Two of the AFC’s biggest rivals and most storied franchises clash once again on Sunday as the in-form Oakland Raiders travel to Pittsburgh to face the Steelers.
The Oakland Raiders have lifted themselves out of the AFC’s basement and into wild card contention under Jack Del Rio. Derek Carr and Amari Cooper have transformed Oakland’s offense into a threatening unit. The defense is playing better than the sum of its parts, and the Raiders are relevant once again.
The Steelers have been unlucky with injuries this season. After losing Ben Roethlisberger to an MCL injury in Week 3, he returned last week. Then the Steelers lost star running back LeVeon Bell for the season in Roethlisberger’s return. The Steelers are fighting for a wild card berth despite their struggles.
Three Keys to the Game:
- Can Big Ben cope without Bell?
For the first half against Cincinnati, Roethlisberger looked fairly comfortable. But after Bell went down, the Steelers folded. Big Ben threw three interceptions in a 16-10 loss and will have to be without Bell for the rest of the season. When Bell went down before their wild card game in the playoffs last season, the Steelers couldn’t generate any offense in a 30-17 loss to rivals Baltimore. The only time Roethlisberger coped without Bell was a 43-18 win over the struggling San Francisco 49ers in Week 2. The Steelers might not be so strong against the Raiders.
- Pittsburgh’s running game
Can DeAngelo Williams step in once again and cover for Bells absence? Williams played well in the first two games of the season during Bells suspension; rushing for 127 yards against the Patriots in the season opener and leading both teams in rushing against the 49ers in Week 2 with 77 yards. But Williams isn’t a multi-dimensional threat like Bell has been in the past. With Roethlisberger likely not back to 100%, the Steelers will need to lean on Williams and the running game. But the Raiders have the league’s second best run defense in the league, allowing just 82.9 yards per game. The Steelers will struggle to utilise the run game well against Oakland.
- Who can win the shootout?
Both teams have struggled against the pass this season. The Raiders rank second-to-last against the pass, but veteran safety Charles Woodson leads the league in interceptions with five. The Raiders have a decent pass rush behind Aldon Smith and Khalil Mack, but have just 14 sacks. The Steelers have 22 and have fared better against the pass. But Derek Carr and the Raiders are on fire, with Amari Cooper and Latavius Murray making big plays. With a struggling running game, Roethlisberger might not have much of a chance to exploit his receiving weapons. The Steelers have allowed 21 sacks after injuries to the offensive line, and will need to protect the still struggling Roethlisberger as he recovers. The Raiders have allowed just 10 sacks, third-lowest in the league.
Matchup to watch: Amari Cooper vs. Antonio Brown
What better way for Cooper to continue his stellar rookie season than upstaging one of the league’s best receivers? Brown has struggled during Roethlisberger’s absence, and might not have a great game if the Steelers can’t protect against the pass rush. Cooper and Carr have benefitted from great protection this season and a supporting running game. Despite having less weapons, Carr has the advantage with better protection and a better running game.
The Raiders can solidify their wild card position with a win over another wild card contender. Oakland has a better run defense, a better offensive line, a better running game and a healthy quarterback. The Raiders have won four out of their last five games against Pittsburgh, and that streak will continue on Sunday.