steelers offense: No. 6, down from No. 5 the previous week
- Oakland offense: No. 5, up from No. 14 (!) the previous week
As noted, Derek Carr was a 2nd round draft pick in 2014. In training camp he was behind Matt Schaub in the depth chart, but an impressive preseason led then-Head Coach Dennis Allen to declare him the starter at the beginning of the season. Things didn’t go too well at first as Oakland lost their first 10 games, and ended with a 3-13 record. It looks as if the patience with Carr is paying off, though, as the Raiders have scored 37, 27, 37, and 34 points in their four wins.
Since their bye in Week 6 they have beat the Chargers at Qualcomm and the Jets at home. Derek Carr has thrown exactly the same number of picks (3) this season as Ben. That is, as Ben did last week. But we can hope for better things, on both sides. After all, the Bengals supposedly have an even better offensive line than Oakland, and Andy Dalton had only thrown two interceptions, and he threw two more last Sunday.
The Steelers will have Ben back for a second game, and hopefully he’s feeling better and more mobile. Because he’s probably going to need to be. Or else the offensive line is going to have to step up their pass protection even more.
The Raiders have an impressive back in Latavius Murray. He has a season average of 4.6 yards per carry, and in the two post-bye week wins averaged 5.7 yards per carry. Only the Broncos and Bears managed to hold him to under 4 yards per carry. Roy Helu backs him up but only has 12 carries this season.
The Steelers still have two running backs. Unfortunately it isn’t the same two as they began with last Sunday. A week or two ago I wrote that perhaps Le’Veon Bell’s suspension was a blessing in disguise, as it forced the Steelers to address the backup situation in a meaningful way. I’m sorry to have been prophetic, but here we are, and DeAngelo Williams is a much better backup than we had last season when Bell went down. They also have Will Johnson, who is used some out of the backfield, and Roosevelt Nix at fullback. Although the Steelers signed Isaiah Pead, he’s unlikely to be activated until after the bye week, since he doesn’t know the offense.
Football Outsiders has Murray ranked at No. 15. DeAngelo Williams would be ranked between 11th and 12th if he had enough carries to qualify.
The Raiders signed Michael Crabtree in free agency and he has performed well, and is currently on pace for 91 catches and over 1100 yards. Amari Cooper has a few less receptions but even more yards.
The Raiders have a boatload of tight ends, and they use them all, too.
First on the TE depth chart is 2013 pick Mychal Rivera, followed up by Clive Walford and Lee Smith. They all get used, too, as the Raiders run a lot of three-TE sets. However, between the three they barely have more receptions than Latavius Murray. And, astonishingly, fullback Marcel Reese has even more receptions, although only a couple of carries.
The Steelers still have Antonio Brown, Martavis Bryant, and Marcus Wheaton. And for that matter Darrius Heyward-Bey, the ex-Raider. I expect the Raiders to have watched the Bengals film and figured out that blanketing Bryant is a pretty good idea. Let’s hope that, like last week, it opens up more catches for Heath Miller. Or Antonio Brown. Or Matt Spaith. Or somebody…
Here are the Football Outsiders rankings for the qualified wide receivers:
- Antonio Brown: No. 12
- Amari Cooper: No. 20
- Michael Crabtree: No. 32
If they had sufficient catches, Martavis Bryant would be ranked around No. 41 and Andre Holmes around No. 36.
- Heath Miller: No. 11
- Mychal Rivera: No. 32
The Raiders have given up 10 sacks in seven games. The Steelers have given up 21 in eight games games. Ouch.
Pro Football Focus just published their mid-term line rankings on their main site, so I guess it’s okay to share : )
- Oakland Raiders: No. 5 (Pass Protection, No. 3, Run Blocking, No. 15)
- Pittsburgh Steelers: No. 12 (Pass Protection No. 5, Run Blocking No. 20)
It’s fascinating to compare this to the Football Outsiders rankings:
- Oakland Raiders: Pass Protection: No. 1, Run Blocking No. 10
- Pittsburgh Steelers: Pass Protection, No. 23, Run Blocking No. 7
The Oakland figures seem to add up, although Football Outsiders think they are better in both categories. But it’s hard to imagine how PFF could have this completely reversed for Pittsburgh, unless (and this is my theory,) somebody got it backwards when entering the information. Just from the eye test it seems like the Steelers’ line is better in run blocking than pass pro. But those of you who know more about this than I do, please feel free to comment.
For both teams their highest-rated lineman for the season is a guard—Gabe Jackson for the Raiders, Ramon Foster for the Steelers. However, in their game recap from last Sunday, I was heartened to read that their top-rated player for the Steelers was Alejandro Villanueva. I asked him to step up in last week’s preview, and he did, apparently.
Football Outsiders ranking:
- Raiders: No. 15, down from No. 14 the previous week.
- Steelers: No. 11, up from No. 16 the previous week.
The Oakland secondary features the Ageless Wonder Charles Woodson. At 39 years old, he leads the team (by a LONG way) in interceptions, with 5. (The team as a whole has 8 interceptions, with two out of the remaining three coming from defensive backs.) So I would hope that whoever he is covering doesn’t get thrown to, or near, this Sunday. Seems like the only safe thing.
The Raiders also signed Taylor Mays from the 49ers during the offseason.
Football Outsiders has the Steelers’ defensive line at No. 15 in passing defense, (up from 16 last week) and Oakland’s at No. 21.
The Raiders currently have 14 sacks, an average of two per game. It’s a bit surprising they don’t have more, as they picked up Aldon Smith from the 49ers and Malcom Smith from the Seahawks. Khalil Mack, who they moved from linebacker to defensive end, leads the team with four sacks.
The Steelers defense has 22 sacks in eight games, with Bud Dupree leading the team with four. (When’s the last time a rookie led the Steelers in sacks? Probably rather a long time.) With Stephon Tuitt apparently en train to return Sunday, we can hope to boost that number.
In the meantime, Cameron Heyward continues to impress. As Craig Wolfley wrote for the Steel City Insider:
On a first-and-10 in the first quarter, Cam Heyward, who’s having a Pro Bowl year, overpowered Bengals guard Clint Boling and drove him into the lap of QB Andy Dalton, knocking down the pass. You really need to try to wrap your brain around the kind of raw power it takes to drive a 6-5, 305-pound hostile unfriendly backward and right into the lap of his QB.
Later in the same post he wrote:
If anyone best exemplifies leaving it all out on the field, it’s Heyward. After bull-rushing and driving back yet another unfortunate nameless, faceless Bengals offensive lineman, Cam chased Dalton out of the pocket only to see Dalton shovel the ball to Giovani Bernard for a big gain. Rather than quit after an exhausting car-pushing episode of “Rush the passer,” Heyward sprinted downfield another 20 yards or so to tackle Bernard from behind. There is no defensive player in the league who is more dogged and relentless in pursuit of the pigskin. J.J. Watt may be more athletic, but I have yet to see ANYBODY grind like Cam.
The Steelers’ defense is now giving up an average of 97.0 yards per game to the opponent on the ground, with an average of 3.8 yards per carry. Unfortunately the Raiders’ D is only giving up 82.9 yards per game, with a 3.6 average per carry. Still, the Steelers rush defense has continued to hold their own.
Some heartening news on that front (the defensive front, that is,) according to Craig Wolfley, speaking on Steelers Live, somebody finally managed to get Big Daniel McCullers fired up, and he was collapsing the pocket like a boss. Or words to that effect. Let’s hope he can do it again.
The Football Outsiders ranking, Run Defense:
- Raiders defensive line: No. 7
- Steelers defensive line: No. 19
Since both the Steelers and the Raiders signed returners this week I thought it was worth mentioning. The Raiders signed Marcus Thigpen, who has the following stats in three years:
- Kick returns: 24.4 average, 1 touchdown (92 returns)
- Punt returns: 10.0 average, 2 touchdowns (85 returns)
Jacoby Jones’ stats:
- Kick returns: 27.0 average, 5 touchdowns (174 returns)
- Punt returns: 9.9 average, 4 touchdowns (270 returns)
Jones is rather longer in the tooth than Thigpen, but he certainly was still very effective while with the Ravens last year. Whether he has anything left in the tank remains to be seen. He was signed by the Chargers but didn’t play the first four games because of an ankle injury. In the five games he did play he had a 21.4 average on kick returns. His five punt returns averaged -4 yards. In 2014 he had a 30.6 kickoff and 9.2 punt average with the Ravens.
I have to admit I’m mystified by this move. Dri Archer wasn’t a world beater, but he was gaining about as many yards on kickoffs as Jones. The coaching staff must have decided that in fact he just wasn’t going to get it, because as recently as a couple of weeks ago Tomlin commented that he had come close to breaking a few returns. Maybe they just are terrified of losing Antonio Brown and want to put someone else they deem experienced and reliable on punt returns. That’s the only thing I can think of. I just don’t see any upside with Jones. However, should he happen to take one to the house on Sunday, I suppose I’ll view it rather differently.
The Raiders haven’t been as disgustingly healthy as the Bengals, but they have not had many injuries to core players. The worst was probably DE Justin Tuck, who they IR’d in mid-October.
As for this week, the only player they listed on Thursday’s injury report as DNP is LB Neiron Ball. S Larry Asante, DE Khalil Mack, and CB TJ Carrie were limited, and Charles Woodson and Taylor Mays were full participants.
The Steelers, despite losing yet another player to IR, one who is either their best or second-best player, depending on your view of things, looked better in terms of the injury report this week. Two players did not practice (Terence Garvin, who is out for sure) and Matt Spaeth, who has a knee injury. Marcus Wheaton was limited in practice yesterday. Everyone else was a go, including Stephon Tuitt and Mike Mitchell, who was undergoing the concussion protocol earlier in the week.
The non-injury news, however, is that Cameron Heyward’s first child is due on Sunday. The guys on the sports radio morning show yesterday were giving their suggestions for things to induce labor. The problem is, speaking as a woman who bore four children, that baby ain’t coming until it’s ready. Also speaking as a woman who bore four children, that baby’s daddy had better be there, suffering right alongside. (Heyward has already said he will be.)
So let’s all hope Mrs. Heyward goes into labor after the game, from the excitement of watching her husband’s four-sack and one pick six effort in a blowout beatdown of the Raiders. A girl can dream, anyhow…
I chose the picture, BTW, because several years ago Ben Roethisberger, also about to be a first time father, also in November, said that if his wife went into labor on gameday he would have to miss the game. He took some amount of flak about this, but not from me. Let’s hope that, like Roethlisberger’s son, Heyward’s baby boy will thoughtfully wait to be born during the week. Actually, today or tomorrow would be even better…
As far as this game goes, I don’t even know what to think. If I were a betting woman (which I definitely am not) I would be tempted to sit this one out. It just seems to me that, even more so than usual, this could go any one of a number of ways. One thing is for sure, though—if we don’t get Good Ben and good pass protection, the Steelers’ playoff hopes are going to be a good bit fainter than they are at the moment.