Raiders vs. Steelers: 3 Observations
In a game that was ultimately much closer than it should have been, the Raiders bested Pittsburgh 21-18, improving to 3-4 on the season. The Steelers, who had been on a roll in recent weeks, now fall to 2-5. While the Raiders are a young team still learning how to close out games, it appears as if Pittsburgh's window is closing quickly.
Oakland got off to a fast start, with Terrelle Pryor keeping the ball and taking it to the house on a dynamic 93-yard from on their first play from scrimmage. The Raiders scored all 21 of their points in the first half - their latter two TDs coming on strong red zone runs by Darren McFadden. But in the second half the offense stagnated once again. For the second game in a row, the Raiders scored no points in the second half. Costly miscues - in particular a fumble by Jacoby Ford deep inside Oakland territory - allowed the Steelers to put up 15 points and pull within 3. But in the end the Raiders' defense stiffened, and Oakland held on for a tough win.
Here are 3 observations from Sunday's action:
1) The defensive line dominates again.
The biggest surprise of this season has been how dominant Oakland's defensive line has been. Even though the three new starters in their four-man front have been little more than rotational pieces thus far in their career, they have harassed QBs on a consistent basis and have shut down the run effectively - two things the Raiders have not done consistently in a decade or more.
While LeVeon Bell seemed to ignite the Steelers' run game once he returned from injury, he was limited to only 24 yards on 13 attempts - a paltry 1.8 yards per carry. While that points to excellent team defense, there are two individual performances to note. Lamarr Houston and Vance Walker are playing their tails off right now, both against the run and the pass. Both were frequently in the Steelers' backfield, combining for 4 tackles for loss and 2 sacks. Even newly-added nose tackle Daniel Muir got in on the action, tacking on a timely sack late in the game.
One would be remiss to not credit the coaching staff for the defensive line's success thus far. They've done a tremendous job with the personnel they have. It seems as if they can plug in just about anyone and still get production. For a group that was much-maligned before the season, they've been incredibly impressive.
2) The Raiders' overreliance on the run almost cost them the game.
It's one thing to lean on the run late in games because you're eating up not only yardage but the clock. The Raiders, however, were accomplishing neither, and it allowed the Steelers to pull themselves back into a game in which they at one point trailed 21-3.
The Raiders seemed content to repeatedly ram Darren McFadden into the teeth of Pittsburgh's defensive line. Not only was the offensive line getting very little push, but McFadden's ugly habit of going down on first contact popped up again after he looked sharp in the first half. This one could just be chalked up to predictable play calling. Even when the Raiders did put the ball in Terrelle Pryor's hands, it was often to attempt a read option run. Pryor only attempted 6 passes in the second half, which is absurd even if the Raiders receivers were struggled to secure the ball.
It's understandable to play to one's strengths late in games, but it's not as if the Raider run game has been dominant lately. Sooner or later, they're going to have to learn to trust Terrelle Pryor to seal wins with his arm. If they continue merely playing not to lose, it will cost them some wins.
3) Marquette King deserves a lot of credit for the win.
Several Raiders deserve a game ball for this one, mostly on the defense. But one player who repeatedly put his team in good situations was their new punter, Marquette King.
King put on an effort arguably on par with his predecessor Shane Lechler's amazing day against the Chicago Bears back in 2011. Even as the offense stalled repeatedly deep in their own territory, King boomed punts that hung in the air long enough for the coverage team to keep dangerous return man Antonio Brown contained. And on one particular instance where Brown found a crease in the Raiders' special teams unit, it was Marquette King who made the potentially touchdown-saving tackle.
Obviously, the Raiders are no strangers to great punters. King looks like the next to carry on that long legacy.