Last week the Pittsburgh Steelers managed to not only lose a game they had control of throughout, but it was against an unbeaten divisional opponent that likely secured the Cincinnati Bengals the division. That would usually be enough sting for a prideful organization such as the Steelers, but losing All-Pro running back Le’Veon Bell for the season potentially just put the cherry on top of a season that simply was not meant to be.
For a team that has consistently had a poor hand dealt to it, the Steelers have actually played themselves into a playoff contention. A team that may be standing in their way in January could indeed be the Oakland Raiders. It’s still early to begin talking about “must-win” games, but for all intents and purposes, this is a must-win game for the Steelers. For a team that is battered and bruised as badly as the Steelers are, this is no cakewalk. This is an organization that has struggled beating the Raiders as of late and are 10-12 against their former rival since 2002, the last time the Raiders reached the postseason. This organization has had the unfortunate habit of playing down to its competition, but the Steelers should have no fear of this on Sunday as the Raiders are now a suddenly formidable opponent, boasting one of the league’s best young cores. Quarterback Derek Carr and wide receiver Amari Cooper have rejuvenated a previously stale offensive unit, giving life to a city desperately fighting for their football team to stay put in Oakland.
This has never been an easy game for the Steelers. It’s not about to get easier for them on Sunday.
Key Matchup to Watch for Offensively
Alejandro Villanueva vs. Khalil Mack and Justin Tuck
The story of Alejandro Villanueva is an easy one to get behind. I’ve spoken about it prior to this article and encourage everyone reading this to read into his backstory. The last time I highlighted Villanueva, he did a decent job against outside linebacker Tamba Hali. While he was credited with surrendering two sacks, only one of those sacks was truly his fault. Against a seasoned, tenured pass rusher such as Hali, a sack in his first National Football League start is not a bad start.
He is tasked with stopping one of the league’s best young pass rushers along with one of the most productive defensive linemen in New York Giants history.
Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger showed considerable signs of rust against a Bengals team that managed to take every advantage of his injury they could. This is going to become more important this week as the Raiders figure to crash the edges and take advantage of a green, still raw tackle in Villanueva. I would be surprised if the Raiders didn’t allow Mack to rush from both edges, utilizing his versatility and ability. If Villanueva is able to keep the edges clean for enough time for Roethlisberger to pick apart a vulnerable secondary, the Steelers should be able to move the ball downfield with ease.
Wide receiver Antonio Brown has been fairly quiet thus far since Roethlisberger’s knee injury. I do not expect this trend to continue. The Raiders currently boast the 31st ranked pass defense in football, highlighting their obvious struggles in stopping high-powered offenses such as the Steelers. Brown is poised to have a breakout return against the Raiders. Both cornerbacks DJ Hayden and David Amerson are expected to be asked to simply limit, not stop, Brown’s production on Sunday. I’m not much of a fantasy football player, but I’d start Brown this weekend if he is on your team.
Receiver Martavis Bryant is also expected to breakout, as he was invisible for much of the Bengals game. This was mostly due to the conservative approach in the gameplan and the copious amounts of rust displayed by Roethlisberger. Expect Brown and Bryant to cause problems on the boundary for the Raiders throughout the day.
This is now the third game in which running back DeAngelo Williams will be the feature running back for the Steelers, and it’s the ninth game of the season. Prior to Bell’s return, Williams led the AFC in rushing. He’s an extremely talented back that possesses the skill set and ability that fits the offensive scheme. While seen as more of a power ‘back, Williams has deceptive quickness that allows him to take a stretch play and convert it for big yardage. Williams does not bring the talent and ability that Bell brings, but he may not have to against the Raiders. The name of the game is the aerial attack and Williams brings enough on the ground to keep the offensive from being one-dimensional.
Key Matchup to Watch for Defensively
Cameron Heyward and Stephon Tuitt vs. J’Marcus Webb and Gabe Jackson
It feels like I feature Cameron Heyward here weekly, but it’s for good reason. The fourth-year defensive end has shown All-Pro ability on the defensive line and is currently the most disruptive force on the Steelers’ defense. The Raiders offensive line has allowed only one sack over the last two games, however, which places extra emphasis on Heyward’s play. While disruptive, this has not necessarily equated to production in sacks. This is mostly just a numbers game, however.
Stephon Tuitt returns after missing multiple games with a knee injury. His absence was sorely felt with both Steve McLendon and Cam Thomas playing defensive end. Both McLendon and Thomas may be solid in stopping the run but struggle in rushing the passer and collapsing the pocket. Heyward was easily double-teamed and shut down as McLendon and Thomas were easily taken out of the game one-on-one. Tuitt’s return instantly revitalizes a pass rush that has been stagnant in his absence. His play was Pro-Bowl worthy prior to his injury and the expectation is for this to continue. Pressure on Carr and forcing consistently hurried throws from the young quarterback is going to be essential in shutting down Cooper and the downfield passing game.
Running back Letavius Murray is not often brought up when speaking about the more talented ‘backs in the game, but he is just that. While the Steelers have had marginal success in stopping the run, Murray’s power style has given this defense fits in the past. If the defense is unable to make the Raiders’ offense one-dimensional and force Carr to throw to win from behind, Murray may end up being the deciding factor in this game.
Score Prediction and Final Thoughts
This is a must-win game for the Steelers. A loss makes the playoff dream still obtainable, but that much harder with the back end of the schedule already tough. A loss adds stress to a team down its starting running back and center, both All-Pro’s, and need not put up barriers themselves.
For that reason, I believe the Steelers eek a win out in a close one. While I believe the defense is going to be able to apply consistent pressure against Carr, I also believe Cooper is able to shred this secondary as other receivers have done all season. Cornerback Antwon Blake will struggle containing the explosive young receiver and another triple-digit receiving yard total is likely in his future.
Steelers 31 – Raiders 27
? A loss to the Raiders may not end the playoff hope for this team, but it puts a severe dent in it. To secure a playoff birth, the Steelers will likely have to finish off the remaining 8 games with a 6-2 record. A home loss to the Raiders makes a win either at Seattle or at home against the Broncos all but necessary. This is, again, with four divisional games remaining.
? Expect to see the return of the “exotic blitz” package, for better or worse. Young quarterbacks like Carr have not had the ability to diagnose and become comfortable attacking schemes like this and may force disruption in rhythm. Linebackers Ryan Shazier and Lawrence Timmons may be on stunts far more often than in previous games.