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NFL Preview - Oakland (3-8) at Pittsburgh (6-5)
By Shawn Clarke, Contributing NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - The anticipated return of two-time Super Bowl champion quarterback Ben Roethlisberger should be comforting for the Pittsburgh Steelers, who are jockeying for a playoff berth in a tightly-packed race.
Much was speculated as to why Roethlisberger missed this past Sunday night's loss in Baltimore because of a concussion, even though he practiced that week. Hines Ward, "Big Ben's" favorite target, stirred up some locker room controversy by questioning the quarterback's absence, although he has since apologized for it.
Whatever the case may be, Roethlisberger was back at practice this week and is expected to start under center this Sunday against the visiting Oakland Raiders.
Pittsburgh has lost three in a row since a 6-2 start, including back-to-back overtime defeats at Kansas City and Baltimore, and is one of several teams in the AFC battling for one the conference's two Wild Card berths. The defending champion Steelers are hoping their most recent championship campaign doesn't produce another missed opportunity at defending the crown, much like the team did after winning Super Bowl XL. The Steelers went 8-8 the following season and missed out on the playoffs.
Head coach Mike Tomlin is trying to avoid Pittsburgh's first four-game losing streak since 2003. He said during his weekly press conference that the Steelers 'will not go gently" and "will unleash hell in December" because they have to. Tomlin hopes those fiery words can spark a defense that has blown fourth-quarter leads in consecutive weeks.
The Steelers really have no choice but to bounce back, since winning the AFC North seems out of the question now that the first-place Cincinnati Bengals hold a two-game lead plus the head-to-head edge in the division.
The only thing left for Oakland to play for is the spoiler role. It can throw a wrench in Pittsburgh's playoff hopes with an improbable victory in the Steel City, while putting to rest a nagging four-game road losing streak which continued with a 24-7 loss at Dallas on Thanksgiving. The Raiders, who are in the midst of playing four of five games as the visitor, failed to build off their Week 11 victory over Cincinnati because of a poor defensive effort against the Cowboys, and have yielded at least 24 points during its road skid.
Oakland's defense allowed 494 yards to the Cowboys as Oakland fell to 3-8 this season, while Pittsburgh native Bruce Gradkowski got the start at quarterback for a second straight week. Gradkowski took over the starting job from JaMarcus Russell and will make his third career start at Heinz Field for a third different team. He also started on the road against the Steelers with Tampa Bay and Cleveland, and hopes the third homecoming will be a charm.
That may be a tough task, since the Raiders' passing attack is the worst in the league and Gradkowski has thrown five interceptions in the first two visits back home.
The Raiders haven't won more than five games in a season since going 11-5 and losing in the Super Bowl in 2002. They're averaging a meager four wins over the last six seasons and are headed for another disappointing finish this year. Legendary owner Al Davis' patience may be running thin with Tom Cable, and it wouldn't be a surprise if the NFL icon sent his head coach to the unemployment line at season's end.
The Raiders lead the all-time series with the Steelers, 9-8, breaking a deadlock in the series with a 20-13 home victory in Week 8 of the 2006 season. That victory was one of only two for Oakland during that campaign. The Steelers won the previous meeting, claiming a 24-21 home decision in 2004. The Raiders are 0-2 in Pittsburgh since last winning there in 2002.
The clubs have also split six postseason meetings, with the Steelers' win in the "Immaculate Reception" AFC Divisional Playoff of 1972 ranking as the most notable. The franchises also met for the AFC Championship for three straight seasons, with Pittsburgh winning the 1974 and 1975 contests and Oakland prevailing in 1976. The most recent playoff matchup between the clubs was a 38-10 Raiders win in a 1983 AFC Divisional Playoff.
Tomlin and Cable will be meeting each other, as well as their counterpart's respective teams, for the first time as head coaches.
WHEN THE RAIDERS HAVE THE BALL
Entering his third game as a starter for the Raiders, Gradkowski (546 passing yards, 3 TD, 3 INT) hopes to put on a good showing for more than 100 friends and family attending the game. Gradkowski, who led the Raiders to a come-from- behind 20-17 win over the Bengals two weeks ago, passed for 200 yards and a touchdown in the loss to the Cowboys. The former Seton-La Salle High School standout in Pittsburgh is expected to bring few players to his parents' house for some home cooking as well. Hopefully he'll be able to feed left tackle Mario Henderson, who will be protecting Gradkowski's blind side while taking on a variety of talented Pittsburgh defenders. Gradkowski was sacked three times last week after not going down at all versus the Bengals. It will be difficult for the Raiders to throw against the Steelers, since they're rated last with an average of 130.1 passing yards a game and are 31st in total yards (234.4 ypg) and last in points scored (10.5 ppg). Tight end Zach Miller (39 receptions, 2 TD) has been a big boost to the offense and leads the team in catches and receiving yards (568). Miller and rookie Louis Murphy (19 receptions, 2 TD) are tied for the team lead with two touchdown catches, while fellow rookie Darrius Heyward-Bey (9 receptions, 1 TD) hauled in the first touchdown pass of his career against Dallas.
The biggest concern still lingering in the Pittsburgh secondary is the health of safety Troy Polamalu (20 tackles, 3 INT), who has been limited in practice and is listed as doubtful for Sunday. Safeties Ryan Clark (57 tackles, 2 INT) and Tyrone Carter (33 tackles, 1 sack, 2 INT) both recorded seven tackles against the Ravens, and figure to face a lighter load this weekend versus the lowly Raiders. Cornerbacks William Gay (59 tackles) and Ike Taylor (51 tackles) are two of the top cover men in the AFC and have the advantage against Oakland's young receivers. Miller may give the Pittsburgh defense some problems, but Steelers coordinator Dick LeBeau's squad has enough players to make a play and shake up Gradkowski's timing in the pocket. Defensive end Travis Kirschke (13 tackles, 1 sack) posted his first sack of the season last week.
Oakland should expect a lot of blitzing from LeBeau, but the Raiders faced a similar situation earlier this year against the Philadelphia Eagles, a blitz- happy bunch that was stifled by Oakland in a loss at the Coliseum. However, LeBeau runs out a 3-4 scheme, and it's anybody's guess who will be coming for the quarterback. Oakland hopes to open the offense with some success running the football, but is 20th in the NFL with 104.3 rushing yards a game. Justin Fargas (399 rushing yards, 2 TD) has taken over as the featured back while Darren McFadden (205 rushing yards, 1 TD) tries to regain his strength from an injury suffered weeks ago. Michael Bush (385 rushing yards, 2 TD) should also see plenty of carries for the Raiders, who will face one of the best run defenses in the modern era.
Pittsburgh's linebackers are a big reason for its success against the run. The Steelers are the best in the NFL in that category, allowing 74.9 rushing yards per game, and have not allowed an individual to run for over 100 yards in 29 regular-season games. They have yielded just three 100-yard rushers over the last 83 games. Pittsburgh, which ranks second in the AFC and third in the NFL in total defense by allowing just 288.4 yards per game, has a shot at breaking the team record for rushing defense in a season (74.4 avg.), set in 2001. The 88 rushing yards given up against Baltimore was the team's most allowed all season. Leading tackler James Farrior (72 tackles, 3 sacks) finished with six tackles (5 solo) and one sack and a forced fumble last week, while linebacker LaMarr Woodley (31 tackles, 6 sacks) owns four sacks in the past four games and will shoot for his fourth straight game with one. Lawrence Timmons (48 tackles, 6 sacks) tied a career-high with two sacks against the Ravens. James Harrison (59 tackles, 11 sacks) has a team-high 11 sacks in 2009.
WHEN THE STEELERS HAVE THE BALL
Roethlisberger (2,867 passing yards, 17 TD, 10 INT) had a decent game against the Chiefs his last time out, as he passed for 398 yards with three touchdown strikes and a pair of interceptions. Roethlisberger has recorded a rating of 100 or better five times this season and hopes his exercise-induced headaches from the concussion he suffered in Kansas City are in the past. He has been sacked nine times in his last three games. "Big Ben" needs just 193 more passing yards to reach 3,000 for a fourth straight year and did a great job of mentoring backup Dennis Dixon in last Sunday's loss to the Ravens. Guard Chris Kemoeatu (knee) is probable for Sunday's game against Oakland and will most likely be replaced by Ramon Foster if he's unable to go. Ward (66 receptions, 845 yards, 5 TD) made some headlines this week about Roethlisberger not playing against the Ravens, but is over it and ready for Oakland. He needs 155 receiving yards to get to 1,000 for the sixth time in his career, and owns four 100-yard games in 2009. Ward needs to crack the century mark just once more for a personal single-season high. Wideout Santonio Holmes (56 receptions, 838 yards, 2 TD) and tight end Heath Miller (55 receptions, 5 TD) are also big-play threats for Pittsburgh.
The Raiders were burned last week by Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo, who threw for 309 yards and two touchdowns. Wide receiver Miles Austin had 145 yards and a score on seven catches against a Raiders secondary rated 17th against the pass, allowing 215.8 yards per game. All-Pro cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha (28 tackles, 1 INT) doesn't see much action his way, but will this weekend against Holmes and Ward. The Raiders are known for giving up the big play, and must avoid that Sunday if they want to keep it close. Asomugha has been in the news lately because of his openness about the defense's play, stating that the Raiders must make adjustments and defensive coordinator John Marshall hasn't done such a great job since taking over for Rob Ryan. Fellow cornerback Chris Johnson (52 tackles, 3 INT) and safety Michael Huff (43 tackles, 3 INT) are tied for the team lead in interceptions. Huff and safety Tyvon Branch (83 tackles, 1 sack) expect to see a lot of action in the secondary on Sunday.
Rashard Mendenhall (784 rushing yards, 4 TD) used to be in Tomlin's doghouse, but has since revived his reputation as a bruising back with admirable speed. Mendenhall is averaging 87.5 rushing yards per game over the last two weeks. Even with Willie Parker (232 rushing yards) back from injury, Mendenhall is still carrying the load behind a strong front line that has helped Pittsburgh to the 15th-best ground attack in the NFL. He had a game-high 95 yards rushing on 24 carries in the loss to the Ravens, and can also serve as a threat out of the backfield. Mendenhall has caught 16 passes for 141 yards and a score.
Oakland is near the bottom in run defense, allowing 161.1 yards per game, and gave up 195 yards on the ground to the Cowboys. It's amazing opposing teams can have such success against tackles Tommy Kelly (46 tackles, 1 sack) and Gerard Warren (24 tackles, 1 sack), but reality has set in that this run defense is in dire need of help. Mendenhall will see plenty of the Oakland linebackers on Sunday, although Raiders leading tackler Kirk Morrison (89 tackles) enters this contest with only nine stops over his last two games. Trevor Scott (24 tackles, 4 sacks) leads the linebackers with four sacks and had two against the Cowboys, while defensive end Greg Ellis (23 tackles, 5 sacks) has a team-high five. Ellis has just one over his last six games, though. Oakland aims for seventh straight game with a sack and has 15 in the past six weeks.
The usual suspects for the Steelers will be on display for fantasy owners this week. With Roethlisberger set to return from his one-game absence because of a concussion, he should have a decent performance against a weak Oakland defense. Mendenhall has emerged as a top-tier running back with his healthy mix of size and speed, while Pittsburgh's top three pass catchers in Ward, Holmes and Heath Miller are all worthy of a starting nod. Starting the Steelers' defense is a no-brainer, since the Raiders won't have many chances to score. Kicker Jeff Reed is a must-start every week.
Oakland's best fantasy option is kicker Sebastian Janikowski. Zach Miller, Heyward-Bey and Murphy are all capable of scoring a few points. The only way Gradkowski gets a fantasy start in his homecoming is if he's playing against the University of Pittsburgh.
The question is not whether the Steelers can win at home and avoid an upset to the Raiders, but rather how much of a margin will they win by. They are 35-10 at home over the past five-plus seasons and sport a 4-1 record as the host this year. It doesn't make matters any better for Oakland with Roethlisberger slated to make a return this week after missing last Sunday's loss due to a concussion. Missing the playoffs for a seventh straight year has become more of a reality for the Raiders, since an 8-8 record at season's end will probably not be good enough to qualify for a postseason spot. The only way Oakland can reach that mark is by winning out, and that won't be the case after Sunday. Building for next season and avoiding another 11-loss campaign is something Cable and company have to focus on at this moment.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Steelers 31, Raiders 13
12/03 18:34:09 ET