If there is a phrase that will be deemed unmentionable around the Pittsburgh area this week it has got to be, "We are going to unleash hell." Those were the words of Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin after the Steelers lost three straight games to the Cincinnati Bengals, Kansas City Chiefs, and Baltimore Ravens in 2009. Surely they would win their next two games and be able to live up to their coach's words against the sad state of affairs commonly referred to as the Oakland Raiders and the bottom dweller of their own division, the Cleveland Browns. But it was not to be...losses to Oakland and Cleveland capped a five game skid down the stretch for the Steelers and assured they would not repeat their Super Bowl Championship performance of 2008, or even make the playoffs last season.
So enter 2010, the Steelers offensive line reeling from injuries, fresh off a loss at home to a New England Patriots team that was defeated largely a week before by that bottom dwelling Cleveland Browns team. Ready to square off in a potential playoff preview against the resurgent Raiders who are coming off of a bye week looking to make a statement by defeating the Steelers for a second consecutive year in their own house. Can the Raiders pull it off, win five out of six and get their fourth victory in a row at Pittsburgh? Time will tell, but here is why I think they can.
If you watched the game between the Steelers and Patriots on Sunday night, then you may have found yourself wondering the same thing I was: why aren't they giving the ball to Rashard Mendenhall more? Mendenhall had 11 carries for 50 yards in the game. Now, maybe it's just me but where I come from if a guy is getting that many yards per carry, I want him to have 33 carries for 150 yards. Meanwhile, the Steelers decided to pass 49 times instead of running and while they completed 30 of those passes, I think you still had to scratch your head a little if you're a Steelers fan because it's not like they were down by enough points early on so they had to have a pass to run ratio like that. This pass happy attack led them to just three points in the first three quarters.
The Steelers passed, passed, and then passed some more against New England on Sunday. It was quite apparent that the gameplan was to play keep up with the Patriots offense that threw 43 times. In my opinion it was a mistake, but you can just go ahead and call me a Monday morning quarterback. Still, it didn't make much sense because their pass offense is only ranked 22nd in the NFL this year, just slightly above the Raiders 25th place mark. I'd be some mad at Hue Jackson if the Raiders had a pass to run ratio like that in any game this year...even when they play the Colts later in the season.
The Steelers have always made their impression by being a smash mouth style of team---run, run, and run some more then play good defense. And just when you think they are going to pass---bang! They run it again. That has been a recipe for success for them ever since I can remember. It has led them to victories in six out of seven Super Bowls, sent fourteen different running backs to Pro Bowls (Franco Harris went nine times individually), and given them a defensive ranking in the top ten every year except two since 1993. This year they have run the football more than they have passed, but they haven't had the type of production they would have liked on the ground (13th in NFL). This year's team is more balanced run-pass than you might expect from the Steelers, aside from that New England game.
Odds are they will try to get the running game back on point against the Raiders this weekend. The Raiders' rush defense has been stingy lately including a game against two elite running backs, Thomas Jones and Jamaal Charles, and the number one rushing attack in the NFL in their last game. So if the Steelers are looking to find gold in their ground game on Sunday, they may find themselves a day late and a buck short. And if they find themselves relying on their passing game this weekend, they could also be in trouble. Oakland's pass defense has consistently produced top ten performances even when things were bad. And with the Raiders defensive line playing dominant football, helping get their team to second in the league in sacks (27), and the Steelers O-line being banged up---it could get ugly for Mr. Ben Roethlisberger.
On the flip side, the Raiders ground game has been on point all season in 2010. And while they also present a balanced attack on offense, it is pretty clear that their bread and butter is the rushing attack that is the 2nd best in the league and may soon take sole possession of the number one spot. It actually could happen sooner rather than later. Some tend to think the Raiders will not be able to run the ball against the Steelers number one ranked rushing defense. A defense that is only allowing 63.2 yards per game this year on the ground; but they haven't played against Darren McFadden this year. McFadden is putting up 108 yards per game on the ground so something has got to give.
Something to consider is that of the top ten running backs in yards per game on the ground this year (minus the one on their team, Mendenhall [9th]), the Steelers have only played against one of them, Chris Johnson, in a week two game where Vince Young was benched for Kerry Collins while the Titans threw three interceptions and fumbled seven times, losing four of those. In spite of those seven turnovers, Pittsburgh only won the game 19-11. That leads me to believe that they might not be as good as the stats suggest. And you can bet your bottom dollar that Zach Miller, Louis Murphy, Darrius Heyward-Bey, and even Jacoby Ford are going to stretch that defense out a little bit and make some room up front for their boy Darren McFadden.
Sure, when the Raiders drop back to pass against the Steelers James Harrison will get his sack(s) and quarterback hits, but the Raiders have a spare QB this week. And sure Casey Hampton and his gang of brutes on the line will have a stuff or two, but I'd be very surprised if McFadden doesn't consistently pick up a solid three to four yards per carry and break off a decent one at some point. You can't just go around in this league avoiding all the good running backs all year.
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