Another flight across the country is in store for the Pittsburgh Steelers, and this time they hope it bears different results.
The Steelers opened the 2012 season at Denver in Peyton Manning's debut with the Broncos and suffered a convincing 31-19 loss. They then headed back to Western Pennsylvania and their home opener was a breeze, winning 27-10 versus the New York Jets last Sunday.
At least Pittsburgh is traveling with a win in its back pocket for Sunday's classic matchup against the Oakland Raiders. The storied rivalry will commence before the Steelers, who will play four of the next six games away from the Steel City, head into their bye week.
The Steelers are trying to start 2-1 for a second straight year and were 6-2 through the first eight weeks of the 2011 campaign. Their defense did the job against a Jets team that pummeled Buffalo in Week 1, holding quarterback Mark Sanchez to 138 yards passing with a touchdown and no interceptions. New York finished with 219 total yards and couldn't get much of anything going, despite Pittsburgh not having safety Troy Polamalu (calf) and linebacker James Harrison (knee).
Polamalu played in the Week 1 loss to the Broncos and Harrison has yet to make his 2012 debut. The Steelers could use their top two playmakers on defense, but are not in a hurry to rush them back.
"We are going to work day-to-day and look how their body responds to work," Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin said. "We'll start with informal workouts and work up to practice at some point and see where it all leads us. They are potential assets to us, but as you know we focus on the guys that are healthy and preparing."
Safety Ryan Clark played a big role against the Jets after being held out of the Denver game due to his sickle-cell condition. Clark had eight tackles and one pass breakup, and was pleased with his performance afterward.
"I had a lot of emotion," Clark said. "I had a lot of emotion. It was my first game since the Cleveland game last year that I played in that meant anything."
Clark helped the Steelers win their 10th straight home opener, the longest active streak in the league. Dating back to the 2011 regular season, the Steelers have won seven of their last nine non-playoff games.
Oakland kicked off its season with a tough 22-14 loss versus San Diego, and the losing trend continued last Sunday in a 35-13 road defeat to rookie quarterback Ryan Tannehill and the Miami Dolphins.
The Raiders are 0-2 for the first time since 2007 and haven't lost their first three games since starting 0-5 in 2006.
First-year head coach Dennis Allen was asked if he could take anything away from last Sunday's game that saw the Raiders amass 396 total yards -- including 373 through the air -- but had only a 1-for-12 success rate on third down.
"I can't think of a lot of things off the top of my head," Allen said. "I think the fact that we came back after that first series where they took the ball down the field and scored -- our ability to come back there -- and then the rest of the first quarter and the rest of the first half, come out with a lead at halftime, I was pleased with that. But I wasn't pleased with the way we came out in the second half."
Oakland was forced to abandon the run against the Dolphins and racked up just 23 yards on the ground. Twenty-two of those yards were compiled by Darren McFadden, who touched the ball just 11 times after registering 15 carries and making 13 receptions in a Week 1 matchup with the Chargers.
Raiders quarterback Carson Palmer played well in defeat, passing for 373 yards with a touchdown and an interception, but faces a strong Steelers' secondary regardless if Polamalu plays or not. He could use a solid run game, mostly from McFadden, to be that much better in a challenging obstacle that awaits in Oakland's return to the Coliseum.
"We're going to continue to run the ball because that's where the big plays in this offense come from," Palmer said. "They come off the running game and Darren's a guy that can score from anywhere on the field. We realize that and defenses realize that, so we're not going to abandon it whatsoever. We're going to continue to work at it, we're going to continue to get better at it and he's going to get his chances because he's obviously a special talent and we're going to get him his opportunities."
Raiders lead 10-9
Last Meeting: Steelers 35, Raiders 3 (Nov. 21, 2010 at Pittsburgh) Last Meeting at Site: Raiders 20, Steelers 13 (Oct. 29, 2006)
Steelers HC Mike Tomlin vs. Raiders: 1-1 Raiders HC Dennis Allen vs. Steelers: 0-0 Tomlin vs. Allen Head-to-Head: First Meeting
Notes: Raiders had won two straight against the Steelers, including a 27-24 upset at Heinz Field during the 2009 season, before Pittsburgh's home rout the following year. Steelers are making only their third visit to the Coliseum since 1995, when the Black and Gold posted a 29-10 triumph over Oakland on Dec. 10 of that year. These teams also share a storied postseason history, having split six previous playoff meetings between 1972 and 1983 and facing one another in the AFC Championship three straight years from 1974-76. The most memorable of those postseason encounters was Pittsburgh's 13-7 victory on the famed "Immaculate Reception" during the 1972 Divisional Round.
BY THE NUMBERS
Offensive Team Rankings
Pittsburgh: 25th overall (307.5 ypg), 30th rushing (70.5 ypg), 18th passing (237.0 ypg), 17th scoring (23.0 ppg)
Oakland: 15th overall (358.5 ypg), 31st rushing (34.0 ypg), 3rd passing (324.5 ypg), 31st scoring (13.5 ppg)
Defensive Team Rankings
Pittsburgh: 7th overall (276.5 ypg), 11th rushing (92.0 ypg), 5th passing (184.5 ypg), 9th scoring (20.5 ppg)
Oakland: 15th overall (355.0 ypg), 29th rushing (147.5 ypg), 8th passing (207.5 ypg), 24th scoring (28.5 ppg)
Pittsburgh: +1 (2 takeaways, 1 giveaways) Oakland: -2 (0 takeaways, 2 giveaways)
Red Zone Touchdown Percentage (offense)
Pittsburgh: 57.1 percent (7 possessions, 4 TD, 3 FG) -- tied 15th overall Oakland: 25.0 percent (4 possessions, 1 TD, 3 FG) -- tied 26th overall
Red Zone Touchdown Percentage (defense)
Pittsburgh: 50.0 percent (6 possessions, 3 TD, 2 FG) -- tied 11th overall Oakland: 50.0 percent (8 possessions, 4 TD, 4 FG) -- tied 11th overall
WHEN THE STEELERS HAVE THE BALL
Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (520 yards, 4 TD, INT) completed 24 of his 31 passes for 275 yards and hooked up with Mike Wallace and Heath Miller for touchdowns in Pittsburgh's win over the Jets. He hit 10 different receivers and picked apart a Jets defense that was missing All-Pro defensive back Darrelle Revis. Roethlisberger now has 27,099 career passing yards and is approaching Terry Bradshaw's team record of 27,898 yards. "Big Ben". who improved to 6-0 in home openers as a starter, is facing Oakland's eighth- ranked pass defense this week, but could give the Raiders fits with his ability to escape and is a tough quarterback to bring down even though he's been sacked eight times already in two games. Roethlisberger also leads all NFL quarterbacks in passer rating, passing yards and completions on third downs this season. Wallace (9 receptions, 2 TD) has a touchdown catch in each of his first two games and hauled in a 37-yard scoring strike last week. He can stretch the field and had five catches for 74 yards against the Jets. Antonio Brown (11 receptions, 53 yards) leads the Steelers in receptions and receiving yards at the other wide receiver spot, while the run game has struggled without the injured Rashard Mendenhall (knee). Jonathan Dwyer (71 rushing yards) and Isaac Redman (45 rushing yards, 1 TD) shared the running load against the Jets and will do so again this week.
The Raiders' secondary will be tested Sunday, and cornerback Pat Lee (5 tackles) must be prepared for Pittsburgh's speedy wideouts. Lee made his second career start and first with Oakland against the Dolphins with Ron Bartell placed on injured reserve after hurting his shoulder in the opener. Oakland has yet to record an interception this season, but safety Tyvon Branch (12 tackles) made his 50th start in a row. He and linebacker Philip Wheeler (14 tackles) both had seven stops this past weekend, while new cornerback Joselio Hanson (6 tackles) posted six stops. Perhaps the Steelers will try to resurrect their ground game this week, since Oakland had so much trouble stopping Miami's. The Dolphins racked up 262 rushing yards, 172 of which came from Reggie Bush, who also scored twice. End Matt Shaughnessy (8 tackles, 1 1/2 sacks) did have an 11-yard sack in the second quarter for Oakland last Sunday and shared a sack with end David Tollefson (4 tackles, 0.5 sacks) in the season opener. The Raiders will have to keep Pittsburgh off the field in order to give Palmer and the offense an opportunity to get into a rhythm.
WHEN THE RAIDERS HAVE THE BALL
Palmer (670 passing yards, 2 TD, INT) is third in the league in passing yards behind only Eli Manning and Michael Vick, and has had no other choice but to throw with the running game on the fritz. He is aiming to solve Pittsburgh's tough defense that is seventh overall in yards allowed (276.5 ypg) and fifth against the pass (184.5 ypg). Palmer connected with nine different receivers and completed 24 of his 48 pass attempts against Miami, and has thrown for 300-plus yards five times with the Silver and Black. He had a streak of 93 straight passes without an interception come to an end in Miami, however. Tight end Brandon Myers (11 receptions, 151 yards) led the team with 86 receiving yards on six receptions in the loss, and his 151 receiving yards are a team-high. Speedy wide receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey (7 receptions) caught four passes for 41 yards, while McFadden (54 rushing yards) has a team-best 15 receptions for 105 yards. He has yet to find his niche as a runner this season, however. For how poorly the run game has been for Oakland, the offensive line has allowed just three sacks -- all in Week 1 against San Diego. Right tackle Khalif Barnes played in his 100th career game last Sunday before leaving with a groin injury that will sideline him for this contest, with Willie Smith expected to take over.
Pittsburgh traditionally has a tough defense and held the Jets to 4-of-12 on third down conversion attempts last week. The Steelers suffocated the Jets' offense as time went on and held the unit to less than 100 yards after the game's first two drives. Clark (8 tackles) appeared to be in great shape after sitting out the season opener, while linebacker Larry Foote (16 tackles, sack) was second on the team in stops with seven. Cornerback Ike Taylor held New York's receivers in check and came away with two of the team's five passes defensed. Ryan Mundy (8 tackles) started for Clark in Week 1 and played well filling in for Polamalu last week, and he also recovered a muffed punt late in the third quarter. The Raiders have had trouble getting the run game started and face a Steelers defense that gave up just 90 yards on the ground to the Jets and forced New York to punt six times on its last eight possessions. New York's offense crossed midfield just once in the second half. Linebacker LaMarr Woodley (5 tackles, 1 sack) has 10 sacks dating back to the 2011 regular season and needs just one to become the eighth player in team history with 50.
The Raiders and Steelers each have one of the most storied histories in the NFL, but the latter will show why they have the most Super Bowl victories between the legendary AFC squads on Sunday. Pittsburgh has played very well on the road as of late, winning 12 of their past 17 games away from the Steel City and four of the last six. With a healthy Roethlisberger and a gaggle of young wide receivers, there's no need for a strong run game right now. They may get one this week, however, given how poorly the Raiders played run defense against Miami. The Steelers have also been tough in September under Tomlin, having gone 13-6 with him in charge for the most wins in the AFC and second-highest total in the NFL (behind Green Bay's 14) since 2007. Palmer will get his numbers, but it won't be enough to prevent an 0-3 start to the season for Oakland.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Steelers 31, Raiders 13