Saturday, November 20, 2010

Gameday: Oakland Raiders

1:00 pm
Heinz Field
Radio: 102.5 WDVE

What to Watch For

1. Steelers O-line vs Raiders Defense

Incredibly, Oakland is 2nd in the league in sacks with 27 on the season. The Steelers offensive line had a poor game against New England, giving up 5 sacks and a ton of hurries. They are going to have to be better against the Raiders defense. Former Patriot Richard Seymour is probably the best player in the Raiders front 7, but the Raiders will blitz and the Steelers O-line is going to have to do a better job of identifying where the blitz is coming from and executing their assignments. Establishing the running game early will go a long way to helping the Steelers O-line gain confidence.

2. Nnamdi Asomugha

Forget Darrelle Revis, Asomugha is the best corner in the league. Period. Last year, the Raiders moved Asomugha around, having him cover Wallace or Holmes on first and second down then Hines on 3rd down. The Raiders had a great coverage game plan, moving Asomugha around based on who the Steelers were most likely to throw to. Roethlisberger will have to identify who Asomugha is covering and then find someone else to throw to, that's pretty much the long and short of it.

3. Jason Campbell vs Steelers Defense

You have to love the Steelers Defense in this matchup. Last time they face Campbell was in Washington two years ago and they sacked him 10,000 times. He also threw his first two picks of the season against us. The Raiders running game has been stellar this year, but the Steelers run defense has also been fantastic. This means that if Oakland is going to stay in the game, Campbell is going to have to make some plays to keep things moving. The Raiders have given up a ton of sacks this season, so LaMarr Woodley and James Harrison should be licking their chops over the opportunity to dial it up and get after Campbell.

4. Offensive Play-calling

The Steelers stuck to their offensive game plan, almost to the point of disaster against New England. They had success running the ball early, but didn't really open things up and challenge the Patriots secondary until the 4th quarter when Roethlisberger threw for over 200 yards and 2 touchdowns. They need to open things up earlier while keeping balance between the run and the pass. We've seen them have these kind of balanced games (think about the Tampa game) in the past. It's important to come out of the gate fast and not fall behind early. If we can take Oakland's running game out of the game, we can turn our defense loose on Campbell.

Behind Enemy Lines

For the first time in the short history of our Behind Enemy Lines segment, we have a guest that we actually know in real life and didn't just meet on the internet. Not to make us sound like creepers or anything. This week's guest is our friend Matt who runs D League Digest, a blog about the NBA Development League. Don't know much about the D-League or really care about it? Read this post. Follow Matt on Twitter for D-League updates throughout the season. In addition to being a basketball fan, Matt is a Raiders fan and is engaged to one of our friends from college. 

If you're thinking about questioning his credentials as a guest for this segment just because he runs an NBA blog, don't. Matt became a Raiders fan around the age of 6 when his Uncle's dog Bo led him to discovering the force of nature that was Bo Jackson—both in real life for the Silver and Black—and in Tecmo Super Bowl. He told us, "I don't like the Steelers, but I'm glad that for the first time since seemingly the Immaculate Reception, this week's Raiders-Steelers matchup actually means something, even if it's a far cry from the rivalry's heyday of the 70s." 

1. After a poor start, Oakland has turned it on over the last month. What have you been most impressed with from the Raiders this year?

The season certainly did not get off to a great start. Only a 16-14 eek-it-out performance against the Rams in Week 2 prevented the Raiders from an 0-4 start this season. Their loss in Week 6 to the previous winless 49ers dropped Oakland to 2-4, so it's hard to believe that Raider Nation, myself included, are now buying into the Raiders as a viable playoff contender.

The 59-14 shellacking of the Broncos on the road in Week 7 really seemed to light a fire in this team. And it's no surprise that Darren McFadden helped lead the way with a 165-yard rushing effort in that game. Run-DMC is finally living up to his draft status after a disappointing and injury-plagued start to his career, and he currently leads the league in rushing yards per game at 108.1.

In addition to McFadden and the running game, I've also been really impressed by the Raiders defense, particularly against the pass. Only New Orleans has given up fewer passing yards per game this season. That's a credit to the Raiders' pass coverage anchored by shutdown corner Nnamdi Asomugha, who the Raiders hope to have back in the lineup on Sunday after missing the Raiders last game with an ankle injury, as well as their pass rush, which has three more sacks than the heralded Steelers defense on the season so far.

Defense and rushing the football. It's been the Raiders' ability to get back to basics that has impressed me through nine games this season.

2. Last year, the Raiders were able to upset the Steelers with big plays from their passing game in the 4th quarter. However, most of the Raiders success this year has come from running the ball. Do you expect Oakland to stick with the run game against the Steelers stingy run defense or try to air it out against our secondary which has been somewhat swiss-cheese-esque this year?

This is going to be one of the key storylines in the game. The Raiders have the second best rushing offense in the league (162.2 yards per game), but the Steelers have the best rush defense by a significant margin, allowing just 63.2 yards per game. Meanwhile the Raiders are just 25th in the league in passing while the Steelers are 26th in the league defending against the pass.

I expect the Raiders to try to make a commitment to the running game because it's been so successful for them this season, but I don't think McFadden and company will find the running lanes they're used to seeing, which will put the onus on Jason Campbell and the Raiders' receivers to make plays in the passing game.

The Raiders have a young group of receivers that can be explosive but is also inconsistent. Personally, I hope rookie Jacoby Ford gets more opportunities after what he showed two weeks ago against Kansas City. I favor both Ford and Louis Murphy, who caught the game winner against the Steelers last season, over Darrius Heyward-Bey who is nursing a hamstring injury but could play Sunday. Tight end Zach Miller is probably the most dependable pass-catcher on the roster, so it'll be a big bonus if he can return to the field after missing the last game against the Chiefs as well.

3. Oakland's defense is second in the league in sacks this season with 27. Are you licking your chops when you look at the Steelers offensive line and think about them trying to block the Raiders pass rush?

Absolutely. The good news for the Steelers is that Roethlisberger is as good as any QB in the league at thwarting off would-be tacklers and stringing out plays that seem dead in the water. With that in mind, Richard Seymour and the other Raiders pass rushers have to not only put pressure on Roethlisberger, but actually bring him to the ground. The Patriots registered 5 sacks and 7 QB hits last week. If the Raiders can put up similar numbers, the Raiders will have a good chance to win the game.

4. Oakland doesn't have a lot of big-name players besides CB Nnamdi Asomugha and RB Darren McFadden. Are there any lesser-known or "under-the-radar" players that you think will have a big impact on the game?

I mentioned a few of the receivers earlier. I think one of them has to have a breakout game against a susceptible Steelers secondary. Louis Murphy did it last year with 4 catches for 128 yards and 2 TDs. Look for Campbell to test William Gay with a deep ball or two. Marcel Reece is also an interesting player. A college wide receiver turned fullback, he'll have his hands full blocking against the Steelers in the run game. But he's also a weapon out of the backfield with deceptive speed who can be tough to cover for opposing linebackers.

On the other side of the ball, I really like the Raiders' first-round pick from this past April, Rolando McClain from Alabama. Steelers fans can appreciate the value of a star linebacker, and McClain appears to be on that track in Oakland. 

Note: We loved the way McClain played at Alabama. The kid is a stud. He's going to be a Pro Bowl LB in a few years if he stays healthy.

5. Any other final thoughts?

These three factors that can affect any game, but I have a sense that they could really sway the tide one way or the other in a game like this with two teams trying to stay atop their respective division.

Penalties: Oakland has committed the fourth most penalties in the league (70) and leads the league in total penalty yards (718). On the flipside, Pittsburgh is tied for the third fewest penalties (47) and tied for eighth fewest total penalty yards (436). I've been a Raiders fan since the days of Bo Jackson, and I cannot remember a Raiders team that didn't shoot itself in the foot with dumb penalties and plenty of them. Unfortunately, even as this team has risen above .500, the penalties have remained an issue.

Turnovers: I'm looking at you, Jason Campbell. He's played well and committed just one turnover over the course of the Raiders' three-game winning streak, but the Broncos, Seahawks, and Chiefs are nothing compared to the opportune, playmaking defense of the Steelers, who rank in the top-7 in interceptions, fumbles forced, and fumbles recovered this season. Campbell needs to be smart with his passes, aware of his surroundings in the pocket, and realize that a punt is not always a bad thing, which brings me to my third point.

Special Teams: The Raiders have the best punter in the league in Shane Lechler. They also have one of the biggest legs at kicker as well with Sebastian Janikowski. And though it's true that Janikowski's accuracy cost them a game they should've won when he pushed one wide left from 32 yards out as time expired against Arizona in Week 3, he shares the league lead with 22 made field goals this season. On the other sideline, the Steelers just cut kicker Jeff Reed after he'd connected on just 15 of 22 this season. Shaun Suisham will make his Steelers debut at kicker Sunday at Heinz Field, which is notoriously a tough place to kick.

Around the League

AFC North:
Buffalo @ Cincinnati, Baltimore @ Carolina, Cleveland @ Jacksonville

Fact: Cleveland has 3 wins. Cincinnati and Buffalo have 3 wins combined.

Game of the Week:
Indianapolis @ New England

We don't really care about the whole Brady vs Manning thing. Yeah they're both great quarterbacks, but more importantly, the Pats are 7-2 and the Colts are 6-3. Big-time tiebreakers at stake here.

Intriguing Games of the Week:
New York Giants @ Philadelphia

Two 6-3 teams vie for the top spot in the NFC East. Mike Vick vs the Giants Defense.

Seattle @ New Orleans

Who would have thought that Seattle would be leading their division in November and New Orleans wouldn't? At 5-4, Seattle has the only winning record in their division. They have a chance to prove they're legit in New Orleans. Or the Saints might just put up 60 on them.

Tampa Bay @ San Francisco

Why does this intrigue us? Tampa is 6-3 and in 3rd place in their division. They are 1 game behind Atlanta in the division race but are losing the tiebreakers to New Orleans and Atlanta. San Francisco, on the other hand, is 3-6 but only 2 games behind Seattle. With a win and a Seahawks loss, they can pull within a game of first place in the worst division in football. 

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