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Surging Steelers take aim at Pryor, Raiders
(SportsNetwork.com) - All of a sudden, the Pittsburgh Steelers are alive and well.
And not a moment too soon.
The franchise without a sub-.500 finish since 2003 seemed well on its way to ending that streak through the first four weeks of 2013, when injuries and ineffectiveness at myriad positions led coach Mike Tomlin's team to an inglorious 0-4 start.
Pittsburgh allowed an uncharacteristic 27.5 points per game in the four-week skid, registered just four sacks and have up more than 122 rush yards per week while losing home games to Tennessee and Chicago and road contests at Cincinnati and against Minnesota in London.
The skid ended two Sundays ago at Met Life Stadium against the New York Jets, and the Steelers made it a win streak at home last week when Shaun Suisham was good from 42 yards out to seal a 19-16 victory over visiting AFC North Division rival Baltimore.
Pittsburgh is 2 1/2 games behind the first-place Bengals with 10 to play, and confidence reigns as it heads to Oakland for a Week 8 contest with the Raiders at the O.co Coliseum.
"We believed from the start," linebacker LaMarr Woodley said. "Even when we were 0-4, we still believed we had the opportunity to turn this thing around. Right now we just have to keep marching in the right direction."
Only one touchdown was scored against the Steelers defense in the defeats of the Jets and the Ravens and the winners' four sacks in those two games matched their total from all the losses. New York and Baltimore were also held to 83 and 82 yards rushing, respectively, after the first four Pittsburgh foes went for 112, 127, 107 and 145.
Woodley enters this week nursing a knee injury and fellow linebacker Lawrence Timmons broke a bone in his left hand while racking up a career-best 17 tackles. Timmons is questionable this week, as is defensive end Brett Keisel with a rib injury
"This type of play has to be our identity from here on out," Timmons said. "It's how we play ball. The coaches have been preaching it. The players believe and once you believe, you are going to achieve it. We are going to apply it on the grass from here on out."
Also awake after several weeks of dormancy was the Steelers run game, spearheaded by the patient aggressiveness of second-round pick Le'Veon Bell, who went for 93 yards in 19 carries against the Ravens after gaining just 91 yards on his initial 32 carries of the season.
Pittsburgh averaged 61 yards on the ground over five games, then had 141 against Baltimore.
"We're still hungry," wide receiver Antonio Brown said. "There's still a lot of football to be played. We're still trying to get back in the running."
The return from a bye week has long been an issue with the Raiders, who've dropped 10 in a row in that scenario by an average score of 27-14. Still, Oakland has been recently successful - winning three of its last four - against Pittsburgh, so something has got to give.
Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger lit the Raiders up for 384 yards, four TDs and no interceptions in a Week 3 game last season in Oakland, but the hosts earned a 34-31 verdict on Sebastian Janikowski's 43-yard field goal as time expired.
But that doesn't at all mean coach Dennis Allen will rely on past as prologue.
"We have a tremendous challenge with the Pittsburgh Steelers coming in," he said. "They are playing well in all phases of the game."
The Raiders come in after a prolonged rendezvous with the injury bug, which has bitten offensive lineman Stefen Wisniewski (knee), tackle Tony Pashos (hip/groin) and Andre Gurode (quad). Those maladies forced Oakland to turn to youth in the form of youngsters Lamar Mady and Matt McCants.
Kansas City sacked QB Terrelle Pryor nine times on Oct. 13 in a 24-7 win, and the Raiders have allowed 27 sacks in six games. Wisniewski, Pashos and Gurode are each questionable this week.
"There's no replacement for experience," Allen said. "At times guys have to get their experience in a tough situation in a game environment. That's the way you get better as a football team."
Pryor had gone three games without an interception before he was picked off three times by the Chiefs. A plus toward lowering that number could be the healthy return of running back Darren McFadden, who gained 129 yards in a Week 2 defeat of Jacksonville but has just 90 yards on 33 attempts since as he's dealt with a hamstring problem.
McFadden galloped for 113 yards against the Steelers last season.
Pryor's most prolific recent aerial target, Denarius Moore, has 20 catches and three touchdowns in his last four games and will be matched likely be paired off with Pittsburgh cornerback Ike Taylor, who's held three premier receivers - Cincinnati's A.J. Green, Chicago's Brandon Marshall and Baltimore's Torrey Smith - to 14 catches and no TDs this season.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
Ringing the bell.
After Pittsburgh slogged through five weeks of subpar ground production, it broke through the 100-yard barrier against the defending champion Ravens, thanks largely to the work of rookie Bell, who was particularly adept at being patient enough to exploit late-developing holes for big yards. He could continue the success against Oakland, which has allowed four of six foes to exceed 100 ground yards - all losses.
Run to set up the run.
Though the Steelers have traditionally been a run-stopping machine, four of its six opponents this year have eclipsed 100 yards.
The Raiders could exploit that apparent weakness with Pryor's legs, which could temper the Steelers' aggressiveness enough to then create room for the returning McFadden - who had 100-plus yards in last year's game with Pittsburgh - and Rashad Jennings.
Two weeks ago, any suggestion that the 0-4 Steelers would quickly reverse course seemed implausible at best.
But, with consecutive defeats of the Jets and Ravens they've looked a lot more like what they were billed to be, a stingy defense with just enough offense to produce late victories.
They may need a touch more scoring to keep a talented Oakland offense on the bottom side of the final score, but indications are that the recent momentum is legitimate.
Sports Network predicted outcome: Steelers 22, Raiders 17
10/25 09:41:22 ET
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