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NFL Preview - Oakland (5-4) at Pittsburgh (6-3)
By Scott Garbarini, NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - The Oakland Raiders appear to have finally returned to respectability following an extensive period of failure, but a challenging upcoming stretch of games may reveal just how far they've really come.
The resurgent Raiders begin that tough sequence with this Sunday's visit to Heinz Field for an important Week 11 battle with the Pittsburgh Steelers, who'll be seeking a return to form following a recent rough patch.
Oakland hasn't recorded more than five victories in a season since reaching the Super Bowl in 2002, but this year's team has already matched the apex of the previous seven campaigns thanks to an impressive three-game win streak that preceded last week's bye. The tear has vaulted the Raiders into a first- place tie with equally-surprising Kansas City in the AFC West standings.
The Raiders gained ground on the Chiefs with a gritty come-from-behind triumph at the Oakland Coliseum back in Week 9, sending the contest into overtime on a Sebastian Janikowski field goal with three seconds left in the fourth quarter before claiming a 23-20 triumph when the burly kicker split the uprights from 33 yards out nearly three minutes into the extra session.
That hard-earned win came after the Raiders put forth back-to-back dominating performances, a 59-14 shellacking on the road at division-rival Denver on Oct. 24 that was backed up by a 33-3 home rout of NFC West front-runner Seattle. Oakland amassed more than 500 yards of offense in both outings.
The rested Raiders now try to maintain their newfound status as a contender against a steeper level of competition. After Sunday's clash with the AFC North co-leading Steelers, Oakland will host a Miami team that's 4-1 on the road this year before embarking on a pivotal showdown at defending AFC West champ San Diego on Dec. 5.
The Raiders will be taking on a Pittsburgh squad that's hit a bit of a snag after a sensational beginning to the season, however. The Steelers have lost two of their last three tilts since a 5-1 start and were dealt their most lopsided loss in nearly four years in last Sunday's 39-26 setback to New England.
The Patriots piled up 453 total yards against Pittsburgh's vaunted defense, with quarterback Tom Brady shredding a suddenly-struggling secondary for 350 passing yards and three touchdowns.
Pittsburgh, which hadn't allowed more than 22 points in any of its previous eight games this year, suffered its worst defeat at Heinz Field since a 31-7 verdict against Baltimore at Dec. 24, 2006.
The Steelers were also handed a costly home loss to the Raiders during December of last season, with Pittsburgh native Bruce Gradkowski throwing three fourth-quarter touchdown passes to spark Oakland to a 27-24 decision that played a part in preventing the Black and Gold from reaching the playoffs.
Gradkowski replaced a struggling Jason Campbell as Oakland's quarterback after the first two weeks of this season, but hasn't played since spraining his right shoulder during a Week 5 win over San Diego. Though now recovered from the injury, he'll return to a backup role on Sunday with Campbell having played well during the team's current strong run.
The Raiders lead the all-time regular-season series with the Steelers by a 10-8 margin and came through with an above-mentioned startling 27-24 win at Heinz Field during Week 13 of the 2009 campaign. The Silver and Black also defeated Pittsburgh in Oakland in 2006, with the Steelers' last victory over the Raiders a 24-21 home triumph in 2004.
The teams 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 the 1983 AFC Divisional Round.
Prior to last year's matchup, Pittsburgh's Mike Tomlin and Oakland's Tom Cable had never faced either one another or their counterpart's respective teams as head coaches.
WHEN THE RAIDERS HAVE THE BALL
After sputtering through much of the early part of the season, the Oakland offense has been a virtual juggernaut during the team's win streak, with a potent running game imposing its will on the opposition and Campbell (1252 passing yards, 7 TD, 5 INT) hitting on a number of big plays with an ever- shuffling cast of receivers. Running back Darren McFadden (757 rushing yards, 24 receptions, 6 total TD) has been at the forefront of the turnaround, with the 2008 first-round pick having averaged 121.7 rushing yards and a stellar 6.8 yards per carry in three games since coming back from a strained hamstring. Backfield mate Michael Bush (324 rushing yards, 4 TD, 9 receptions) provides a quality inside complement to the NFL's second-ranked ground attack (162.2 ypg), and McFadden's made an impact as a receiver out of the backfield as well. Though Campbell has completed just 56.7 percent of his throws on the year, the Redskins castoff does have a 5-to-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio over the past three games while displaying the ability to stretch a defense with his arm. Injuries have caused a revolving-door situation among the pass- catchers, but both steady tight end Zach Miller (34 receptions, 4 TD) and starting wideout Louis Murphy (21 receptions, 1 TD) seem on track to play this week after sitting out the Kansas City game. Murphy's absence was offset by a huge day from rookie Jacoby Ford (10 receptions), with the young burner registering 148 yards on six receptions in addition to taking back a kickoff 94 yards for a touchdown.
Oakland's talented backs will face a stern test from a Pittsburgh defense that's yielding league-lows of 63.2 rushing yards per game and 2.8 yards per attempt on the season, though the unit was touched for 103 yards on the ground by New England last week. Slowing down enemy quarterbacks has been a tougher task for the Steelers, who are just 26th in the league against the pass (252.2 ypg) and have permitted an average of 272.6 yards per game through the air over the past five weeks. Opponents have also thrown for nine touchdowns on a slumping secondary headlined by All-Pro strong safety Troy Polamalu (46 tackles, 2 INT), who's been bothered by a sore Achilles tendon as of late, while a usually persistent pass rush barely got a finger on Brady in last Sunday's loss. Outside linebackers James Harrison (64 tackles, 7 sacks, 1 INT) and LaMarr Woodley (30 tackles, 5.5 sacks, 1 INT) should find it easier to get to Campbell, who's been sacked 19 times in seven games this year, while the inside linebacker duo of Lawrence Timmons (85 tackles, 3 sacks, 2 INT) and James Farrior (62 tackles, 1 sack) will be in charge of keeping McFadden's contributions to a minimum.
WHEN THE STEELERS HAVE THE BALL
The Pittsburgh offense has undergone a dramatic transformation from the season's outset. After relying heavily upon running back Rashard Mendenhall (752 rushing yards, 7 TD, 16 receptions) while quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (1304 passing yards, 9 TD, 4 INT) spent the first four games on suspension, the Steelers have been more geared towards the pass since their starting signal-caller returned to the fold. Roethlisberger posted season highs of 49 attempts and 387 passing yards against the Patriots last week, though those high totals were primarily the product of the team facing a sizeable second- half deficit, with playmaking wideout Mike Wallace (30 receptions, 643 yards, 7 TD) putting up career bests of eight catches and 136 yards while scoring two touchdowns under the deviated approach. Pittsburgh did play most of last Sunday's game without Hines Ward (30 receptions, 4 TD) after the veteran wide receiver sustained a concussion in the first quarter, but he's since been medically cleared and will be on the field this week. Tomlin is also hopeful left guard Chris Kemoeatu can suit up after missing the New England loss with a sprained knee. With the valued lineman inactive and regular left tackle Max Starks gone for the season with a neck injury, Roethlisberger was sacked five times by the Patriots and was constantly under siege.
Pittsburgh will need to shore up its protection this week, as an Oakland defense that's tied for third in the league with 27 sacks is capable of bringing the heat. The Raiders can come after the quarterback in a variety of ways, as the interior tackle combo of Richard Seymour (39 tackles, 4.5 sacks) and Tommy Kelly (33 tackles, 5 sacks) is adept at collapsing the pocket and both outside linebacker Kamerion Wimbley (32 tackles, 4.5 sacks) and end Matt Shaughnessy (30 tackles, 5 sacks) are high-caliber edge rushers. The Raiders also possess arguably the NFL's best cover cornerback in Nnamdi Asomugha (11 tackles), though the three-time All-Pro is dealing with a sprained ankle and could be somewhat limited for Sunday's tilt. Oakland has surrendered the second-fewest passing yards this season (184.8 ypg), but also has the second- fewest interceptions (five). A run defense that was a trouble spot early on has shown considerable improvement in past weeks, as evidenced by the 104 yards the Raiders limited Kansas City's top-rated rushing offense to in Week 9. Seymour led the charge with an active eight tackles from his tackle position, and the ex-New England standout anchors a front seven that's permitted just 75.3 rushing yards per game during the present win streak.
This game features a pair of top-tier fantasy backs in the Raiders' McFadden and Pittsburgh's Mendenhall, both of whom should be used without hesitation even in a matchup that isn't the most favorable for either player. Roethlisberger's production has been pretty consistent since his return, making the two-time Super Bowl champ a solid quarterback choice, and it would be wise for Wallace owners to keep riding the hot hand, as he's supplanted Ward as the Steelers receiver to own. Oakland's Miller is a good play at the tight end spot and Ford's a possible sleeper at wide receiver with considerable upside in leagues that count return yardage. Always start the Pittsburgh defense but steer clear of the team's situation at kicker, where erratic journeyman Shaun Suisham was signed this week to replace the released Jeff Reed. Janikowski, who's tied for the league lead with 22 field goals made, is a better option, while Campbell offers some potential with the Steelers having had some problems stopping the pass.
There's a lot to like about the Raiders here, with the team riding a wave of confidence off its recent efforts and getting a bye week to recharge while the Steelers continue to battle through a number of key injuries. However, Oakland won't be able to run wild this week like it has in previous games, and the jury's still out as to whether the inconsistent Campbell can come through with the burden on his shoulders in what will be a very difficult environment. Don't be surprised if Cable turns to Gradkowski at some point, but it will be tough to recapture the magic that lifted Oakland to its startling win at Heinz Field last season with the Steelers motivated to atone for a subpar showing from a week ago.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Steelers 20, Raiders 13
11/19 15:11:19 ET
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