By Jeremy Hritz
The Las Vegas Raiders travel to Heinz Field on a short week, following an emotional overtime victory over the Baltimore Ravens, 33-27. Derek Carr hit Zay Jones on the game-winning touchdown pass in OT to push the Raiders to 1-0 to begin the year. In that game, Carr showed prowess as a passer, throwing for 435 yards, 2 touchdowns, and 1 interception against a quality defense. Phenom tight end Darren Waller caught 10 balls for 105 yards and 1 touchdown and showed he is the focal point of the Raiders offense, while the defense applied consistent pressure on Lamar Jackson, sacking him 3 times, with 2 of those sacks coming from Maxx Crosby. The Raiders showed they can be explosive on offense, but also showed some improvement defensively from a year ago, in which they could not stop anything.
So how will it all unfold on Sunday in Pittsburgh? Read on.
Raiders and Steelers Team Rankings After Week 1
|STAT||Raiders Ranking||Steelers Ranking|
The Steelers had a tremendously difficult game in week 1 against the powerhouse Buffalo Bills in Buffalo, and as a surprise to many, they came away with an impressive victory. Defensively, they were outstanding, shutting down an offensive juggernaut, and applying pressure consistently across the defense, with TJ Watt, Cameron Heyward, Melvin Ingram, and Alex Highsmith getting most of the action. That pressure helped the secondary, and as a result, the coverage was solid, and helped the Steelers earn the victory.
Offensively, it was the tale of two halves, with an atrocious first half, and a somewhat improved second. While Ben Roethlisberger didn’t have a great game, he was economical in the second half and made the throws he needed to to get the win, while Najee Harris and the offense line struggled to establish any consistency in the running game. This cannot happen this Sunday against the Raiders.
The strengths of this Raiders team are its passing attack and pass rush, and though he wasn’t super productive on Monday night, Josh Jacobs is a pedigree Alabama running back, who if not kept in check, can hurt a defense.
Defensively, the Steelers will need to continue to generate a physical and effective pass rush against the Raiders. On Monday night against the Ravens, the Raiders gave up 3 sacks against a pass rush that is not as potent as the Steelers. And instead of having the cozy confines of home to aid the defense with crowd noise, the Raiders offensive line will have to not only contend with the pressure of the Steelers defense, but also the insane decibel level of the Heinz Field crowd that will be looking to provide their team with an advantage. One Raider to pay attention to is rookie right tackle, Alex Leatherwood, who struggled against the Ravens, and how he will hold up in Pittsburgh. Based on his play in that contest, it could get pretty ugly on Sunday.
If the Steelers cannot generate a steady rush, this will open up the passing game for Carr and company, and it could make for a long day for the Steelers defense, and force Roethlisberger to sling it over 30 times, which is something the organization does not want to do in 2021. With the weapon that the Raiders have in Waller, the Steelers have to get home in their rush.
Offensively, the Steelers focus has to be what it should have been last week, but it failed: the running game. A strong running attack on Sunday will keep the Raiders pass rush on their heels and open up the passing game down the field for Big Ben. Najee Harris has to show more commitment to a spot in the running game, while the offensive line has to out-physical the Raiders DL. If the rushing attack doesn’t get going, it will make the Steelers one-dimensional, forcing Roethlisberger to throw 30+ times, allowing the Raiders pass rush to tee off on the 39-year old quarterback.
I can see the Raiders doubling Watt, opening up opportunities for Ingram and Highsmith, and I would not be surprised to see either one of them have a big game in terms of pressuring Carr. I believe the pass rush will get home against the Raiders, but the Steelers must be prepared for Jacobs, who is listed as questionable on the injury report at the time of publication of this article. Sure, Carr is capable of stacking the yardage, but the Bills may have caught the Raiders attention with the running game gashes they were punishing the Steelers with in the second half of last week’s game. If the Raiders can get Jacobs going, it will upset the balance of the Steelers defense.
My surprise player this game is Pat Freiermuth, who, with Eric Ebron’s injury, will be called upon more as a receiver at the tight end position. Freiermuth only had one reception last week, but he demonstrated exceptional hands throughout the preseason, and could be a target who emerges as a Big Ben favorite. And with all of the Raiders defensive attention on the other Steelers offensive stars, he could be an afterthought, allowing him to have his way in the passing game.
Prior to the start of the season, I forecasted this game to be a blowout victory for the Steelers, but after the Raiders gutsy performance on Monday night, I don’t feel as confident. While I still believe the Steelers will win and that their will be moments of dominance from the Steelers both on offense and defense, a late game mistake in the form of a turnover (interception of fumble, or maybe allowing a big splash play) will keep the Raiders in this contest and force Chris Boswell to close the gate before bedtime with a game-clinching field goal.
Harris does eclipse 100 yards in this game, and Roethlisberger goes slightly over 300, while the defense gets its pressure, but also gives up some yardage.
In the end, the Steelers win, 27-24. 2-0 in the AFC, and first place in the North.
Here we go.
Player of the Game: Pat Freiermuth, 5 receptions 87 yards, 1 touchdown